I am very pleased today to be able to bring you all the first in what I hope will be an enlightening look in to the world that we all take so much interest in via the medium of the interview. Whether you’re serving, LE, a competition or recreational shooter, hunter, collector, airsoft or paintball player, outdoorsman/survivalist, prepper or any sort of enthusiast with an interest in something relating to the above, I aim to bring you content here to the blog that will be engaging and educational. For some years now my ambition has to bring some big contributors and influential names and faces to this particular stage and ask them the questions that I’ve had burning in the back of my mind, but hopefully also be ones you will enjoy reading the answers to. We can learn so much in life and have far better interactions with other people by just taking a little time to put ourselves in the shoes of others and trying to understand their lives and experiences. I’ve also found interviews such as these are surprisingly uncommon in the whole ‘tactical’ world I find and that where they do exist they are often rather superficial and aimed at promoting a brand leading to a dull and unoriginal line of questions, but my goal here is to get much more in to what people really think when they work full time as a part of this global industry that we all invest so much of our time and hard-earned money in to.
I am very pleased indeed to have secured this first interview with my very good friend Noelle, a lady I’ve known for quite a few years now after meeting at SHOT show and spending a great amount of time after that talking back and forth about all sorts of things. It’s taken something like 2 years from my initial proposition of this idea and I’ve had to ask a great many times, but the persistence did pay off in the end. Noelle is a true tour de force of a personality and most impressive lady all around, one who’s not been afraid to make waves in what has mostly always been a man’s world.
She worked from 2013-2014 at the well known Oakley SI, SI being short for Standard Issue i.e. the tactical/shooting branch of products from Oakley that you will have seen stocked in huge quantities at the biggest gear retailers in the US such as SKD and O.P. Tactical. She then went on to spend 4 years, from 2014 to 2018, working at Magpul Industries, which one could argue is the most recognised name in the entire world when it comes to the tactical, firearms and outdoors products.
Without further ado, let’s get to the meat of this entry.
Noelle’s 3 To Open
Favorite firearm – Glock 19
First gun ever fired – Ruger .22 pistol
Favorite camo pattern – Woodland Tigerstripe
Q1. Can you talk us briefly about your educational and professional background before moving to Magpul and how you went about being selected to work there?
A. My background is about as far removed from the firearm industry as it gets- I have a bachelors of fine arts, having majored in Fashion Design and am a civilian so my closest experiences with firearms growing up were hearing family members in the military/LEO’s talk about them and playing COD with my little brother. I grew up in So Cal and always wanted to work in clothing for performance and action sports so after college, I worked a few years at a couple different surf and skate brands designing boardshorts and the like. I eventually made my way to Oakley. I was brought in to work on golf and surf product and just kind of fell into the tactical product- The company was taking a bunch of the designs I did for golf to sell through the Oakley SI channel, and decided a line for that channel was needed, so I designed the “Mili-tac” category. It was very 2010’s tactic-cool if I remember, but was a fun project for me because it was something new for me to make and I got to meet all sorts of people outside of the traditional clothing manufacturing spectrum AND I didn’t have to (pretend) to go play golf for R&D which I hated, I could go to the shooting range instead. That job is what got me into shooting and firearms. At the time, it was really just Oakley and 5.11 really on the market being accessible and visible to civilians so it’s been exciting to see the market of product grow.
This “militac” line got me to be more familiar with the people who would recruit me to be part of their group to help Magpul start their clothing line. I was a young(er) and hungry designer then (both figuratively and literally), so I never said no to any project that came my way, and I think that had a lot to do with me being “selected” to be part of the team- I was eager to execute the vision that they were putting in front of me at the time, and I knew the right people to get me in and to make the product.
Q2. What were your initial job roles and responsibilities and did they evolve during your time at the company?
A. When I joined Magpul, I was doer of all things- they were a well established company but apparel was a whole new concept for them so everything had to be built as if the company was brand new. The cadence of creation and production in terms of commercial soft good vs hard goods are very different- sampling times are different, production times are different, the amount of turn around to make an update are different and even retail buying times and ways are different, so it was a big transition for all, trying to get hip to how clothing manufacturing moves.
I wasn’t just there to design, I did everything from coming with the original concept and target customer for clothing, created the original garment specs we based each size off of before the slimmer size was introduced in the last year, to working directly with the fabric supplier to create the fabric used in the much loved Flex pant (which really was just a stretch twill that was pretty common in pants I just customized the weight for the brand’s need…guys in the industry really need to step out of the canvas/ripstop vein and see that there are a lot of really nice pants out there) to doing weird stuff like designing and building the trade show booth at the last minute, buying sewing machines and hand making test samples, driving 100 miles to the warehouse to teach the Quality Control team how to measure a shirt…. Towards the end of my time I ended up having to manage more of the moving parts of product (fabric, logistics and shipping, QC, factory communication, etc) and did less of design which was really not for me. For a creative, I’m very organized but I prefer the creative solutions not the logistics execution of problem solving.
Q3. How did you find it being a woman from Southern California thrown in with a bunch of older veterans/SOF guys who’d had a vastly contrasting life experience to your own?
A. The thing that made it toughest to relate to my coworkers in the firearms industry was not that I was a civilian, a woman, or from liberal ol’ California. It was my age. It was difficult for them to correlate their life experience to mine because when “they were my age, they were off travelling the world doing nefarious shit”, so my life experience in their eyes, although very valid to the job I was tasked with, didn’t measure up much to theirs. I had to yell a lot to be heard and it took a while, but once I broke through, people started to really listen to what I had to say and take my knowledge and experience into consideration.
The culture of the firearms industry is very much “respect the elders” which I very much agree with because the ones who come before you pave the way for you- but at the same time I think older employees often need to remember that their younger colleagues are there to work hard, do the job, and get the win just like they are, so don’t patronize and brush them off because you think they are some annoying, incessant kid. Open your ears and minds to them. The young newcomers in the industry are hungry, they are excited, and they have the energy to try over and over to achieve the end goal. Experience is relative and no one’s experience negates another’s, even if someone does happen to have a lot more badass sounding experience- it’s all useful in some way. I remember going on my first R&D trip when I first got into the Tactical industry- my sales channel manager who was a former ranger, definitely thought I was a drag and didn’t need to be there, as a civilian who just “drew clothes”. Granted there was frustration as I was slowing him down spending an hour taking photos of everything- he had finished his job on site in 20 minutes. I know he got annoyed, but when I had photo proof to show my upper management that backed up the direction we were going in and all styles went to production, my specific experience as a designer really came in handy.
One thing that was tough working with the firearms/military/SOF community has a tendency to stick with something because that’s how its been done for years, George Washington or whatever did it that way. YES, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; study what works and doesn’t in history so we don’t repeat mistakes like everyone who tried to invade Russia by land in the middle of winter. At the same time it doesn’t mean you can’t try to make something better. Most designers became designers because they want to make the everyday products people use better and more beautiful. For guys that were so nuanced about working something over and over so they could have an improved buttstock or better grip, they also have a really hard time trying new types of clothing. I think it was really hard for some to understand that some of my ideas were to make clothes better (within the limits of good margin and all you have to deal with when making shit to sell). The MDS short at Magpul is a good example of this- I put a drawstring closure on it because as a person who made board shorts for surfers who had Triple Crown trophies, drawstrings keep your pants up in water, much, much better than a D-ring like traditional UDTs. You would have thought I had told my coworkers we were making it out of pink glitter fabric- there were a few who were very opposed to change just out of principle even though the change was one that had purpose.
Q4. Being a gun owner and someone who enjoys shooting, what would you say you really enjoyed most about being a part of one of the biggest names in the massive American firearm industry?
A. When you work for clothing brands and you tell someone, typically you get a “oh that’s cool, I have some of their shirts” type answer. It’s usually an average response. Compare this to the firearms customer. There really is no comparison! People would get SO excited when they found out I was working with Oakley or Magpul, the excitement was contagious and even a little overwhelming at times. The fans go HARD. When you meet one, they are so proud to tell you their love for the brand. Then they tell the story of how they built their first AR, what their favorite sling is and how many pmags they have and you really want to be excited and share their enthusiasm but you are just trying to go to the bathroom and sit down on your 10 minute break from SHOW show haha. Its enthusiasm and connection that can’t be faked or replicated.
Q5. Any negatives about the firearm industry you’d like to share or anything you would like to see the industry change?
A. The biggest negative I see comes from my experience as a customer more than from working in it. The firearms industry overall has an inaccurate, tired view of women and doesn’t really care to change or expand. As a woman, you are pretty much relegated to eye candy/gun bunny or GI Jane, maybe with a sprinkle of Mama Bear protecting her cubs.
There is nothing wrong if a woman feels like she is one of these labels, and she chooses it herself, but there are A LOT more female consumers than that and its a huge chunk of sales being missed.
Women drive about 75% of the purchasing power in any given household, so imaging how much the industry can add if they open themselves up to this consumer. I don’t have the solution for what each brand should do, but it definitely goes beyond just putting pink or tiffany blue on things and telling women to be “Mama Bears”. You need to have focus groups with different women, find out what their needs are, likes and dislikes, you need to have female employees who you can rely on to help you make your product the best it can be, create product campaigns directed to the needs of the female user. Take your product offering, adapt and overcome. A men’s gildan blank tee shirt with a pink logo on it sold in size extra small doesn’t cut it any more.
There are plenty of women in the industry who are working to change this, but it would be cool to see the bigger brands take it seriously and show their female customer a better amount of financial respect. Inclusivity is important and good for business and the worst it can do is create a bigger customer pool so I have yet to see, when the right product choices are made, where it could go wrong. There is a whole base of women and especially young women who take their self defense seriously (because we have to!) and who enjoy shooting and hunting as hobbies and lifestyles. I think the firearm industry needs to open their mind and step out side of themselves; your customer does not always reflect what your boardroom looks like and any business that sells product has to resonate at some point with the fact that the customer doesn’t follow you, you follow them and cater to their needs. Don’t be another industry that struggles because it didn’t change it’s ways and just continued to neglect customers who have been asking to be included- they will take their dollars to the solve when it arrives on the scene so why not be the solve?
Q6. Most average folks who don’t work in design or materials and manufacture will struggle with reconciling the prices they see on a product given how accustomed we all are to cheap goods from China. What would you most like to say to people out there on that topic?
A. You really know the question that gets me going 😂 ok here we go-
JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS NOT MADE IN THE UNITED STATES DOES NOT MEAN IT SHOULD BE OR WILL BE CHEAP! (Say it once more for the people in the back). Customers should not be hesitant to pay for good product especially in the performance space. Especially those who spend top dollar on the best ammo, scopes, aftermarket parts, etc- clothing is an extension of your gear.
As a country, the US is accustomed to cheap, throw away clothing (any other products) that don’t last, is bad for the environment, and is often made by paying workers unfair wages or by setting up unreasonably high quotas in which they have to produce. Quality clothing exists but the customer has choose to make the investment. In the long run, a pair of pants, wherever they may be made, a 100$ pair is going to last a longer, fit a better and take a beating more than the 40$ pair. 40$ might seem like a lot for a t shirt but one made of quality fibers that wick moisture instead of absorb it, is going to feel better after a long day worn under hunting gear for example, and will wash up better, compared to a 10$ shirt that you may need to replace after only a couple of washes.
In the case of clothing cost, yes there is some import duty and freight cost passed on to the customer, and you are paying for materials and labor (both of which are components of clothing that are so important- good materials and craftsmanship that comes from fairly compensated workers are integral to great product). But I think the average customer forgets what they are paying for most- more often than not, half the dollars on the price tag go back to support the company and not into the making of the individual garment itself. A piece of clothing is more than just the fabric, zippers and sewing- it’s the R&D behind it, it’s the trial and error to get the product worthy enough to show the consumer.
Q7. Lastly, what would be your top tip for anyone aspiring to work within the ‘tactical’ or firearm industries in America?
A. Everyone seems to think that you need to be an armorer or product manager to work in the firearms industry or have military or law enforcement experience. But it’s really not true, it’s just like any regular industry that needs HR personnel, accountants, customer service, product testers and many other jobs that work under the radar and are not typically customer facing. These are the people who keep the wheels turning and are as integral to the survival of a company because they allow for the product people to do their part. So don’t be limited by the fact that you may not have been a sniper before or something- if it really is what you are interested in and the brand has the values that you believe in, don’t count yourself out just because you may think you don’t fit the mold, you just have to find where your skills fit in.
I really cannot express my level of gratitude and appreciation to Noelle for agreeing to take part in this interview and feature it here on the site. She spent a huge amount of her own time putting many years of highly relevant experience down on paper here for us all to read and learn from and I have to say when I got the first draught in my inbox I was hugely impressed right from the first skim read. I set the questions but I had no idea what the answers would be and they came out far better than I was even daring to hope for when I initially came up with the idea for this post.
If you enjoyed the read please do comment here or on other social media to say thank you to Noelle for taking that time to provide such a brilliant insight in to her world and life experience, I for one am certainly grateful to say the least. There are proportionally quite few ladies who work within this world we all take so much interest in so being able to relay such insightful content here on the site is a great pleasure.
Tune in next time as I hope I will be able to bring more interviews like this one to the site in future and give even more insight in to a variety of companies, job roles, experiences and media entities that are so often otherwise kept behind the velvet rope of exclusivity.