When Denise Czack met her then-sister-in-law, Tanya, one night after work in November 2007, she expected an evening spent sharing drinks and conversation. She had no idea that she would still be talking about that night and the way it has defined her life for over a decade.
“We met for happy hour, and she comes in all pissed off, and it was the end of her day, and she had a foot pursuit where she had to go chase the bad guys,” Czack tells OFFICER Magazine.
During the pursuit, Tanya needed to climb a fence to keep up with the suspects. But just as she was trying to clear the top, the crotch of her pants caught on the fence. “This is in her words … her pants ripped from appetite to ***hole,” says Czack.
The embarrassing tear didn’t lead to injury, and Tanya was still able to apprehend the suspects. But her wardrobe malfunction hadn’t been an isolated incident. In fact, it was about the sixth time she had had issues with her uniform in as many months. “It just ate at me and ate at me, and I started researching the next day,” says Czack.
What she discovered was a lack of attire and gear for female officers designed specifically around a woman’s body. Just over a decade later, she launched Her Blue Wear Uniforms (herbluewear.com), which specializes in pants for female officers.
As more women enter law enforcement careers, entrepreneurs like Czack and traditional equipment manufacturers are finding opportunities in an underserved and expanding market. That’s led to new approaches on how to tailor and create gear specifically for women.
“For the past 15 years, I have been working directly with various departmental agencies and more women are entering the law enforcement field from DHS, DEA, and large police departments such as the NYPD, LAPD, and others,” says Martha Johnson, ballistics engineer for Point Blank Enterprises, which designs body armor for women. “There is a greater demand in the field, as more and more female officers are coming on board in all affiliated police agencies, growing from 20% to 40%.”
Finding the right fit
As Czack began investigating the world of women’s police gear, she found a common thread running through her searches. If clothing wasn’t unisex, female-specific attire simply meant smaller sizes and slight variations on men’s styles. In terms of pants, that usually translated into a longer, 7-inch zipper and higher waistband for women’s pants, says Czack.
Such an approach, however, can present on-the-job safety concerns. A higher waistband means a higher gun belt, and that can disrupt how a female officer draws her weapon, she adds. “Pants are your foundation,” says Czack about why she has started with that article of clothing. “They’re the foundation of your uniform.”
After receiving a $20,000 grant in 2010, Czack began playing around with fabric and fit when it came to designing law enforcement pants for women. Her emphasis was on tailoring good-fitting pants around three different body types.
“I’ve refused 50% of a shipment before because it didn’t align with our patterns,” she says. “Our fit is our fit. … You can know that whatever you buy from us, the fit is solid.”
Ballistic vests properly fitting can be another casualty of high-waisted pants, too. Because vests get measured from the waistband, a higher waist can push the armor up into a configuration that Czack describes as a “jogging bra” compared to a man’s vest.
“Our first mistake in the industry is to think all female officers are the same. And perhaps, that women are the same as men,” says Johnson. “Not all female officers are the same and they vary in shape, size, cup, etc. Comfort, flexibility, thinness, is a key factor, when it comes to wearing body armor for 10 to 12 hours a day, in all climates and environments. I have been in a room of female officers that were complaining and irritated about their armor not fitting properly.”
Point Blank turned its attention to improving body armor for women after hearing from the people wearing it. In many cases, issues over ill-fitting vests ran deeper than mere comfort. “I have seen officers show me callouses and bruises across the apex area and sides of their breast from wearing uncomfortable, stiff, hard and pleated armor,” says Johnson. “They complain about their sides and back hurting, chapping under arms and around the waist area. I have seen female officers given a male vest design, and when they move about or pull their weapon, the armor bulged out and exposed too much of the breast area. Then, the area of coverage is an issue. I have seen too many female officers throw their armor in the trunk or closet and not wear it. Because it’s thick, bulky, heavy and uncomfortable.”
Johnson wants to see that change with body armor. And she hopes those improvements stir a more positive reaction from female officers donning vests. “We are working diligently to provide a better female design that will cover all of our female officers comfortably. We have several new designs we are working on that are thinner, multi/triple flexible armor, which drape the curve of the female torso,” she says. “I personally want to hear officers brag about our armor! I want to hear them say that they love wearing Point Blank’s new female armor. Our job… is to engineer change.”
Listening to the customer
Listening has been a crucial element to developing equipment for women. When 5.11 began offering gear tailored specifically for women in 2013, the company invested heavily in marketing in order to draw awareness to the new line. That included hiring brand ambassadors, deploying sales associates and working up a social media strategy.
But even before a single officer could be outfitted, designers looked to a variety of sources—from consulting with police agencies to talking with members of the law enforcement community at in-person events around the country—to gather research and help develop clothing patterns best suited for female officers, says Jodie Udzenija, Director Category Management, Apparel who has worked at 5.11 for over 12 years. “We have a talented group of technical designers who really understand women’s fits and pattern, whether they come from the fashion industry or the outdoor industry.”
Research isn’t complete, however, without factoring in the eventual consumer. Product development meetings (PDMs) provide that window into a potential consumer’s mind for 5.11, says Udzenija. It was in those sessions that women discussed their issues with uniform shirts. Garment and sleeve lengths would be too long, and officers would spend their own time and money tailoring the article of clothing.
“We came out with the same product,” says Udzenija. “We just pattern it to the woman’s chest, waist, body length and sleeve and shoulders. Even the neck. All of those details.”
It’s one thing, though, to offer an opinion on how to improve a pair of pants or a shirt. It’s another to actually enjoy wearing the garment. That’s what makes the positive feedback Udzenija has heard so rewarding.
“They’re just so happy … because they want to look good on their job,” she says. “They want to look professional and cleaned up. When we hear the frustrations they have, it’s super-rewarding to hear them brag about our products.”
Through its PDMs, 5.11 Tactical continues to check in with its consumers for their updates on the quality of products, says Udzenija. And as the company develops its selection of off-duty apparel, there could be opportunities for cross-pollination that generates improvements for both lines, she adds.
For Czack, her connection with her customer base has been her lifeblood and her inspiration. “I have (customers’) trust,” she says. “I know investors don’t want to hear this, but to me, it’s more about customers than the dollar. It’s more about making them happy and safe. I have such a passion for doing that.”
When she relaunched Her Blue Wear Uniforms in 2019—an initial launch in 2018 was derailed because of issues with the first batch of clothing—Czack arranged fittings for officers across the country. At a fitting in Cleveland, she met a woman—Julie Joyce—who asked her to come to Chicago for a fitting.
In Chicago, Czack picked up 500 customers from that one connection. It’s led her to name this type of consumer-driven marketing after Joyce. “It’s been word of mouth. It’s been social media,” says Czack about how she’s drawn awareness to her company and products. “We have not spent any money on advertising or marketing. It’s just been going there and fitting them.”
Even though she has her daily duties running her company, Czach continues to go to fittings. Not only does it put a face on her business—she gives her cellphone number and email address to all her customers—but it allows her to find out what’s working and what isn’t with her pants.
“The president of the company shouldn’t be going out on fittings, but I will always go to fittings because it reminds me why I started this, and it’s the reason why I’ve sacrificed so much. It’s the reason why I’ve started this company,” she says. “They recharge my batteries. … I will always go in front of the customer because she is why I’m here.”
While anecdotal data has its role, it’s not the only information tool designers have. Working with other institutions and gathering empirical data also can help refine the end product. “We have worked for years with NLECTC (National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center), NIJ (National Institute of Justice) and Justice Department and have spoken to doctors, scientists and field officers to evaluate female armor. We will continue to focus our efforts towards designing the most comfortable, safest and highest performing female armor systems available.”
‘A passion to make a difference’
It’s been nearly 15 years since Czack had those drinks on that November night. Although Tanya is no longer her sister-in-law, Czack still considers the woman—someone she’s known since she was 15—as her sister. “I think she was so proud of how much I fought,” she says. “I sold my home to do this. I don’t know why I had such a passion to make a difference. I think that my sister and my customers know that I’m here to make their life safer, and they get it.”
The path hasn’t been easy, either. Starting a business nearly a year before the COVID pandemic meant Her Blue Wear Uniforms was still building its customer base amid lockdowns. Days before the national shut down, Czack had over 200 fittings scheduled. The pandemic scrapped those.
She didn’t lose faith and credits customer loyalty in helping survive the early days of the pandemic. With her pants in 30 states, she’s looking to the future. She wants to expand the line and take Her Blue Wear Uniforms to the next level. “I always treated it as a multimillion-dollar company because I knew it deserved to be, and I knew it would be,” she says. “I feel you’ve got to be crazy to be an entrepreneur. You do. You have to have a screw loose… But everything I’ve done, I’ve done from my heart.”