Byline: Art Popham; News Tribune columnist
Undeniably, the first job of any police department is public safety. But Bratwear on Tacoma's East Side thinks the bicycle patrols, K-9 units and SWAT teams for which it makes uniforms should look good and feel comfortable while doing their demanding jobs.
Apparently 3,300 police departments in 40 states, England and Australia agree. Law enforcement agencies in those far-flung places have bought enough Bratwear uniforms to increase annual company revenue from $3,000 to $1 million in only five years of operation.
Not bad for a business that first attracted attention because it realized male cops-on-bikes need stretch underwear with a fly.
Many bicyclists wear skin-tight Spandex shorts as outer wear, but they aren't considered appropriate for on-duty bicycle officers. So officers wear Spandex under their uniform shorts because it stretches and wicks off moisture, said Sally Swanson, president of Bratwear.
But because officers were wearing the shorts as underwear, the shorts needed flies, and there weren't any with-fly models on the market.
Enter Swanson, who at the time was making a line of exercise wear. Customers for her Flashwear line included the Seattle SuperSonics cheerleaders.
Puyallup bicycle officers saw her distinctive styles and asked her to make their uniforms, including stretch underwear that worked like underwear.
Puyallup spread the word to the Tacoma police bicycle patrol. Swanson wanted to focus on her exercise wear, but reluctantly agreed to do uniforms for Tacoma's bike unit.
"I told them to go away and not tell anyone where they got these shorts," she said.
But soon, Swanson received a phone call from bike cops in Mississippi. They'd seen Tacoma police's uniforms on TV's "Cops" show, Swanson said.
Swanson began to yield to the potential of specialty cop wear, but stuck by her love of color and high-tech fabrics by expanding uniforms beyond traditional wool black-and-blues.
Booths at national bicycle police events in 1992 and 1993 spread the word on her colorful, functional designs. Revenue grew 300 percent in a year. After initially sewing each item herself, Swanson began hiring local seamstresses. She moved the business from her home into commercial space.
Now almost all production work is done at 3914 Portland Ave. The company employs 12 people and subcontracts some sewing to local stay-at-home mothers. Soon, Swanson and partner Norm Carkeek will offer a stock option to employees and one other widely interested group - cops who wear their attire.
As bike patrols expand around the country, orders grow. Bicycle patrol shirts, shorts, pants, vests, jackets, pads and accessories account for two-thirds of revenue. Bratwear also produces jump suits for K-9 units and other police specialists. Growth in those lines is good, but only within limits.
"My desire is not to run a factory, but to be the Calvin Klein of specialty uniforms," Swanson said. "They call us 'the fashion police,' and I love the label. You might see cops on skateboards and Rollerblades some day, and I'm going to make the knee pads for them."
Bratwear was a big hit with the 300-some bike officers who recently held their international convention in Tacoma.
Patrol officer Stu Bracken, a founding member of Tacoma's 9-year-old bicycle patrol, says style and service make Bratwear stand out.
The Tacoma Police Department has dealt with other companies, and Sally's line is the best in the business, Bracken said. In addition to quality, she does custom tailoring. "Everybody else says 'this is how we make it, and that's it.' Not Sally. She listens. For instance, we wanted zippers on the outside of our pant legs, not the inside, where they usually are and get caught on our bike chains. So she did it. She'll even put in the length of zipper you want."
It might sound trivial. But to bike officers, it's as fundamental as flies in undershorts.