Client Profile

By The Drum, Administrator

October 20, 2006 | 12 min read

Howie Nicholsby, marketing manager at Geoffrey (Tailor) and the man behind 21stCentury Kilts, at the Playboy Mansion.

When you talk about the Scotland brand, most conversations tend to centre around one over-riding brand identity that is recognised the world over.

Want to paint a picture of Scotland? All you need is a touch of tartan.

Howie Nicholsby’s family has acted as a guardian to this image for decades. As kiltmakers and master tailors, the family business Geoffrey (Tailor) has been weaving, sewing and fitting kilts for weddings, black tie dinners and formal functions for years.

Despite joining the family business, Howie has attempted to change all this. And in the process, he’s had to suffer being surrounded by Playboy Bunnies at Hugh Hefner’s Mansion; playing backgammon with Robbie Williams, sharing his kilt with Vin Diesel and working with world-renowned photographer Mario Testino.

However, his quest has also allowed him to travel around the world as an ambassador for both Scotland’s national dress and Scotland itself, allowing him to [thankfully] dispell the myth that Scotland is only about tartan and heather.

It’s 10:30 and Nicholsby has just arrived at work. By bike. He is in the showroom for 21st Century Kilts unpacking his lunch from a satchel. The room, which is downstairs at Geoffrey (Tailor) on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, is cluttered with large suitcases and boxes.

He is preparing for one of the business’s regular fitting trips down to London. On rails around the showroom are kilts. Kilts of all styles, colours, lengths and materials. Surprisingly, for a kilt shop, there is a distinct lack of tartan.

Nicholsby has a towel around his neck partially obscuring a t-shirt that has a print of its wearer surrounded by Playboy Bunny Girls on the chest.

However, that’s not the first thing you notice. No, that would be the kilt. A dark blue, hipster kilt, with pockets and a very sturdy look about it, accessorised by a pair of bulky black trainers and a belt that looks more than a little like a passenger seatbelt from an airplane. And ‘yes’, he answers, he did cycle to work in his kilt.

Nicholsby hasn’t worn trousers in more than six years, in fact, since he launched 21st Century Kilts – a funky offshoot brand of the more traditional Geoffrey (Tailor). It’s a case of practising what he preaches.

“The main ideology behind what we’re doing with 21st Century Kilts (TFCK) is to take the kilt back to when it really was an everyday item of clothing,” he says.

“There’s a lot of ignorance out there. Some people think that they know everything about kilts and frown upon anything other than tartan. But they’ve not been brought up in the industry, they’ve not read as many books or met as many people that know the real history as I have. They’ve not designed outfits and they don’t know the way that Highland dress has progressed. A lot of people think that unless it’s a Prince Charlie outfit, with a shirt and tie, with socks pulled up, that it’s wrong. Personally, what I think is wrong is that the kilt’s turned into a novelty garment that Scottish men pull out of their closets to get some attention at a wedding. It’s sad.”

As marketing manager of Geoffrey (Tailor), you can imagine he’s passionate about the kilt. Nicholsby made his first kilt - a silver PVC one - at the age of 18. His sister was getting married and he wanted something different to wear for the evening.

It wasn’t until 1999 that Nicholsby launched TFCK at Men’s Fashion Week in London, and despite Men’s Fashion Week fading away, Nicholsby’s decision to take part was the right one.

“It was a trial – purely a PR tool,” he says. “But for what we paid to get involved, we regained in one year in the region of £750,000 – £1m in press and TV coverage. And you couldn’t pay for some of the coverage we got. We weren’t looking to sell kilts directly, just raise awareness. And every journalist that came wanted to speak to us.”

Growing up with entrepreneurial parents, a young Howie quickly learnt how to utilise marketing and the media. “We were all about self-promotion as a family and a company,” he continues. “My dad never missed the chance to give his tuppence if he was offered the opportunity to talk to the media.

“I grew up with that and knew that the media was there to be used. It uses people, so why not use it? I knew how the media and how marketing worked from an early age.”

According to Nicholsby, 21st Century Kilts is, essentially, a marketing tool for Geoffrey Tailor.

“A major part of our marketing is to make sure that the customer is happy,” he says. “Though I won’t have a customer leave here unless they look great and feel great. When we have customers in to collect, we make them try on the whole outfit to make sure that everything is spot on – because, really, they are a walking advert. A major part of our marketing is to make sure that the customers look good. There’s nothing quite like word of mouth marketing.”

Another marketing tool is the company’s website. Despite being one of the first kilt companies online, over a decade ago, the online function has only been developed to its full potential in the last year. However, Nicholsby decided not to introduce a shopping basket function online at TFCK. “We really want to keep the hands-on element. If someone is sitting in the UK, ordering [online] a tailored-to-fit kilt, I think ‘idiot’.”

Nicholsby realises, though, that for a family business with little or no money to spend on marketing, PR is very much the way forward – especially when you have a brand and a product (and a marketing manager) as PR-friendly as TFCK is.

Nicholsby was quick off the mark to become associated with Tartan Week (nee Day) in New York, and it was a client of Nicholsby in the Big Apple that organised the Dressed to Kilt events (made even more famous by Jack McConnell’s 2004 appearance in a leather kilt – provided by Nicholsby “the kilt was fine, the shirt was dodgy” – but we’ll return to that later).

In fact, Nicholsby is meant to be leaving the next day for LA to do a Dressed to Kilt show, but he doesn’t have the staff to cover at the moment. “I have to go to London for the fittings instead,” he says.

“The LA show is pure PR – there’s no sales involved. New York is a little different as during Tartan Week we take over Central Station for six or seven days and we can do fittings. But a majority of the shows that we do are to raise awareness of the fashion and the name.”

It was Dressed to Kilt that perhaps gave TFCK its biggest, and certainly most high-profile opportunity – Vin Diesel’s appearance at the MTV Music Awards in Edinburgh.

Nicholsby was in Los Angeles doing a Dressed to Kilt show in 2003. The event included a catwalk show judged by a panel of celebrity guests – one of whom was a high-profile Hollywood stylist who was working with Vin Diesel.

“The stylist really wanted to take one of the kilts to show Vin,” recalls Nicholsby. “I suggested the real black leather one. It was my own kilt, but it had adjustments and he could try it on and see if he liked it.I drove to Malibu to meet him. It turns out that Vin’s mum had Scottish roots – she was a Sinclair – so the stylist wanted Vin to wear a Sinclair tartan kilt. However, we suggested he tried on the black leather one. He put on the whole black outfit that he was going to wear to the Awards.

“Next to him were rows and rows of Hugo Boss suits – he was meant to make about twelve costume changes on the night of the Awards and he was only meant to be in a kilt at Edinburgh Castle. But when he stood there in the kilt, he said [Nicholsby adopts a bad American accent] ‘this is baawwwm, I’m wearin’ this all fuckin’ show’.

“He also wore our kilt pin too – the lightening bolt – which is TFCK’s branding, our identity. Being in the right place at the right time has really helped our brand.”

Nicholsby is no stranger to celebrity. As well as being named as one of the Most Eligible by New York’s Gotham Magazine two years ago – “good fun, but embarrassing” – he had already secured celebrity endorsement for his brand before Vin Diesel graced the stage at the MTV Awards.

“Celebrities are great as a simple way of raising a brand’s profile, but Robbie Williams’ visit was just a stroke of luck,” he says. “I was walking down the Royal Mile towards the shop one morning, in my kilt as usual, when I saw my sister outside the shop chatting with four guys. I recognised Daniel McPherson (former Neighbours star) first. Jonathan Wilkes was there too. [Robbie was in town to watch his friend in a stage show.] My sister then introduced me to Robbie and I was starstruck, blurting out all the nonsense that you would when you meet someone like Robbie Williams. Within five minutes he was in his underwear signing autographs for the staff, trying on different stuff.

“He was in on the Monday and we had the kilts made by Wednesday. I delivered the order myself and we ended up getting on well... he still owes me a re-match at backgammon – he won a kilt from me for his bodyguard. I won a platinum signed disc from him for the shop.”

Since then a host of celebs have been pictured wearing kilts from the 21st Century collection. Although Nicholsby failed to get Hugh Hefner to try on one of his kilts when he was invited to the Playboy Mansion, fans include Ozzy and Jack Osbourne, Alan Cummings and, erm, Jack McConnell...

Despite the less than positive coverage the First Minister received following his appearance in the black leather number, he wrote a letter of thanks to Nicholsby for the kilt – a letter that hangs in the window of the shop. “Would the event [Dressed to Kilt] have received so much PR if he had not worn that kilt?,” asks Nicholsby. “It was a talking point. He bought the kilt for a charity auction. It ended up selling for £10,000 because of the amount of press it had received.

“I did say on the night that he should wear what he was comfortable with. He’s a politician not a folk singer... but he went for that shirt. Two of my least favourite things upstairs [in the main Geoffrey (Tailor) showroom] are those shirts and white kilt socks. I hate them.”

Nicholsby certainly knows how to harness the power of the media, but is all the attention he is receiving actually changing the perceptions of our national dress?

“My problem is that other companies have copied us and have started producing modern kilts. That in itself is not a problem. But when they promote it with Prince Charlie jackets or... take the two house designers, for example, Colin and Justin. They look like princes in a pantomime – white kilts, gold buckles, white jackets. It’s not my cup of tea, and I think that it ruins it. Highland dress should not be going more fancy, it should be getting back to its roots. More simple.”

It’s not just perceptions of the kilt that Nicholsby is managing to change. Recently Visitscotland flew him to Sydney to coincide with the Edinburgh Military Tattoo visiting the city.

“The Tattoo is hugely popular wherever it goes, but projects a tartan and shortbread image of Scotland. We held a number of shows with a band that were touring clubs and bars, talking to the Australian press. It was to show the Sydney audience, there are still modern things happening in Scotland.

It’s not just the international market that he will be targeting, though – there are new markets closer to home that are opening up too.

“Civil partnerships have created a whole new opportunity for us,” he says. “We don’t need to create ‘pink advertising’ as such. Gay men are connoisseurs of great quality and taste.”

Nicholsby plans to launch another label too, The Juggling Rooster – an off-shot from 21st Century. Accessories for men. He already has 1000 seatbelts on their way over from the States to modify and sell as belts.

On the subject of juggling, Nicholsby’s girlfriend interrupts the interview with a phone call. She’s about to fly to Cambridge with the couple’s four month old baby to visit friends. She is calling to check her flights.

When he hangs up, Nicholsby smiles wistfully. “Having a kid really puts your life in perspective,” he says. “He already has a wee denim and a camouflage kilt.”

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