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Issue 73 - Bringing innovation to tradition

Scotland Magazine Issue 73
February 2014


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Bringing innovation to tradition

Howie Nicholsby and his 21st Century Kilts

One of my most enduring memories will always be of the night I was invited to be a judge at Dressed to Kilt, an American Tartan Week extravaganza hosted at Sotheby's New York back in April 2004. Sir Sean Connery and a host of Manhattan celebrities such as the then NBC anchorman Stone Phillips, Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet actor Kyle MacLachlan and Monarch of the Glen leading man Alastair Mackenzie, had been lined up to take part in this eclectic tartan fashion spectacle but the star of the show was undoubtedly Howie Nicholsby from Edinburgh who had kitted out virtually all of the performers.

While I was dressed in my own Cameron of Erracht kilt which I had bought some years before from Howie's family business Geoffrey (Tailor) Kiltmakers of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, my lady companion on the catwalk, the petite fashion editor of New York Style Magazine, was wearing a lizard-skin kilt with Howie's distinctive lightning flash kilt pin. “Isn't this the best?” she exclaimed, flashing a smile at the 400 or more spectators.

That was the year in which Howie was awarded Scotland Magazine's Icons of Scotland Award and it seems almost unthinkable that ten years have since passed. Over the decade that followed this New York debut, Howie, who was nominated Most Stylish Male at the 2013 Scottish Style Awards, has gone on to revolutionise the manner in which Scottish Highland dress is perceived.

His designs are fun. They are colourful and often outrageous, if that is possible in fashion.More importantly, they add a dazzlingly refreshing and youthful zest to the concept of what Scots, male and female, are entitled to wear.

And not only Scots. “ Although I was born and innovat ion tradition to brought up in Scotland, I don't personally have any claim to a clan tartan and I certainly wouldn't want to wear one that belongs to somebody else,” he says firmly. “We all know that the provenance of modern tartan is a mix-max, but the clan and family tartans that exist are still in the majority over two hundred years old, and it's important to acknowledge the fact.”

Although Howie has a healthy respect for tradition, he firmly believes that nothing is carved in stone. “Highland dress is all about practicality and comfort and looking good,” he insists. “The wearing of the kilt whether it be made up of tartan or corduroy should not be seen as a novelty but as a statement of individuality and style.

“Most guys find it masculating,” he observes, confirming his vision that men throughout the world deserve to be given a realistic alternative to trousers.

Having said this, he proudly wears his own products and true to his word, his kilts feature a range of leather and denim, Harris Tweed, camouflage and Savile Row suiting fabrics.

Detachable pockets are provided to allow an option to wearing a sporran.

The promotional images he posts in newspapers, magazines and on the InterNet feature strikingly handsome and athletic men and women obviously having a good time. Bespoke clients include the singer Robbie Williams, Hotel Missoni, Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Little Red, Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy, and actors Lenny Kravitz, Vin Diesel, Alan Cumming, Brian Cox and Mario Testino.

A photoshoot at the opening of Wimbledon in June 2013 featured Brodie's Champions of Tennis and included John McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevec, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski. All of them were wearing Twenty First Century Kilts.

With the skills of kiltmaking in his genes, Howie has over the past decade elevated his craft to an entirely new and original dimension. But that is not to say that he turns his back on his roots. Instead, he pays an affectionate tribute to the rigorous training and upbringing that made his success possible.

The more traditional Geoffrey (Tailor) Kiltmakers was set up on Edinburgh's High Street in 1971 by Geoffrey Nicholsby and his wife Lorna, and remains one of the country’s leading kiltmaking firms.

Yet it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the young Howie would go into the family business. He admits to having been a somewhat out-of-control teenager, but confides that his life changing moment came at the age of nineteen when his parents finally took him in hand and coopted him into the family workshop to “work with the girls.” There he learned his trade but instead of it harnessing him into the predictable, it inspired him. The silver PVC kilt he wore to the party following his sister's wedding was just the beginning. On a trip to Israel, he wore a camouflage kilt.

Next came London Men's Fashion Week and although the blaze of publicity that his kilts attracted is what really got him noticed, it rapidly became obvious that marketing and selling his designs immediately alongside his parents' conventional kilts and tartans was never going to be viable. Having worked for his father for ten years, it was time for Howie to break out on his own.

21st Century Kilts was launched in 2004, and Howie currently offers his bespoke tailoring skills from a premises at the heart of Edinburgh's New Town. Kilts and accessories are all individually tailored. When I visited him shortly before Christmas, he was overseeing the arrival of a shipment of classic Harris Tweed from the Carloway Mill on Lewis. On the work table there was a bale of subtle butterfly patterned silk destined for kilt linings.

It takes twelve weeks for a made-to-measure kilt suit to be delivered; four weeks for a kilt. The shop is open five days a week, closed on Mondays and Sundays, but since Howie and his assistant Fraser are constantly in demand, he insists it is important to make a booking to avoid disappointment. “All the information is on-line –,” he adds.

Visit Scotland, identifying the image of a youthful, vibrant Scotland, has also been strongly supportive on the promotional front and New Yorkers may recall the distinctive posters that featured on the Manhattan Subway. Over 2014, Howie is planning a series of brand collaborations and will be supplying his kilts to private boutique shops and up-market stockists across the world, starting off in Barnsley and Berlin.

Meanwhile, bespoke tailoring with 21st Century Kilts' two skilled kiltmakers, Valerie and Ruth, continues to go from strength to strength.

A recent commission was for a full-length dress kilt for Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco, reflecting her husband's Scottish connections through Prince Albert's great-great grandmother Lady Mary Victoria Douglas-Hamilton.

Aged thirty-five, Howie Nicholsby has uncompromisingly made his mark with a radical reinterpretation of a universally loved and admired national costume with its origins back in the mists of time. Let's see what he comes up with in the next ten years.