Pantsing the Competition: How a USMC Vet Pioneered Tactical Gear for Women
Katheryn Basso’s journey to entrepreneurship is a classic example of identifying a personal everyday problem and coming up with a smart solution that catches on. Basso’s began a handful of years ago when as a newly commissioned officer in the US Marine Corps, she got herself a present in honor of her new rank. Her gift of choice: a simple pocketknife that became her favorite. She took it everywhere with her, including deployments to eleven countries. Beyond being her favorite gadget, the knife held a place of necessity in her work life, using it for everything from assisting with outdoor drills and exercises to opening her rations at mealtimes.
One day Basso participated in a field exercise that required her to wear civilian clothes. Her standard-issue uniform for the exercise included a pair of women’s outdoor pants, with “tiny, angled” pockets, one of which was used to house her trusty knife. The exercise involved running through the woods, and when the group arrived at their destination, Basso realized the knife was gone. Somewhere between the start and the finish, it had slipped from her pocket and fallen into the brush, and she never found it.
Losing her knife was an inconvenience that shed light upon an issue that many women who wear tactical gear were forced to accept up to that point. The clothing offerings on the market left much to be desired regarding safety, comfort, and pocket spaciousness. When looking at what her male counterparts were issued, Basso noted a design disparity. “My male colleagues were issued high-speed, low-drag clothing with multiple, ample pockets. Women were issued pants that were tight, tapered, and with minimal pockets,” she says. High-speed, low-drag clothing is designed to be highly efficient tailored toward the body shape and with no extra baggage that will drag the wearer of the clothing down. In the case of tactical pants for women at that time, “It was definitely fashion over function,” says Basso.
Fashion over function seldom works in the real world, especially for Basso’s target client demographics: women who, like her, serve in the military, as well as those who work in EMS and law enforcement. She also wanted to solve the same fit, storage, and safety dilemmas for women who partake in shooting and recreational outdoors adventure sports.
To better understand what might work for women who needed alternatives, Basso first did what it appeared nobody else had done: She took the time to ask women in the tactical space what they needed and where the standard issue needed improvement.
Her findings made it clear that the tactical space needed her pants. From her conversations with women working in law enforcement, she gleaned crucial information about the importance of focusing on the height of the pant waist. She learned that the waist on a standard issue pair of trousers was too low, making necessary movements like crouching or bending down tricky. She also learned that fit of tactical pants and gun belts also did not always align. “When you wear a gun belt, it bisects your hips,” she says. “When you’re running, everything rides up.” In the instance of hips, Basso means the iliac crest at the top, down to the femur bone protrusion and across the glutes. Factor in a 12-hour shift when you have a heavy gun belt bisecting your hips, and the risk of discomfort on the job is clear.
Pivoting to women who worked in EMS, she learned that they needed strong belt loops that could accommodate carabiners. From her own experience, she knew tactical pants needed to be able to stand up to the elements, carry her necessary gear, and protect her from random sticker bushes, sunburn, bug bites, and potential burns if she had to shoot her gun.
Putting her own needs aside, Basso wanted to address a need for the many women who experience waist-size increases approximately one week each month because of their menstrual cycles. “We needed pants that account for the body changing and fluctuating during the month,” says Basso.
Creating the Prototype
Armed with her field research and findings, Basso eventually created pants that tried to address each of the tactical-space dilemmas women faced. Her prototype, the Valkyrie Field Pant, was designed to be safe yet allow women more comfort and ease of use. In a nod to EMS workers, the pant features a criss-crossed belt loop in the front to accommodate carabiners. Because the pants are slightly more form fitting than standard issue and sit closer to the waist, they stay up and are more comfortable to wear with or without a gun belt.
“It’s not anything crazy,” she says. “Guys have high-speed, low-drag gear. Women should have high-speed, low-drag gear that fits their body types and has the correct function.”
Although she didn’t sew the pants herself, she took some crude sketches to a designer she met. That designer connected her with a pattern maker who made the first prototype. “We went through many prototypes to ensure the sizing could be adjusted followed by a lot of field testing to ensure each feature was functional,” she says.
It turns out that sizing is a bit like snowflakes in that no two types of pants are created alike. A pair of size-8 jeans will not fit exactly like a pair of dress pants in the same size. Basso discovered that while most brands offer about seven different sizing combinations, to properly outfit tactical women, she would need to provide 72 different sizing combinations that better account for a women’s build. Looking for something that better approximated a custom fit, Basso’s pants offer three different waist-hip configurations in each size, as well as the choice of short, regular, or tall.
Once she had a satisfactory prototype, Basso presented it to leaders in the tactical industry at SHOT, the annual shooting, hunting, and outdoor trade show. It was there that she was told there was no market for women’s tactical clothing. Her reaction was disbelief: “That’s me. I am that woman in the tactical space and there are so many of us,” she remembers thinking. Apart from potential government and military clients, the civilian side remains a relatively untapped market. In shooting sports alone, there are an estimated eight million female participants, according to Basso.
Taking her Shot
The lack of enthusiasm at SHOT didn’t deter Basso. She decided to make things work on her own. In 2019, she launched KADRI Clothing, which sells directly through a website. At $220 a pop, the Field Pant is not inexpensive, but Basso can justify the price because the pants are made in the USA. “Part of the pursuit of that American Dream means ensuring there is work for Americans,” she says. “Americans fought long and hard for their labor rights, it would be unethical—and a disservice to them—to go elsewhere, to the less protected, in order to protect my bottom line.”
A favorite part of Basso’s day is reading customer feedback emails. Often the satisfaction is in women being able to simply do their daily jobs without worrying about their clothes. “I know that sounds a little strange, but I hope you can imagine the frustration and distraction a woman feels when she’s constantly fiddling with ill-fitting clothes or trying to figure out where to put gear on pocket-less pants.”
That same year KADRI launched, several senators, including Tammy Duckworth (a veteran herself), introduced a bill as part of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that created a deadline for better fitting women’s body armor in the Armed Forces, where women were often issued unisex or male-specific gear. Basso, whose pants are used by EMS, law enforcement, and fire departments, recently got her first contract with the US Air Force, validating her belief that the demand was there all along.
“Women are everywhere doing all kinds of things,” she says. “They need practical, functional, fitting pants and clothes.” And pockets. (The Field Pant boasts 11.) Basso may have lost her knife out in those woods, but she found a way to help other women be more secure and comfortable on the job or in the outdoors.
And in a remarkable turn of events, about five years after she lost her knife, Basso received a call from a military instructor who’d been performing an exercise in those same woods where her knife fell out. The instructor had found it during that exercise and Basso was reunited with her beloved knife. And this time, she has just the pants pockets to keep it and other items safe and secure.