The other day, Mark Bovit was hunched over a table at his South Loop shop, Advance Uniform, sticking straight pins into a bulletproof vest cover. A Chicago Police officer brought the body armor in and tapped Bovit to make a black, tactical shell he could wear outside his shirt.
“For comfort,” says Bovit, 46, donning his own uniform: crisp blue dress shirt, dark pants, yarmulke. “The problem is, the further away from your skin you wear a vest, the less protection you get. So I have to make sure that when he puts it on, it’s snug. If it’s bunching or loose, the officer won’t get the protection he expects.”
Clothing is rarely of grave importance; in the business of outfitting the men and women who serve and protect, however, attire can be a matter of life and death. “If a vest isn’t fitting right, an officer might catch a bullet,” Bovit says. “If their jacket’s in the way, they can’t get their gun out quickly. If you hem the pants too long, the guy trips over his pant leg while chasing a criminal and cracks his skull open. You have to fit people to their equipment.”
Advance Uniform (1132 S Wabash Ave, 312-922-1797)—also a vendor of official outfits and accessories (badges, patches, handcuffs) for Cook County Police, EMTs and private security companies—isn’t the only police-uniform supplier in the city. There are competitors—J.G. Uniforms on the Northwest Side, AJ Uniform on the Southwest Side, for instance—but Advance has been at it the longest. Bovit’s late father, Isaac, a Polish tailor who immigrated to the U.S. after surviving a Holocaust concentration camp, started the business in 1955.
“His expertise back in the old country was clothing,” Bovit says. “So he saved up a little money and started making products for police officers.” He made his name making custom officer dress coats for new recruits.
As a kid, on weekends, Bovit would tag along with Dad to the South Loop storefront, which has the same wood paneling on the walls today as it did when it was built in 1971. “In summers, I’d pack boxes. The cops thought I was a hoot—you know, a cute kid hanging around.” Bovit learned the craft from his father and was eventually invited to take over the family business.
Over the years, Bovit has honed his ability to detect fraudsters—people who want official police apparel for the wrong reasons. In 2009, you may recall, 14-year-old Vincent Richardson put on a convincing-looking uniform and a police badge stolen from a South Side store, strolled into a police station, was assigned a radio and went on patrol with an officer for a few hours. (Last month, Richardson, now 17, was charged in an unrelated incident with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.) “He was in here,” Bovit recalls. “My BS detector went off right away. He wanted to buy a whole police uniform. He started inquiring about gun holsters. When I asked him for ID, he said, ‘Oh, I left it in the car.’ ”
Before Bovit could refuse to sell Richardson the merch, the teen left. “When I came in on Monday, I couldn’t believe the paper: teen cop impersonator! That kid had chutzpah.”