21st Century Kilts. 48 Thistle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1EN
When I first moved to Edinburgh, dark mornings of ‘dreich’ Scottish weather were brightened by an unusual sight on the school run. A smiley, young, bearded dad on a bicycle, cute son bringing up the rear in his own bike seat: a nice enough scene in itself. But the really good bit was that rain or shine, whatever the season, this chap was always wearing a kilt. Not just any old kilt. Never a traditional, run-of-the-mill tartan kilt. No long white socks, furry, hanging sporran or shiny-buttoned ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ jacket in sight. No. The kilts this guy wore — every single day, riding that bike — were made in nice heathery tweeds, a smart grey wool pinstripe, sometimes even army camo fabric, blue denim or black leather. Their details were eye-catching, too: some featured big external detachable pockets, reminiscent of cargo/utility trousers, while the trims, linings and often the undersides of the kilt’s pleats showed a flash of eye-catching, contrasting fabrics. He also wore his kilts in a striking, uniquely casual way, with slouchy wool socks, lovely big leather boots (laces artfully undone), and a signature ‘airline seatbelt,’ low-slung round the waist. On the top half, he wore whatever you’d normally wear with a pair of jeans – a leather jacket, a wooly jumper, a cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, sometimes with a well-fitted, shorter-cut wool jacket or waistcoat. And of course, for the school run, a florescent ‘high-vis’ jacket, flung over it all. It didn’t take long to find out that this enigmatic figure was Howie Nicholsby, owner of Edinburgh’s 21st Century Kilts.
Howie is a man on a mission. His personal aspiration, his business plan and the whole point of his shop is what he calls a ‘radical evolution’: to bring kilts out of the realm of strictly formal, wedding attire, rugby matches and Braveheart lore and into the everyday wardrobe of modern men, around the globe. This might seem a vaguely outlandish goal – until you meet Howie and visit his beautiful shop on Thistle Street, in the heart of Edinburgh’s historic New Town.
21st Century Kilts is just two small rooms, packed to the brim with rolls of beautiful, richly coloured and textured fabrics of all description: from purple faux-lizard skin to Harris tweeds. The rustic stone walls of the shop are lined with custom-made copper clothing rails that give it an industrial feel – these are hung with rows of ready-to-wear kilts and kilt-jackets in Howie’s signature styles. There’s a well-lit corner for one of Howie’s kilt-makers, Valerie, to make orders before your eyes, and gallery walls chock-full of framed images.
The very first 21st Century Kilt ever made takes pride of place, mounted and framed as a kind of talisman. Howie made this silver, snakeskin, PVC (uh-huh) kilt at the tender age of 18, to wear out clubbing: it represents a first foray into revolutionary territory for a young man with kilt making “in the blood.” Howie’s parents own and run Geoffrey the Tailor’s Kiltmakers and Tartan Specialists: long-standing, highly-reputed makers of primarily traditional but also more contemporary kilts, a segment of their business introduced by their son. But Howie was by no means pressured into the trade. His journey began when he was just five years old, on a business trip with his parents to a Scottish festival in the USA. His sister, three years his senior, had her eye on the ball from the start and sold kilt accessories from their stall, earning money to spend later at Disneyland while a curious young Howie spent his time crawling under tables, exploring the highland games and seeing “Scotland through the eyes of America…” Something clicked, and the following year, aged just six, Howie donned his own child-sized kilt and asked for a lesson on the credit card machine. In his late teens, Howie sidelined a planned career in documentary media after a rough ride with drugs and a stint in rehab — the strong, unwavering support he received from his parents through recovery inspired Howie to appreciate what was right in front of him. He decided to stay close to home and learn the skills the family business had to offer. His sister, by that stage, was shop manager, so Howie forged his own path: he learned to sew kilts by hand and set out from the start not to make them “fashionable,” but to make them “wearable.”
He didn’t have to change much. When you stop to think about it, skirts are just naturally better suited to the male physique. Our ancient male ancestors were skirted — Howie informs me that trousers were actually only invented for horseback riding — and anatomically-speaking, kilts are simply more comfortable than most two-legged garments. They are thus, Howie claims, all the better to safeguard male fertility. That said, the traditional military model of kilt wasn’t quite perfect, in Howie’s eyes. His 21st Century Kilt is cut lower on the waist. Howie calls them “hipsters;” but this adaptation is comfort rather than fashion-driven. In-built pockets at the back and on the inside are another distinctive feature, with the option of detachable external pockets as a modern alternative to the traditional sporran – another practical element for modern men.
Fabric-wise, the sky’s the limit for Howie. His own background has given him creative carte blanche — the Nicholsbys are Jewish and don’t have a family tartan. Sporting an ‘adopted’ clan tartan can be tricky because kilts are a natural conversation piece; “an ice-breaker” and so, as Howie puts it: “if you choose a Cameron tartan because you like it, and you meet a Cameron, and they ask you about it, you’ve got a problem.” Of course, there are safer tartans to choose – like “Hollyrood,” an Edinburgh tartan that Howie, a native of the capital, often wears – but one of his successes as a businessman has been to recognize the limitless possibilities beyond traditional tartan wool. The wide variety of colour and combinations of fabrics on offer at 21st Century Kilts point less to a desire to be trendy than to a highly respectful attitude towards individualism, and yet again, an eye to the garment’s wearability, above all else. In short, Howie’s goal has been consistent from the start – to open up the wearing of kilts to a wider audience of men.
Watching Howie in action, chatting to a group of Singaporean journalists, or offering a dram of whiskey to a groom-to-be in a bespoke fitting, it’s clear that he provides all the inspiration his customers need. It’s not just the way he styles his kilts, their design or what they’re made from. Howie is the soul of his shop – it is his spirit and his ethos that breathes life into the creations of 21st Century Kilts. His favourite mantra is a telling version of a Vivienne Westwood quote: “People who wear unusual clothing lead interesting lives.” Photographs line the walls of the shop, showing how this can be done. There are pics of kilted Howie on his bike, on a scooter, grinning alongside a group of 21st Century Kilt-wearing world-famous tennis players, and one with his gorgeous wife Charlie and two sweet wee sons, all in kilts, marching hand-in-hand at New York City’s tartan parade. Pictures from a Mario Testino shoot also beg close inspection — young male models, trooping arm in arm down cobbled streets, sporting fashionable kilts and leather goods and styled with a nod to Howie’s ‘look’. From press and fashion shoots to 21st Century Kilt-clad celebrities like actors Alan Cumming, the whole Osbourne family, Vin Diesel, and musician Lenny Kravitz (21stc website has pics); the eye-candy is plentiful. Perhaps even more motivating are the legions of letters and wedding snaps on display, sent in by ordinary blokes turned happy customers.
And how goes the mission? Howie says his movement is growing. Of all his customers, largely made up of kilt buyers for weddings and formal events, about ten percent come back within the first year to buy a second kilt, and then half of those clients will return for a third; meaning an ever-increasing number of his clientele are integrating kilts into their everyday wardrobe. I asked Howie to describe who these core kilt-converts are, exactly – is it an attitude that unites them, are they Scottish, are they particularly stylish, are they eccentric? “Yes, “ he replies: “All those adjectives could apply. It’s a mixture: some can be a little bit oddball. Some, you wouldn’t expect them to wear a kilt. I’ve got a guy, Doug, who is a hairdresser in Fife with his own salon who is on his third kilt in a year. He wears them almost every day now. And he’s sending me new clients.” It comes as no surprise to hear that Howie no longer needs to advertise. Doug, the “dream client” later joins us for a pint at Howie’s local pub (also affectionately known as his “office”) across the road. Like Howie, he’s a walking billboard for the cause; both make kilt-wearing look effortlessly cool, contemporary and masculine. I ask Doug what it’s like to go back to trousers after experiencing the freedom and sartorial impact of the skirt, and he says the main thing is that his clients ask: “Where’s the kilt?” It’s become part of who he is. And folk — particularly women, I’m sure — love it.
So, apart from inspiring a continued evolution in modern kilt wearing, what lies ahead for 21st Century Kilts? Howie tells me something that may sound counter-intuitive: “My plan in life, at 36 years old, is to never open another shop.” His formula works and Howie has built a strong brand: custom-designed ‘lightening bolt’ 21st Century Kilt-pins are so sought after, he had to stop selling them separately after spotting them moonlighting on cheap, tourist-shop kilts. But instead of expanding, Howie (with the help of his freelance kilt-makers and assistant Fraser) simply plans to make what already works well, work even better. Perhaps, as his mission grows more and more successful, he’ll reach out to grow the wholesale business — but Howie recognizes that what he’s got is special. “It’s not about the money,” he tells me. “It’s about people understanding the ideology of the movement of 21st Century Kilts.” After just one visit to Howie’s shop, I think I do. So much so, that I’m now on a mission of my own – to convert my half-English, non-kilt-owning husband to the cause of Howie’s radical evolution, and get him into a made to measure 21st Century Kilt of his own by his next ‘big’ birthday. It may take an initial leap of faith, but I’m convinced Howie’s passion will persuade him. Then I’ll have to sit back and allow the other mums to admire him on the morning school run.