Not many people can boast they made Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis just a little bit cooler. But entrepreneur and Afghanistan War veteran Mark Wales can thanks to his new line of leather jackets inspired by his time as a Special Operations commander in the Middle East.
Wales’ brand, Kill Kapture, describes itself as a “tough luxury” creating hand-crafted, kangaroo leather jackets designed in the mode of Top Gun meets James Bond. All Kill Kapture models are military veterans, a point of pride for Wales.
“They are rough looking, visually imperfect, but there is a quiet fire there that you can see in their eyes,” Wales said in an interview. “Fashion is dominated by pretenders. I can’t point to many genuine military-heritage brands, and not one special ops inspired brand. Where traditional fashion stands for prestige, status and materialism, we stand for devotion to purpose, teams and something greater than just the individual.”
Wales met Gen. Mattis when the decorated commander visited a veterans’ group at Wales’ MBA program in Philadelphia. After the speech, Gen. Mattis fielded a call from Wales and offered advice on the brand. Wales asked Gen. Mattis if he would visit the set for a photo shoot and speak with veterans—that happened in 2015. Of course now, Wales knows Gen. Mattis is currently occupied with other matters.
“General Mattis has done so much to assist veterans in transitioning from the military,” Wales said. “He is such an intelligent and decent person. He was interested in Kill Kapture because when he visited the veterans’ club at Wharton over breakfast, he said the best thing we could do for America’s security was to restart the economy and be leaders in industries.”
While the Kill Kapture jackets aren’t cheap—somewhere in the range of $1,500 apiece—they are guaranteed for life. Wales’ staff split its customers into “teams” of 30 people with each getting a unique serial number and call sign if they join one of the teams.
“We want to build a narrow, but deep group of followers and engage really well with them,” Wales said. “We understand the importance of community: these people all have common interests and we want to speak to that. The people that follow us have risked their money on us, and been very patient with us as we navigate operations as a new company. People have taken a chance on us, and we are keen to repay that by growing and maintaining close links with them.”
Foxtrot and Charlie were the first two teams, Echo was next. A minor celebrity joined each team: an Australian Prime Minister in Foxtrot, Mad Dog Mattis will be in Charlie. Kill Kapture also added a tracking beacon to jackets so customers can find them on you phone if they lose them. Kill Kapture operates under the motto “World Peace – and killer jackets. That’s all we want.”
“Our purpose is to bring the electricity and thrill of a special ops mission to the average consumer,” Wales said. “We want to make them feel a touch more dangerous, and a lot more exciting when they pull on one of our uniforms.”
Cavorting in high end fashion is a world away from how Wales grew up: playing in the red dirt of Western Australia – hence the kangaroo skin for the jackets — originally in the desert in a tiny mining town where his father worked as a truck driver. After living in Manhattan for 18 months, he now considers New York home. Wales said he originally wanted to come to the United States as a kid to play college football, but entered the military instead.
“I was reminded of my desire to come here when I worked closely with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, including being extracted under fire by Task Force Mercy in 2010 – they were incredibly brave pilots and I was reminded of how much I love the US-mindset of ‘anything is possible’. There is a reason why you took us to the moon and you still lead the world in most industries – because you believe in yourselves and will try anything.”
Wales served over a period of 16 years for 10 tours of duty in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. He completed four tours, two as a combat troop commander.
“It was the fight I had been waiting for a really long time for,” Wales said. “It was a huge shock to be involved in combat – I had waited my whole life for it, but it was still very confronting. It was exciting, dangerous, tough work.”
As his years of combat wound down, Wales started thinking about phase 2.0 of his life. He decided to apply into one of the top U.S. business schools; spent a year studying for the GMAT.. And when he finally got the scores he wanted, he applied to top-ranked Ivy League business program, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While he enjoyed school, he did feel a lack of purpose and meaning as he wrestled with accounting and Excel modeling.
“It was hard because you surrender purpose you had lived with and taken for granted,” Wales said. “All of a sudden you have to find meaning – hitting a quarterly target does not feel the same as risking yourself for a team, or leading people into danger. I understand now why athletes struggle when they retire.
Wales said he suffered from depression and PTSD after his deployments in what he describes as his natural human response to near misses and violence. Exercise, sleep, and new activities like cooking and Crossfit helped him recover, along with taking back up surfing.
Wales met his Kill Kapture co-founder Scott Lehman a classmate in both the veterans and rugby clubs. Lehman was in Marine Recon during the Iraq invasion in 2003 and worked as an investment banker after school and had experience in his own retail startup.
“We get along great, and it’s so cool to have your friends along with you in an exciting endeavor,” Wales said.
Beyond Kill Kapture the clothing line, Wales hopes to use storytelling in blogs, books and speaking to share the lessons he learned from the military that can be applied in any industry, including self-discipline, teamwork and perseverance.
“Make sure you believe in the endeavor!” Wales warned. “It’s going to be hard. Also don’t be afraid to try many different attempts, a lot will fail, you will get better as you go.”
Wales also recommended that companies don’t raise money right off the bat, rather first make a sustainable business model first, then scale if absolutely necessary.
“We got distracted trying to raise money when we had not yet fully proven our concept,” he said.
And your idea does not need to be a new concept, Wales said, simply an improvement on an existing product or service with a better twist.
“Just because you did not receive an Ivy League education and all the leg-ups that some people get, don’t think you can’t win,” Wales said. “Those people want to make you believe you are inferior because they hold the ‘keys to the castle’ and are apparently more intelligent than you. You can absolutely win if you apply agility, asymmetric advantage, and a lot of grit.”
Above all else: “Just try,” he said. “You can’t really lose, because even if the business fails, what you will become in the process is an end in itself.”