The Legends Continue: Famed Kiltmakers Geoffrey Tailor and 21st Century Kilts Reunite

“I swore I would never go back,” says Howie Nicholsby on his return to the family’s kiltmaking business

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Owners Howie Nicholsby and John Webster (Photo: Urs Graf)

The kilt-loving public has speculated (or perhaps simply hoped) that two prominent father and son kiltmakers would one day reunite in a shared vision for the future of quality kiltmaking. Now the mantle is passing from one generation to the next — and the future of Geoffrey Tailor is secured.

Howie Nicholsby, the owner and creative force of 21st Century Kilts, and business partner John Webster have purchased Geoffrey Tailor, the renowned kiltmaker and Highlandwear company founded by husband and wife team Geoffrey and Lorna Nicholsby. With the acquisition, Howie and John have also taken over the lease of the store on the first floor of the family’s historic High Street building.

Well-known to generations of kilt wearers and Highlandwear aficionados, Geoffrey Tailor is a beloved institution in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile that has been in business for more than half a century. Geoffrey Nicholsby earned his Master Tailor certificate in 1967 from the Tailor and Cutter Academy in London. After a business-related fallout with his mother and father, who’d started a kilt business after World War II, Geoffrey and his wife, Lorna, opened their own shop in Edinburgh in July 1971, eventually moving to the Royal Mile in 1978, when Howie was born.

Under his parents’ tutelage, Howie Nicholsby started young. At the age of six, he was helping in the store and at Scottish Highland Games, selling garter flashes and kilt socks. (His first time was in the USA, at Stone Mountain Highland Games in Georgia.) He then learned the art of kiltmaking, and in 1996, he created 21st Century Kilts, which was incorporated into the family business. For about a decade, Howie and his father butted heads. In August 2008, Howie says, “I threw my toys out the pram and resigned from Geoffrey Tailor to open my own independent store in Edinburgh. That was mostly to do with my relationship with my dad. However, over the years, we’ve become very close and very good friends. Our relationship is different now.”

The Nicholsby family, circa 1980s

The defiant young man may have outwardly resisted the idea of returning, but inwardly, the pull was lurking. “I always swore years ago I would never reunify, that I would never go back to the family business,” Howie says. “But I always had it at the back of my mind — what would happen to Geoffrey Tailor.” Now, since December 1, 2022, Geoffrey Nicholsby is officially retired from Geoffrey Tailor, and John and Howie run it.

John Webster is one of the foremost experts in the industry in traditional Highland dress. John started working for Geoffrey and Lorna Nicholsby at the age of 19. He and Howie were colleagues, and they kept in touch over the years. “I knew he was keen to take on the prospect of taking over Geoffrey Tailor,” Howie says. Howie contacted him with the suggestion in mid-2022. “I wouldn’t have gone into business with anyone else. I wouldn’t have let anyone else take over my mom and dad’s business.”

The timing was perfect. Howie’s company, 21st Century Kilts, was primed for a change. “I’d not been able to offer the full spectrum of Highlandwear. I really cut myself off from it by going independent with my smaller shop in Thistle Street, which was fine for 11 years. When Covid struck, I knew I wanted things different, but I never expected things to end up so different.” Howie describes this new era as a long-awaited “reunification of traditional and modern.”

And so, 21st Century Kilts moved back to High Street on the Royal Mile, right back where Howie started out. “It’s very much a homecoming for me,” he says. Now he walks to work every day. “I’m fitter than I’ve ever felt. Edinburgh isn’t a very polluted city. You never feel clogged up. It’s a very walkable city.”

The shop is divided into two sections: the store and the workshop. “We’re bringing the tailor and kiltmaker from the former headquarters to the shop. They’ve been based out of town for some years.” The fresh new interior design features historical Highland apparel on display, as well as a lounge area, where customers will be invited to enjoy a beverage (alcoholic or not; Howie himself does not drink). “I want it to be an exciting and dynamic space where people feel inspired by the fabrics and choices of colors. The design is modular — everything can be moved around. John and I want to be here a long, long time.”

Faithful followers of Highland dress customs won’t be surprised to learn there are two things the shop does not sell. First, white kilt socks (hose): “We don’t like them, and they’re not traditional.” Second, Jacobite shirts: “They’re certainly not an option to wear instead of a shirt and tie. It’s just not how we want to represent the company moving forward.”

In tandem with Geoffrey Tailor, Howie and John will continue to run 21st Century Kilts. In recent news, the National Museum of Scotland purchased a 21st Century Kilts black denim kilt for its archives. This year the museum will exhibit it on a mannequin showing a modern-day kilted look, complete with other items acquired from Howie, such as his socks, a scarf, a seatbelt, and a pair of sneakers.

Geoffrey and Lorna Nicholsby may have retired from Geoffrey Tailor, but they’re still plenty busy. Not only are they restoring Duntarvie Castle, along with managing a venue and building accommodations within it, but they also rent out luxury holiday lodgings near Oban.

“This was all meant to be,” Howie Nicholsby asserts.

Who wears the pants in this family? That particular power-based prospect is meaningless when everyone’s wearing a kilt.

Howie Nicholsby will be in the 2023 NYC Tartan Day Parade on April 15 representing Geoffrey Tailor and 21st Century Kilts.