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When Abbas Haider was a young boy, his grandfather taught him everything he knew about his import and export business.

Haider of Fairfax paid attention.

“He would always be telling me about things like trade tariffs and letters of credit,” Haider said.

As a junior at Chantilly High School, Haider began his own import business, called Ships N Ports.

He developed business relationships with cotton wholesalers in India, Egypt and Pakistan, and began importing high-quality bath towels that he attempted to sell to retailers.

As his own business developed, he also took a job at Men’s Wearhouse in Sterling, and soon realized the potential for profit in high-end men’s suits.

“I basically switched my focus from towels to menswear,” he said. “But I kept my overseas contacts.”

In 2008, Haider began attending the University of Mary Washington in Fredricksburg, where he majored in business. As a freshman there, he started a new business which he called Aspetto, which means “appearance” or “style” in Italian. He began importing men’s suits, and spent his free time trying to sell them to retailers.

“I would put about 10 suits in a bag and take them up to Georgetown and try to sell them,” he said. “But no one took me seriously because I was only 18.”

He later tried to hawk his wares in New York City’s garment district, where he also was met with rejection.

“They all told me that I had the right passion, but I just was too young. One guy told me ‘Next time you go to shave, turn your razor around and shave with the back of it,’” Haider said. “I actually took that advice to heart. I grew a beard, and today although I am only 22 I look more like 25.”

After his New York experiences, Haider decided to change Aspetto’s business model. Instead of selling pre-made suits, he began offering custom-made ones, importing fabrics and employing tailors to customize them.

Today, Aspetto offers three different lines; the City, Signature and Elite.

“We make custom-fit suits in over 300 imported fabrics and offer 1,500 different custom-tailored dress shirts,” he said.

The shirts retail for about $90, while the suits range from $300 to $1,000 depending on the line and material.

“We sell primarily through word of mouth and do pretty well,” he said. “Last year I cleared about $150,000.”

Also last year, as a senior-year class project at UMW, Haider partnered with fellow classmate Robert Davis to develop a new product line.

“My professor told us to take an American product and market it to sell overseas,” Haider said. “Since I already had a real-world business, I decided to apply the project to Aspetto. I thought to myself, how can I sell suits overseas? I decided I would focus on the Middle East, where there is a lot of violence. It just came to me that I could develop stylish suits that were also bullet-resistant.”

Haider soon discovered in Fredricksburg there was a company called Renegade Armor, which produces bullet-resistant, Kevlar-like material used in protective armor.

Haider teamed up with Renegade Armor co-owner Skip Church, and developed American Armor Attire Inc., an offshoot of Aspetto that sells lightweight custom made suits that are bullet-resistant.

“Nothing can actually call itself bulletproof,” Haider said. “But yeah, that is what we are talking about, bulletproof suits that are light and look like a normal, stylish suit.”

Haider got an “A” on his project and, on June 1, obtained a patent on his new product.

Since then, he has attended trade shows and has attracted interest in many government and law enforcement agencies.

“It is a great product and a very unique idea,” Church said. “I am honored to be a part of this idea and based on the interest we have gotten, I think it will be a success.”

Haider now is seeking investors to be able to open a manufacturing plant in Fredricksburg and says the sky is the limit.

“I want to bring manufacturing jobs to Virginia,” he said. “I plan to start small, but I plan to grow. There is only one other company making anything like this and it is based in Colombia. I think I have a real shot at becoming a unique, all-American company that will create manufacturing jobs right here at home.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com