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Scottish designer bucks tradition with trendy kilts

Move over tartan kilts, it's time for leather and plastic ones.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2006 13:38 IST

Next door to the house where John Knox led the Scottish Reformation is the home of a new cultural revolution: Designer kilts.

Among traditional tartans at one of Edinburgh's most venerable kilt-makers - Geoffrey (Tailor) on the medieval Royal Mile - you can find hip versions of the garment in denim, camouflage, leather and, for the more adventurous, see-through pink plastic. Howie Nicholsby has turned his 21st Century Kilts into a big business - dressing celebrities like Madonna and British pop sensation Robbie Williams, as well as local hipsters who wear his creations to Edinburgh's trendiest bars and nightclubs. Amid the bustle of his basement workshop, Nicholsby pauses to explain his philosophy.

"I don't consider myself to be a designer at the couture level," he said. "I'm not so much a designer as a radical evolutionist. 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 designer's path to world domination in the line of hip kilts: his father Geoffrey, who heads the family business.

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," recalls the designer. "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 hangs in a corner of Nicholsby's office. In the shop there is row upon row of extravagantly designed kilts and jackets from blue camouflage and orange silk to slightly more conservative outfits in pinstripe and gray tweed. Nicholsby's next innovation was to make his kilts more comfortable. His epiphany came while climbing Mount Massada in Israel.

"I was wearing my camouflage kilt up the hill and I became incredibly hot and I felt sick," said Nicholsby. "Traditionally kilts are worn high on the waist in a military style, but it was just too much. So I pushed it down to my hips. When I got down the hill I just raised the hem and the hipster kilt was born." Geoffrey (Tailor) employs more than 50 staff including 40 tailors and seamstresses who work in a mill in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

Off the peg prices start at about £240 (US$451; €355) for a denim kilt, with the bespoke range going up to about £1,300 (US$2,442; €1,924) 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.

Nicholsby is leading his kilt revolution by example. "I've not worn trousers on a regular basis for more than seven years. I wear a kilt every day from a casual black woollen one to pinstripe for more formal events. I do have a pair of tracksuit bottoms for doing things around the house like painting." In a land that is fiercely protective of its traditions, tampering with the kilt can ruffle features.

When Nicholsby dressed Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Minister, in a pinstripe kilt for Tartan Week in New York in 2003, the Scottish press 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," sniffed Scottish National Party spokeswoman Jennifer Dempsie. "Some traditionalists find it hard to accept what I'm doing here," Nicholsby admits. "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."

Dedicated followers of Nicholsby's fashions are to be found in bars such as the Opal Lounge in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town. The bar was a regular haunt of Prince William, while he studied at St Andrews University, some 50 miles (80 Km) north of Edinburgh.

"I can walk into this bar in a suit and no one would notice," said TV presenter Phil MacHugh, wearing one of Nicholsby's camouflage kilts. "When I come in dressed in my kilt, especially the camouflage one, people are all over me. They tell me how cool it is and ask where I got if from."

Nicholsby has gradually been making inroads in the family business. In 2002, one in 20 of 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 may be more tradition-bound than his son, but the family business has been at the forefront of kilt innovation since it was established in 1971

The father is credited with creating the Highland dress outfit of kilt, sporran (a large pouch or purse worn at the front of the kilt), Prince Charlie jacket (a tunic with braids and coat tails based on military uniform), hose (long socks) and gillie brogues (tough leather shoes with laces that are tied up the calf) - now worn to weddings across Britain, Europe and the United States The senior 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 pin stripes, 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."