Howie R Nicholsby is one of Scotland’s modern fashion legends. More than a designer, a revolutionary, a pioneer in the modern interpretation of the iconic traditional Scottish garment – the kilt. He grew up in the industry; his family’s business Geoffrey Tailors is still based on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. After a difficult phase in his life, aged 18, Howie joined his parents’ business and learned the craft of traditional hand-sewn kilt making.
On a business trip down to London he bought silver snake-skin PVC: this was the beginning of 21st Century Kilts. Using materials such as denim, Harris Tweed, leather and suiting material, Howie went back to the original idea of Kilt that predates Victorian etiquette, apparel for everyday life. He wanted to bring it back to its roots, giving men an alternative to wearing trousers. His international success and his work promoting Scotland through Visit Scotland, has helped change the perception of “men in skirts”.
Your USP is your pocket system and how you fit your kilts. Where did your concept come from?
Having to deal with not having anywhere to put anything! The whole thing about 21st Century Kilts is that its product evolved through use, practicality; sometimes revisiting old ideas. Take the ancient bracken kilt, it was a large piece of fabric which you wrapped around yourself and gave a gathering of fabric which could be used to hold things: an ancient pocket system.
The very first pocket I introduced was the front hidden one – which I mostly use now as a phone pocket. The two back ones for wallet and mobile came about when I was 21 and made the life choice to wear a kilt every day. This was when the pocket system really began to take shape and gain practicality. Now the new pocket system has two buttons and what I call the runway, where the lining which runs down the fringing and through the kilt is more on show. It’s more practical when putting something in the pocket, it doesn’t fall out.
Who or what are your influences?
At the beginning in 1996 it was more Cream and Ministry of Sound album covers, hence the silver snakeskin. Vivienne Westwood has always given me heart and soul – one of my favourite statements has been “People who wear unusual clothing have a more interesting life.” More recently for my tailoring there has been the TV programme “Boardwalk Empire” set in the 1920s during Prohibition. The tailoring in that has been amazing with really nice detail and fabrics – tweeds, pocket watches, collars on waistcoats. I like to mix as many fabrics as possible.
Excluding the popular perceptions, what would you say is Scotland’s aesthetic?
It is well qualified by a word suggested to me in a previous interview for the Italian press: dishevelled. Even when a Scotsman dresses in a Prada suit he always look a bit dishevelled … in a Scottish way. It’s a funny one! I personally like it. I would never look over-formal. I would rather still look clean, of course, but as if dragged through a hedge. I think in Scotland, we are just not that caring about fashion – we don’t overdo it – we have a look that is quite earthy and natural.
Once you give too much importance to what is in fashion or on trend you are no longer fashionable or stylish. You can become consumed by it and buy clothing for status. Money cannot buy style.
Scottish tradition seems a key factor in what you. Do you look to the past for your inspiration?
Yes. It is harder to look into the future! I think I have been able to develop and make modern kilts work because of my Jewish roots, being only 3rd or 4th generation Scottish. I don’t have a family tartan – my family has only been here since 1890.
A Russian/Polish name can be changed but I would never steal someone else tartan! When I am with a customer and they do not like their family’s tartan, we look at what are called “public tartans” or estate tweeds. This is what I do for overseas customers.
What I do is make it a bit more personal and avant-garde. I need to know the implications and practicalities. There is nothing better for me than when a customer walks in and chooses me to design their kilt suit for them – especially if it is a family tartan they are choosing.
Kilts have often been interpreted by fashion houses such as McQueen. What is your opinion on that?
The more the better! The more creatives experiment with kilts and skirts for men – so called “un-bifurcated garments for men” – the more credible I become.
And I am confident they cannot make them as nicely as I do! Unlike many fashion houses I have got the heritage and manufacturing tradition. I make to measure, so you are not going to get a better fit. When you are making a skirt for a man it has got to have an element of masculinity. It looses its appeal and will not be taken seriously if you had feminine details.
You want to offer men an alternative to trousers. In your opinion why is it taboo in western culture, for men to wear skirts?
I would say it is getting less and less taboo. In certain cultures men still traditionally wear skirts but we have had 200 years of industrial revolution. I do not think it is really taboo subject – it’s more about practicalities. It also depends what industry you work in. I do pin stripe kilts, nowadays!
You split from the family business 4 years ago. Was this a hard decision or did you see it as a sense of freedom?
Both. It was something I always wanted to do but did not have the capital to open a solo store. Having to mix my range with the traditional highland wear, just felt like a novelty thing within my Mum and Dad’s business. This was not what I wanted.
I look back at the 10 years with Mum and Dad as training. I do wish I learned more about accounts as I was a bit naive and have been in trouble because of it. I still want to expand but it is hard without support of a larger company.
You have been working with an MEP to protect the kilt. Can you tell us why you feel strongly about this?
I wanted to create a PGI – Protective Graphical indicator – for the traditional kilt, just like Champagne and Scotch whisky. It has never been done for clothing, just food and beverages.
The industry would have to agree to what qualifies as a traditional, Scots or Scottish kilt. It would have to meet 3 parameters: be hand sewn, pure wool and made in Scotland. Even with pockets it would still be a traditional kilt.
It’s about protecting the art of hand sewn kilt making which offers traditional tailoring. I think the kilts which are being sold on the Royal Mile for £20 should be called “fun kilts, novelty kilts or tourist kilts” as they are not the real thing.
It would help protect the whole industry and encourage young people to learn how to make hand-sewn kilts so the actual art/craft doesn’t die out.
Howie Nicholsby was interviewed by Fraser Moodie during the first half of 2013 as a project between Heriot Watt University and Modeconnect