Fourth-generation kiltmaker Howie Nicholsby says the time has come for kilts to be worn by all
“There’s always a bit of excitement” when a customer gets a finished kilt from designer Howie Nicholsby. It’s the moment when a long-dreamed-of investment piece, imbued with style and symbolism, comes to life. Nicholsby recently delivered kilts to a Swiss couple who were going to get married wearing them. “I met them in their hotel with their kilts, and they were like two wee kids, jumping on the beds,” he says about the burst of exhilaration he often sees. What a job to have.
Howie Nicholsby deeply cares about his kilts — and those who wear them. “I really get to know my customers quite well,” he says. Taking the time to develop relationships with his customers has led to the success of his groundbreaking kilt business, 21st Century Kilts.
You may know Howie as the man who makes kilts for the New York Tartan Day Parade grand marshals. This year, with the jubilant return to in-person festivities for the first time since 2019, his enthusiasm is amplified: “I’m definitely making her a kilt,” he says of Scottish actress Karen Gillan, the 2022 parade grand marshal. “She’d like it quite short, in fact.” As with all the grand marshals, Gillan selected the specific tartan for her kilt. You’ll have to come to the parade to see what it is.
What you may not know is that Howie is also a kilt designer to names of note around the world, including Sir Richard Branson, Prince Albert of Monaco, Adam Lambert, Lenny Kravitz, and Right Said Fred. But why are his kilts so beloved?
If you were a fourth-generation kilt maker, as Howie is, you’d intimately know the time, effort and artistry that goes into the process of hand-making a kilt. That explains Howie’s concern about the future of this emblematic cultural craft. “If people keep buying factory kilts, no one’s going to learn how to actually make a kilt properly anymore,” he says. As the practice becomes increasingly rare in favor of cheaper, faster factory-production methods, “the tradition will die out.”
So it’s no surprise that unlike other kilt companies, Howie’s kilts are not made in a factory; they’re carefully handmade in Scotland. “Ours are made by proper kilt makers” in Edinburgh, he says with pride. He places utmost importance on “the art of kilt making,” which requires five years’ apprenticeship. His choice to produce kilts in this method is a statement, you could say — a deliberate effort to support Scottish culture and craftsmanship.
But there are twists and turns beyond his emphasis on tradition and technique. Those interested in breaking the bounds of convention will appreciate 21st Century Kilts’ creative choice of materials. While various tartans, wools and tweeds remain tried-and-true favorites, Howie’s inventive use of denim and leather have proven popular. “Forty percent of the kilts I make are family tartans — traditional kilts,” he says. But think about the rest: leather, denim and other personalized details that make each kilt truly customized to the taste of its wearer.
Did we mention pockets? Expanding his reputation as an innovator is his pocket system. “All the pockets can be hidden or detachable,” he says. “The hidden inside pocket can be bigger and can hold a device.” It’s yet another way he adapts his kilts to be worn in any way his customers wish to wear them.
Far beyond black-tie, Howie believes it’s time for kilts to have a broader acceptance in everyday life. The kilt should be considered a versatile garment for everyone. For example, he loves “the whole ethos of wearing it with boots, like a pair of jeans.” Why not wear your kilt with flip-flops along the beach? His attitude is that the kilt can (and should) be worn much more often, hearkening back to its earliest everyday uses.
With his kilts’ range of aesthetic and practical selling points, it’s no wonder that his brand’s tagline is: “It’s made to be worn.” He, himself, wears them every day. “Most of the time I wear denim, because it’s functional, like a pair of jeans.” On days when he cycles to his studio, he wears a poly-wool blend with reflective tape in the pleats.
Excitement is building for Howie’s return to the USA for New York City Tartan Week. With his dressing of the esteemed grand marshal, his appearance in the parade, and his kilt-ordering appointments with the public, Howie loves the unique annual event. “It reminds me of being five years old again, on my first trip to America — that being Scottish is very fortunate, because people all around the world love your culture and history and heritage. For me, the parade embodies what it is to be Scottish and celebrated. As a biased Scotsman, I think everyone should visit here at least once in their life.”
Although he already considers the New York Tartan Day Parade practically perfect, with its bagpipers, dancers, dogs and floats, there is something more he dreams of it having in the future: “I’d like to see a big Loch Ness Monster with 20 people under it dancing.”
NYC KILT APPOINTMENTS WITH HOWIE
Don’t miss your chance to meet Howie and get fitted for a
21st Century Kilt during NYC Tartan Week:
Friday April 8 and Sunday April 10, 2022
208 E. 58th St., New York, NY 10022