This portfolio originally appeared in Jump Point 9.4.
In less than a decade, Tehachapi transformed from a small-scale armor manufacturer with a small-yet dedicated following to an empire-wide brand. Though much of the credit goes to the armor’s distinct and practical designs that blend armor plating with strong polymer weaves, company founder and CEO Claude Gadkari discovered that solid craftsmanship sold at an affordable price wasn’t enough to distinguish Tehachapi. It would take the armorer years of hard work and dedication to make the brand stand out from its competitors. Despite his best efforts, Tehachapi still found itself on the verge of bankruptcy only for its prospects to change almost overnight.
A middle-class kid from New Junction, Corel, Claude Gadkari believes his uneventful childhood inspired him to pursue a life of adventure. An avid consumer of spacefaring adventure vids and books, Gadkari fantasized about exploring unknown frontiers but found his feet firmly planted on his homeworld. While his parents worked hard to provide him and his two siblings a safe and stable upbringing, they couldn’t afford their own ship or even a family vacation off-world.
When Gadkari reached the right age, he attempted to enlist in the Navy in an effort to finally leave his planet, but he failed the physical due to a congenital heart defect that had until then gone undiagnosed. Even though it made him ineligible for service, Empire Health Services wouldn’t cover the expenses to have it corrected because it wasn’t classified as a life threatening. Gadkari was devastated knowing he couldn’t afford the medical implant that would clear him for enlistment. Instead of heading home, he wandered to the New Junction spaceport looking for any way to get out of the system. Finally, a rough-and-tumble salvage crew took him up on the offer and hired him as a trainee. Gadkari wrote a comm to his family and sent it moments before the ship slipped through a jump point leaving the system.
Gadkari later deemed this period of his life “Roughneck University.” When he wasn’t doing chores and learning the ins-and-outs of life aboard the ship, the crew ran him ragged with errands for supplies at landing zones. He figured that the lists of random and obscure items he was tasked to retrieve were just another form of hazing, until one day, he doubled back after forgetting his rucksack and caught the crew loading crates into a smuggler’s compartment. The crew had been sending Gadkari out because they hadn’t fully trusted him yet. Luckily, by this point the crew had an affinity for Gadkari and gave him an ultimatum, either he was all in or had to walk away immediately. Thus began Gadkari’s real adventures among the stars.
Gadkari learned the smuggling ropes and visited corners of the universe most prefer to avoid. One run brought him to Olympus in the Nul system, where he happened upon a stall selling custom armor. The unique pieces combined repurposed ship plating with reinforced polymesh fabrics leftover from an abandoned construction project. The design was far from unique but the custom pieces gave it a cool, distinct look that embodied the individualist spirit of the frontier. Obsessed with it, Gadkari made the suit his first major purchase. In the years that followed, not only would the armor save his life more than a few times, he would receive compliments almost everywhere he went. It wasn’t before long that he was turning down offers to buy it for double or triple the purchase price. He was too attached to his armor to ever sell it, but thanks to the numerous patch-up jobs he’d done on it, Gadkari became convinced that he could build something very similar if he got his hands on some armor pieces. Following a particular dry-patch and a nasty run in with a rival gang, he decided that it was an idea worth following up on. With his crew’s blessing, he bought a beat-up Cutlass and flew to Olympus to start again.
Gadkari searched Olympus for the original armor vendor but came up empty. Word among the locals was that the vendor had fled following a disagreement with Nescus, the crime lord in control of Olympus. No one knew where the armorer went, so Gadkari searched for him in bazaars across the ‘verse, doing legit cargo runs along the way to make ends meet. While in Nexus, Gadkari met Heizo Tam, who ran a small armor repair stand. Struck by the unique armor set, Tam offered to patch Gadkari’s armor for free so he could examine exactly how it was made. The two struck up a friendship and Gadkari shared how he had been searching for the original maker with the hopes of selling the pieces. With hearing how much people had offered for the suit, Tam proposed the idea that the two could launch their own armor line. Tam would provide the raw materials and craft the suits while Gadkari would provide the capital and handle distribution. In honor of the suit that inspired the collaboration, they named the company after that lost Olympus vendor, Tehachapi.
Mixing inspiration from Gadkari’s armor and skills Tam had picked up repairing pieces of every make and style, the Atzalan became the company’s first official armor set. Initial sales were sluggish. Gadkari found success selling directly at bazaars but was unable to get any respectable shops interested in featuring the armor. They finally caught a break when, during a meal with a buyer from a large chain, Gadkari let it slip that he used to be a smuggler and that the armor was inspired by his old suit. The buyer was immediately hooked and began firing off questions, so Gadkari regaled him with stories and plied him with drinks until landing Tehachapi’s first big sale. Gadkari sensed an angle and continued to use tales of his time roughing it on the frontier to interest buyers. Stories he later admitted were half-truths blending his experiences with heightened spacefaring adventure stories he loved as a kid.
The ploy worked and Tehachapi found fans, primarily by those who embraced the frontier spirit. While the affordable price was a positive to prospective buyers, the company needed to sell a lot of units to turn a profit. Tam went into debt to keep the production lines rolling, and at a few vital junctions, Gadkari found much needed capital via bridge loans from less than reputable sources. After a few years of struggling to stay afloat, Gadkari and Tam had serious discussions about ending the business. Then something unexpected happened that changed everything.
In 2946, Gadkari provided free armor as a costume option for a spectrum show that recalled the spacefaring adventures he used to love. That series, Shadow Siren, became an instant hit and the vid’s mysterious rogue known as Déraciné cut an iconic image armored in Tehachapi. Sales skyrocketed and cross-promotions with the show and Drake Interplanetary, another prominently featured brand, only raised the company’s profile further.
The company has capitalized on this mainstream success ever since and continues to deliver practical and affordable armor that celebrates that frontier aesthetic. Though Gadkari’s career adventuring among the stars might have been cut short, his journey created an armor now seen as symbolic of an adventurous spirit. It’s not the path Gadkari expected, but one he’s happy to have traveled.