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Scottish kilts of a different stripe

A 28-year-old is shaking up tradition -- and the family business -- with hip designs in snakeskin, denim and even plastic.

October 29, 2006|Ben Mcconville | Associated Press Writer

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND — A revolution is afoot at one of Scotland's most venerable kilt-makers: Among traditional tartans there are hip versions in denim, camouflage, leather and, for the adventurous, see-through pink plastic.

Howie Nicholsby has dressed celebrities like Madonna and British pop star Robbie Williams, as well as local hipsters who wear his creations to Edinburgh's bars and nightclubs.

"I'm not so much a designer as a radical evolutionist," he said. "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's path to world domination in the line of hip kilts: his father, Geoffrey, who heads the family business, Geoffrey (Tailor). 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 mum, Morna, was not impressed either," he recalled. "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 now hangs in Nicholsby's office. In the shop, there are row upon row of extravagantly designed kilts and jackets, from blue camouflage and orange silk to more conservative outfits in pinstripe and gray tweed.

Geoffrey (Tailor) employs more than 50 people, including 40 tailors and seamstresses who work in a mill in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

Off-the-rack prices start at $450 for a denim kilt, with the custom range going up to $2,500 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.

In a land that is fiercely protective of tradition, 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 media and the lawmaker's political opponents condemned the outfit.

"This was just another example of Mr. McConnell trying to make himself look Scottish and failing to look or sound authentic," said Scottish National Party spokeswoman Jennifer Dempsie.

"Some traditionalists find it hard to accept what I'm doing here," Nicholsby acknowledges. "If I meet someone dressed head to toe in tartan kilt and tweeds, then I do often get comments.

"It's taken quite an effort to make the kilt cool again," he said. "Even in the early 1980s there weren't many young Scotsmen who were prepared to wear a kilt even for a formal occasion. Now that's all changed and we are enjoying a renaissance."

Nicholsby has been making inroads in the family business. In 2002, one in 20 garments sold by Geoffrey (Tailor) was a modern design and by 2005 this figure had risen to seven in 20. "I believe it will be 50/50 in sales soon," he said.

Geoffrey Nicholsby has also had his fair share of glamour, dressing Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, Charlton Heston and Bo Derek. "It's not fair to say I don't like Howie's designs," he said. "I like them, especially the pinstripes, camouflage and the grays. It's just that Howie gets very excited by them, and I have to remind him that we do traditional kilts too.

"Mind you some of them are a bit over the top," he said. "I don't know who'd wear the pink see-through one."

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