OPINION: HOW USSOF INSPIRED POP CULTURE FASHION TRENDS

By: Ruben Ayala

July 20, 2023


I, like many Americans, woke up early in October of 2001 and saw grainy images of bearded soldiers riding on horseback through the Afghan mountains on national news.  Although I was on active duty at the time, I was still in the conventional Army and not exposed to the unconventional nature of the U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF).  We did not play those games in the 82nd Airborne Division!  Soldiers with beards?  Soldiers riding into battle on horseback?  What next - pilotless aircraft?

One of the soldiers in the first infiltration of Afghanistan in October 2001, Courtesy of https://www.military.com/video/operations-and-strategy/afghanistan-conflict/secret-mission-the-horse-soldiers-of-9-11/1224907912001

One of the soldiers in the first infiltration of Afghanistan in October 2001, Courtesy of https://www.military.com/video/operations-and-strategy/afghanistan-conflict/secret-mission-the-horse-soldiers-of-9-11/1224907912001

Fast forward to 2023 and the influence of USSOF on popular culture is not lost on me - nor my teammates.  It wasn’t until starting the Triple Nikel brand that some of these influences became evident to us.  While there is so much to unpack here, I am going to keep the conversation focused on fashion; since that is our industry.

To lend some credence to my wild theories I feel I must first establish bona-fides with you so that I am not referred to as a blundering poser within some vial private group on Facebook somewhere.  I, like my business partners, am a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and have had my fair share of deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.  During my time in service I experienced 4-5 uniform transitions and witnessed an ungodly amount of money spent on clothing and accessories. 

I left the base with a non-matching hat!  What was I thinking? (Property of Ruben Ayala)

I left the base with a non-matching hat!  What was I thinking? (Property of Ruben Ayala)

So, now that we have gotten that out of the way, let’s examine my thoughts on 3 ways USSOF have helped establish fashion trends in popular culture today.

BEARDS

Contrary to popular belief, Chris Hemsworth did not make beards popular.  Did that rub you the wrong way?  Sorry, not sorry.  Think about this, Chris played me in a movie once, 12 Strong (ok not me exactly, but he played the role of a U.S. Army Special Forces Officer - don’t hold it against me).  

I am of the opinion that from the period of 2001 to 2010 the American public was inundated with non-stop footage of war from Afghanistan, Iraq and other hot areas.  To correspond with those images of war, we began to see the dramatization of these events in T.V. shows like “The Unit” (aired in March, 2006) and “Army Wives” (aired in June, 2007).  

Marketing for the TV Show, “The Unit”. You can see a light beard on the faces of the actors. (courtesy of IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460690/)

Marketing for the TV Show, “The Unit”. You can see a light beard on the faces of the actors. (courtesy of IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460690/

With USSOF undertaking some of the riskiest missions in the war, the new face of badass became not one of a clean shaven, spit shined, barrel chested paratrooper; but that of a grizzled, bearded, shadowy figure behind a set of Night Vision Goggles and helmet.  I don’t think that this visual was lost on TV producers either as it seemed like every show had to have a handful of bearded “operators'' in it.  To this day it is not uncommon to see at least one "super secret agent special operator" sporting a thick beard in action movies.

Marketing for the TV Show, “SEAL Team”. You can see full blown glorious beards now and faux-hawks?? (courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/seal_team)

Marketing for the TV Show, “SEAL Team” - aired in 2017. You can see full blown glorious beards now and faux-hawks?? (courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/seal_team)

My theory is that this new personification of what it meant to look like a warrior proliferated into our daily lives, resulting in a fashionable trend for young men.  In 2007, the movie “300” came out and focused on the lifestyle of the Spartans; complete with greatly manicured beards and six pack abs!  During the height of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), USSOF Operators were like modern day Spartans; fit, fierce and known for fabulous beards.  From a business perspective, I have seen an entire industry blossom in the last 10 years dedicated to beards!  A lot of these companies market their brand as being manly, or, on the cusp of being warrior-like.  Again, I contribute that to USSOF relaxed grooming standards of the early 2000’s.  

FLEECE WIND JACKETS

I know what you’re thinking - “I must have lost my damn mind!”  Bear with me on this one, I will at least make it interesting for you.  

Pre-Sep 11, 2001, the conventional Army had the Gortex jacket, the field liner and poly-pro pajamas (if you know - you know).  When we invaded Afghanistan the USSOF personnel riding the horses had on black, aftermarket (Northface) jackets lined with fleece and just looked cool!  I remember seeing a picture of General Tommy Franks speaking with some USSOF personnel and wearing one of these black jackets - and he had his hands in his pockets!  

General Tommy Franks speaking with USSOF personnel in Afghanistan in late 2001, Courtesy of https://www.americanspecialops.com/photos/special-forces/special-forces-tommy-franks.php

General Tommy Franks speaking with USSOF personnel in Afghanistan in late 2001, Courtesy of https://www.americanspecialops.com/photos/special-forces/special-forces-tommy-franks.php 

Eventually, this type of jacket became a staple across the military for its sturdiness and practicality.  To be honest, I don’t remember wind fleeces being very popular in everyday life during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  I would venture to say that these types of jackets were very niche to people into rock climbing, or other types of outdoor activities like that.  During that time I vividly remember bomber jackets being very popular.  

Within the last decade, the rise of windbreaker jackets has made a strong impression in the fashion industry.  So much so, that traditional climbing brands like Arc’teryx have had to adjust their supply chain to meet the demand of fashion enthusiasts who like the look of outdoor windbreaker jackets.  These jackets now come in all types of different colors, but I stand firm in my position that our utilization of these aftermarket windbreaker jackets provided a great marketing opportunity for all to see.  

SUNGLASSES 

Did somebody say Oakley?  My thesis here is not to say USSOF made sunglasses a thing - not even a little bit.  What I am saying is that, USSOF made big, wrap-around sunglasses cool!  

When I say big, wrap-around sunglasses I am referencing the one and only - Oakley M-Frame.  The M-Frame was the king of all sunglass kings in the 2000’s for USSOF.  We had lenses for every possible scenario you could imagine and wore them everywhere.  This is another USSOF staple accessory that I am sure was seen by many young impressionable adolescents during the time.   

Afghanistan is really a beautiful country and I always loved admiring it whenever possible - in my M-Frames of course (Property of Ruben Ayala)

Afghanistan is really a beautiful country and I always loved admiring it whenever possible - in my M-Frames of course (Property of Ruben Ayala)

It’s obvious that fashionable sunglasses in a field environment would not be conducive to an individual, so a wrap-around option is the best option.  Prior to the GWOT I can only remember athletes wearing such sunglasses.  I can attest that prior to 2003 I never owned a pair of Oakley’s or wrap-around style sunglasses.  

28 Sep 2000: Chris Huffins of the USA gets ready to run in the Men's Decathlon Event during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney , Australia.Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/chris-huffins-of-the-usa-gets-ready-to-run-in-the-mens-news-photo/729616?adppopup=true

28 Sep 2000: Chris Huffins of the USA gets ready to run in the Men's Decathlon Event during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney , Australia.Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/chris-huffins-of-the-usa-gets-ready-to-run-in-the-mens-news-photo/729616?adppopup=true

However, once I saw cool USSOF dudes downrange wearing M-Frames with different colored lenses during my first Afghanistan deployment I knew I needed them.  Honestly, before I deployed I had to go to the Sunglass Hut and buy my own.  I am glad to say that as of 2023, I no longer have the yearn to wear wrap-around sunglasses; but have to admit this fashion trend struck hard and fast.  

Unlike beards and the windbreakers, the sunglasses fashion trend was short lived, but is now making a comeback.  As art imitates real-life, so does my theory on wrap-around sunglasses.  USSOF implemented the best eyewear protection for its soldiers very early on in the GWOT and soon the images of heavily armed, bearded, muscular dudes with wrap-around sunglasses became popular.  Not only did the Conventional Army start to issue its own version of the M-Frame to soldiers, but manufacturers in the private sector began to assimilate.  “Dollar, dollar bill y’all!”

Rod (Triple Nikel, COO) and “Anonymous Soldier” pose for a pic in the Afghan countryside.  2 of the 3 trends in this Opinion Piece are in this picture - Glorious Beards and Wrap-Around Sunglasses (courtesy of Ruben Ayala)

Rod (Triple Nikel, COO) and “Anonymous Soldier” pose for a pic in the Afghan countryside.  2 of the 3 trends in this Opinion Piece are in this picture - Glorious Beards and Wrap-Around Sunglasses (courtesy of Ruben Ayala)

While this list is just a brief snapshot of what I saw during my time in service, I can think of several more fashion trends that I believe were inspired by USSOF.  If you would like to hear more about them let us know in the comments.  Obviously these are my opinions and they could be way wrong; however, I know that they are right!  

 


2 comments


  • Deny Caballero

    UNDENIABLE! SOF professionals are trend centers. When people see us wearing certain brands or embracing certain styles PEOPLE FLOCK TO IT!


  • Shareef

    Great article brother. I agree with everything you’ve stated here, but I would say that there are some elements of influence that you may have overlooked. I believe the concept of “Tacticool” is also a by-product of the Operator Cool you have so eloquently described, and which emerged in the early 2000s and continues to evolve today. The para-military look that implies that I just walked off the range is everywhere these days. The backwards turned baseball caps, cargo/tactical pants with more pockets than any man needs, hiking boots/shoes and XL button-down collared shirts for easy access to the pistol that you carry everyday but have not fired in 2 years. These elements complete the look. There was a time when we could walk through an airport and find our “guys” with no problem simply by observing the varying degrees of “tacticool” they were all displaying.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.