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Sun, Oct 29, 2006 - Page 12 News List

The kilt's back in fashion. You OK with that, Jimmy?

From pop stars to government ministers, anyone who's genuinely cool these days is wearing the traditional attire of Scotland


Howie Nicholsby of 21st Century Kilts displays some of his modern kilt designs in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Oct. 3.


Next door to the house where John Knox led the Scottish Reformation is the home of a new cultural revolution: Designer kilts.

Among traditional tartans at one of Edinburgh's most venerable kilt-makers -- Geoffrey on the medieval Royal Mile -- you can find hip versions of the garment in denim, camouflage, leather and, for the more adventurous, see-through pink plastic.

Howie Nicholsby has turned his 21st Century Kilts into a big business -- dressing celebrities like Madonna and British pop sensation Robbie Williams, as well as local hipsters who wear his creations to Edinburgh's trendiest bars and nightclubs.

Amid the bustle of his basement workshop, Nicholsby pauses to explain his philosophy.

"I don't consider myself to be a designer at the couture level," he said. "I'm not so much a designer as a radical evolutionist. I've taken the kilt back to its origins, to its roots and made it an everyday piece of clothing."

Only one man stands in the 28-year-old designer's path to world domination in the line of hip kilts: his father Geoffrey, who heads the family business.

Nicholsby explains his father's reaction to his first fashion kilt and doublet jacket, in silver snakeskin pattern PVC, which he hand-stitched 10 years ago.

"He hated it and my mom, Morna, was not impressed either," recalls the designer. "Both of them thought `there is nothing in this.' They saw no sales in it. I was just 18 years old and made it for a family wedding."

"Well, I'm still doing it today," he said. "I sometimes wish I'd kept it separate from the family business. I want to roll this out with shops in New York, Tokyo, Sydney and other hip cities, but I get vetoed by my dad."

That first kilt hangs in a corner of Nicholsby's office. In the shop there is row upon row of extravagantly designed kilts and jackets from blue camouflage and orange silk to slightly more conservative outfits in pinstripe and gray tweed.

Nicholsby's next innovation was to make his kilts more comfortable. His epiphany came while climbing Mount Massada in Israel.

"I was wearing my camouflage kilt up the hill and I became incredibly hot and I felt sick," Nicholsby said. "Traditionally kilts are worn high on the waist in a military style, but it was just too much. So I pushed it down to my hips. When I got down the hill I just raised the hem and the hipster kilt was born."

Geoffrey employs more than 50 staff including 40 tailors and seamstresses who work in a mill in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

Off the peg prices start at about ?240 (US$451) for a denim kilt, with the bespoke range going up to about ?1,300 for a black leather number complete with a thunderbolt kilt pin -- as worn by film star Vin Diesel at the MTV Europe music awards in 2003.

Nicholsby is leading his kilt revolution by example.

"I've not worn trousers on a regular basis for more than seven years. I wear a kilt every day from a casual black woolen one to pinstripe for more formal events. I do have a pair of tracksuit bottoms for doing things around the house like painting," he said.

In a land that is fiercely protective of its traditions, tampering with the kilt can ruffle feathers.

When Nicholsby dressed Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Minister, in a pinstripe kilt for Tartan Week in New York in 2003, the Scottish press and the lawmaker's political opponents condemned the outfit.

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