CATWALK conqueror Le Kilt is Scottish to the core, boasts designer Samantha McCoach, and yet the label’s success story began long ago in war-torn Italy
WHEN I phone Samantha McCoach to ask her about this week’s London Fashion Week show for her label Le Kilt, the brand that’s put plaid back on the catwalk and the kilt, literally, back in Vogue, she is tickled to talk about tartan, but what she really wants to do is chat about her granny.
“This story should be about her,” she says. “It all started with her and the short kilt she made me, that everyone else wanted, and it just grew from there.”
OK then, Italy, 1944. Monte Cassino, one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, rages for months across the hills and valleys surrounding the abbey and town of Cassino, and costs the lives of thousands on both sides. Thirty miles away little Carolina Marucci and her family have been forced off their small farm and moved into the village of Isernia.
Now 77, at her home in Edinburgh, Carolina Myles remembers those days and the soldiers she saw around the village during the war and after.
“My parents had a small farm but we had to leave it because the Germans took it over and mined all the fields. It was a while before we got back into the house after the war. We lived in the village and the Scottish soldiers were still there. I remember two, Johnny and Thomas, who used to come to our house because my dad made his own wine, and we used to give them wine and food. We didn’t have much ourselves at the time, but we shared it. They were good to us, and we were good to them,” she says.
Myles also remembers the cousins who visited from Scotland, where their father had emigrated years before, wee girls dressed in kilts, returning to their homeland for holidays.
“They came over from Fife, and sometimes they wore tartan. That was the first time I saw it, though I knew nothing about it then.”
That was to still to come.
Myles grew up in the austerity of post-war Italy and as a young woman left a country still struggling to rebuild itself from the rubble, determined to see more of the world.
“It was my intention to travel,” she says. “I arrived in Scotland, where I had family, thinking I would do four years here, then see Australia and from there go to the US, because my mother was originally from Pennsylvania. But in Edinburgh I met my husband at a dance hall in Tollcross and that was it. I never got anywhere.” She laughs.
“I missed Italy right enough, but now I wouldn’t change it. I visit, and it’s beautiful, but I find it too hot. I like it here.”
Myles and her husband, Peter, went on to build a life in Scotland, raising two daughters while she worked in a kilt shop in the Royal Mile.
“When I came here I used to make clothes and someone suggested I go to John Morrison, a kiltmaker in the Lawnmarket, about a job. The first one I made, the pleats came out twisted like a banana, but I learnt. I liked working there and stayed for 29 years. We sold different tartans, different lengths, to people from all over the world. Everyone loves tartan.”
Myles also made clothes for her daughters, and then granddaughters, using tartan; dresses, mini kilts and once a Royal Stewart maxi for the school dance. “It was very much admired because it was the only one there,” she says.
With this expertise in the family, it was natural that when Myles’ granddaughter, Samantha McCoach, grew up and followed a career in fashion, the tartan would out. And that she would find herself giving a twist to tradition with Le Kilt, her own label.
After studying fashion at Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal College of Art in London, McCoach learnt a thing or two about building a brand with five years at Fred Perry. Then, after a Christmas visit home in which her granny made her a short Black Watch kilt, the idea for her brand, Le Kilt was born.
Set up in 2013, it is named after the legendary 1980s Soho club that dazzled with its plaid and antlers interior. Le Kilt specialises in kilts with a contemporary twist, selling online from the Le Kilt website and in Harvey Nichols. McCoach’s designs include classics, in black, Black Watch and bright red Wallace tartan, and innovations such as short kilts, kilts with Lurex thread to make a glitter kilt, three tartans in one kilt, and all round pleats in black or cream wool crepe.
When we speak ahead of Le Kilt’s London Fashion Week show on Friday just gone, McCoach is still mulling over the playlist that will accompany the kilts, knitwear, coats and George Cox footwear. Previous shows have seen a string trio playing everything from Barbie Girl to Madonna, and a Garbage soundtrack. She’s after a club night with kilts vibe. “There will be music, drinks, there’s always a party element,” says McCoach, 29. “I hate static presentation.” Of course, how can you judge whether a kilt has enough swing if there’s no music?
Suddenly we’re back to that Black Watch kilt that Granny Myles made for Samantha that she wore out and about in London.
“Every time I wore it, people asked for one and it just grew. For a year and a half it was my hobby while I was working at Fred Perry. Then I asked her to make one kilt in 12 colours. We did a photoshoot and a launch, someone wrote about it in the Guardian and it took off. I put every penny from my job at Fred Perry into it and left (because I couldn’t do both) and set up Le Kilt. The kilt my granny made me has become our classic which we run every season, and we have built around that,” she says.
“My granny is amazing, super talented, understated, modest and chic. She’s an incredible woman who made everyone clothes, doesn’t complain and just gets on with it. She taught me patience, because I don’t have much, and that you can’t make anything in a rush if you want it to be good.”
Myles was also a big hit at last year’s London Fashion Week Le Kilt show too, when she travelled down to enjoy her granddaughter’s success.
“That was very exciting,” says Myles. “Lots of people coming and going, and people I didn’t know from Adam coming over to talk to me and asking if I was Granny Myles.” She laughs.
“I’m proud of Samantha. She works very hard. She’s a very busy girl.”
This year’s show will be Le Kilt’s fourth collection, Autumn/Winter 16, and it’s about taking a trip around the UK and championing companies and crafts, kilts and knitwear.
“Our knitwear and kilts are made in Scotland, and everything is made in the UK,” says McCoach. We’ve worked with Scott & Charters in Hawick, there is some Sanquhar Knitwear with traditional patterns, and we’ve worked with Linton Tweeds on a navy mix and off-white kilts that will be stocked online and in Harvey Nichols,” says McCoach.
“Kilts are full of history and tradition, but tartan has also played a part in every subculture from punks to mods to grunge in the 1990s. I have always been into different subcultures and how people adopt a look, and tartan is one of those looks. So it has its own identity and it’s timeless, but it’s also modern and versatile. I’m trying to tell my own story and give the kilt a place in the everyday wardrobe.”
At the Shoreditch home studio that she shares with boyfriend Matthew Miller, who has his own clothing label (www.matthewmillermenswear.com – the pair met at college), McCoach is to be found habitually sporting a kilt.
“I normally just wear the classic black or the short one with everything from monkey boots to bright coloured trainers, and T-shirts in summer, polos in winter. I’ve never been one for cocktail dresses but a kilt you can dress up or down. It can be punk, smart, or chic. It’s versatile and classic. It’s a skirt in beautiful fabric. In silks, it’s a cocktail skirt,” she says. “It’s not from a particular time or place; it’s not a trend, it’s always there.
“I never really thought that in fashion I would use my Scottish roots, but I have. My aim is to bring craft and manufacturing together and make something that’s quite chic. I’m trying to explore what the kilt is. I don’t want to make things that scream ‘Scotland!’ and look like you should be wearing a Jimmy hat, like fancy dress. I want something that’s subtle, modest, with the highest technical standards. People ask why it’s so expensive, it’s just a skirt. But they’re made in Scotland, have the best buckles and finishing, are 100 per cent wool, and there’s a lot of fabric in them. It’s not a skirt you shove in the wash. It’s almost like an outerwear piece for women.”
“Real wool, that lasts a lifetime,” as Granny Myles has it, delighted that the family tradition is being kept alive, and at the same time shaken up a little.
“Samantha knows how it should be, no skimping on the quality of the fabric and she wants a good sharp pleat, to give movement and swing. But she does her own thing and has different ideas. She was always that way. When she was a little girl I had a mannequin in the house and she used to make it outfits out of bin liners,” she says with approval.
“I remember in the kilt shop we once made a bell skirt without asking the boss, and they said, ‘Oh no, this is a traditional shop, you cannae put that in the window.’ But I think you can do anything you want with tartan. As soon as I’ve had my cataracts done I’m going to make a coat with a nice bit of Black Watch I’ve been keeping.”
Traditional, contemporary, a bit of both – Myles and McCoach are confident tartan will always be in style.
“My daughter said to Samantha, ‘What will you do when the kilt goes out of fashion?’ And I said, ‘Tartan is never going out of fashion. The kilt never will.’”