Making the kilt an everyday accessory

Howie Nicholsby aims to make kilts on men as acceptable as trousers on women and this weekend the Edinburgh businessman is making an important stride in that direction

'IMAGINE that the 1745 ban on wearing a kilt had never happened, that it had continued to just be normal everyday clothing." Howie Nicholsby shrugs his shoulders as he considers this out loud, raising his eyes to the ceiling as if imagining the possibilities. It's impossible to know of course, but one can't help but wonder if, had history been a little different, the average Scottish bloke might look a little more like 33-year-old Nicholsby.

Shaven-headed, with a smattering of stubble, a cheeky grin and an even cheekier wink, today he wears a tweed kilt and a black shirt, a leather holster around his shoulders and his black socks pushed down roughly to meet battered leather boots.

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We meet in his shop, 21st Century Kilts, on Edinburgh's Thistle Street – all dark walls, low lighting, leather Chesterfield sofas and a well-stocked whisky cabinet – as he packs a stack of trunks to take to London, where he is launching his first line of ready-to-wear kilts this weekend, along with a new website.

It's a fresh move from the enfant terrible of highland dress, who defected from his parents' traditional kiltmakers – Geoffrey Nicholsby on the Royal Mile – in 2008 to go his own way, making kilts in everything from tweed to leather, denim to linen, and even tartan. His aim throughout has been to bring the kilt back into everyday wardrobes, proving his point that kilts aren't just for weddings by wearing one himself every day for the past decade.

"If you look back across all sorts of different cultures, almost every one in history has seen men wearing some sort of unbifurcated clothing; that's crotchless to you and me," he says. "For the average guy going to a wedding, sticking a kilt on is not a big deal but asking him to wear one to go to a friend's birthday party with a shirt and boots can become a totally different issue. If I'm out and about, well I get the odd comment, but it's mostly smiles. But people don't believe I wear it every day. To me it's nothing, it's clothing. You've got to wear something, don't you?"

By introducing the ready-to-wear collection, Nicholsby hopes that even more men will be open to buying a kilt as part of their casual wardrobe, not least because they will be a little cheaper than his usual stock.

Where, for example a bespoke denim kilt might cost from 400-700 depending on fabric choices and finishing, customers will be able to buy one off the peg for around 300. The selection will include some of his "greatest hits", including a dark blue denim, black tweed, a lightweight estate tweed and linen for summer.

It's great news for everyone from people on a budget to those looking to buy multiple casual kilts and even tourists passing through the city who want to leave with their kilt rather than wait for it to be made for them.

It's also good for Howie's existing customers, many of whom follow his lead by wearing a kilt on a casual basis, and most of whom own more than one kilt. "My average customer has three kilts," he says. "I've even got one customer with over 100, and we had a Swiss foot surgeon in just last year to buy a black kilt. He's since bought 11, all in the last year, and all in black."

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Nicholsby has numerous loyal clients, a few of whom pop in during our interview, to pick up their kilts or just to say hello. Indeed, his phone rarely stops ringing. One Englishman comes in to pick up a black kilt, and can't stop raving about his other one. "Man, I love my denim one!" he says. "And so does everybody else." Since Nicholsby paved the way with his sartorial mantra a decade ago, many men, it seems, have been only too happy to follow in his breezy footsteps. It's not been the easiest journey, however. He grew up in the industry, helping out with his parents' business, but running into problems in his late teens when, fresh out of Stewart's Melville, his parents sent him to a drug rehabilitation clinic in the Borders, an experience he describes as having "saved my life".

Spending a week there was a wake-up call and when he returned to the family business, he knew he wanted to do something a little different. The concept of 21st Century Kilts was born when he created a hand-made silver PVC kilt, which still hangs on the wall of his shop today.

As word spread of his creations, everyone from Robbie Williams to Alan Cumming, Lenny Kravitz to Vin Diesel commissioned him, but his work didn't sit entirely comfortably within his parents' rather more traditional business. He branched out on his own three years ago after an argument over fabrics with his father. "He didn't like a lightweight fabric I was using," he says. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back. It wasn't working and no-one was happy. But we all get on much better now and they're happy, my mum and dad. They can run their business the way they want to run it and they're only answerable to themselves."

While the ready-to-wear collection is an exciting new branch of the business, bespoke and one-off pieces remain at its heart, and Nicholsby is unafraid of pushing the boundaries. Quite simply, if it's possible and if he believes it will look good, he'll do it.

In the past that has meant creating everything from kilts adapted for cycling to kilts for brides to wear to their weddings. He has designed kilts for the landing staff of Continental Airways to wear, with reflective strips sewn in to the pleats at the back, and a regular client recently commissioned a reversible snowboarding kilt.

In some ways the most radical of all was the notorious black pinstriped number worn by former first minister Jack McConnell at Dressed to Kilt in 2004, an ensemble the politician says has "haunted" him ever since, but one Nicholsby laughs off with good grace. "I didn't take responsibility for it. I told him not to wear that Jacobite shirt," he says plainly with a shake of his head. "I told him, 'You're a politician, not a folk singer.' He came over to New York without a kilt, so he tried on my mate Wee Dougie's pinstripe kilt. Dougie is quite a wee guy and Jack squeezed himself into that outfit. It was actually the right length but because he wore it without a jacket, without a sporran, with a Jacobite shirt and the socks pulled up, with a modern kilt, it was just all wrong. I told him how to wear it well and then he just went and did his own thing."

It's testament to his laid-back nature that Nicholsby is able to take such a relaxed approach to an incident which could have been damaging to his business, through no fault of his own. But then it doesn't look like much gets to him. And more than that, he looks like he's enjoying himself. He loves what he does, he assures me, and he loves that every day more and more men, in Scotland and further afield, come round to his way of thinking.

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"You know I always said when I started this that it would be 50 years before we see a kilt in Marks & Spencer," he says. "I still feel like that. I don't think it's just around the corner that everyday kilts on men will be as acceptable as trousers on women. But you know 50 years ago women couldn't really wear trousers. The kilt is evolving. When people ask me if I'm a designer I tell them no, I'm a radical evolutionist. I'm just one cog in the big machine of the evolution of the kilt through time."

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