By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007
Do not think of Brad Hutchins's new store, the Kilted Nation, as a novelty shop, but rather as a vision of America without pants.
One nation, under kilts, where virile, skirt-wearing fellows can walk the streets in confidence and comfort, liberated from the stuffy constraints of their bifurcated garments.
Hutchins opened the store this month in a narrow, second-story shop by the railroad tracks in Manassas -- a place not exactly known as an incubator of alternative fashion. No matter, he says. Any man bold enough to snap on one of his man-skirts will know the benefits immediately.
"We sell freedom," explained Hutchins, 36, a former bodybuilder who moonlights as an information technology consultant and pro wrestler known to body-slam opponents as Snatch Haggis (a "kilt-wearin', limb-tearin' machine").
The first contemporary-kilt boutique in the Washington region, Hutchins's store is stocked with Sport Kilts for the athletic, AmeriKilts for the budget-minded and versatile Utilikilts for the most discerning clients -- all designed on the premise that man is a prisoner in his own underwear.
Unlike the traditional wool-plaid versions sold at local Scottish and Irish stores, most of Hutchins's kilts are hewn from the same heavy-grade cotton stock as Carhartt and Dickies work pants, closer to ordinary cargo shorts than bagpiper's garb. The fabric and a special pleating system are a bulwark against acts of unintentional indecent exposure -- an unsightly Marilyn Monroe moment, for instance.
But while the leisure-minded American male is the target demographic here, this is no garment for the weak-kneed.
"You have to be secure about yourself to walk out that door wearing one," Hutchins said at the store last week, dressed for combat in a camouflage Utilikilt. With his shaved head, tattoos and hefty biceps, Hutchins is a walking advertisement of kilt-wearing masculinity, ready with a quick comeback for the inevitable jokes yet capable of ripping someone's arms off if the teasing goes too far. He hasn't worn pants in months.
"Nobody owns just one," said Kathryn Hutchins, Brad's wife and the store's co-owner, a kilt-wearer herself. Repeat customers will be the store's mainstay, she said. And there's an instant kinship among the faithful of this all-American hybrid. "It's like owning a Harley."
The kilt-curious should not expect a discount for the absence of pant legs: an AmeriKilt sells for $100, a "Survival" Utilikilt costs $256 and the company's Tuxedo-kilt (Brad wore a prototype at the wedding) is a wallet-busting $500.
So are Washington area men macho enough to give up their Dockers?
Hutchins see several encouraging signs. Business has been brisk since his Aug. 1 grand opening, with more than $5,000 in sales in the first two weeks. One customer drove from Norfolk for a Utilikilt. A couple of teenagers from a nearby high school bought their first kilts during opening week, raising his hopes for a fad.
"I think we're at the start of an uptick in a fashion trend," he said.
Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" loops on a new flat-panel monitor above the cash register, and Hutchins has rounded out his offerings with Polynesian sarongs and Russian military belts (the must-have kilt accessory). But he has plans to go bigger. Footwear. More jewelry. An end to his computer job.
"Do these come with underwear?" asked one curious shopper who wandered into the store last week.
No, Hutchins informed her. "The only thing I'm wearing under this kilt are my sandals," he added.
Most of the store's stock is supplied by Seattle-based Utilikilt, a company with 30 employees, $2 million a year in sales and some rather clever, if somewhat louche, marketing slogans. The company's Web site cultivates an urban-tribalist chic, featuring several YouTube-style "mock-u-mercials" ranging from kilt-clad welders to a faux President Bush discussing the Iraq war in what company owner and founder Steven Villegas proudly refers to as "a man-skirt."
"Most clothing manufacturers attach themselves to insecurities. Look at Calvin Klein jeans or mall-worthy clothes," Villegas said. "We sell to people who are really secure with themselves. People who put comfort above fashion."
Villegas, 40, a former mechanic, made the inaugural Utilikilt out of an old pair of shorts in 2000. Last year, he sold 14,000 of the things. Although it is difficult to determine the size of the U.S. kilt market, Villegas said his company is now the world's largest.
"Our customers are pioneering this mode of dress, and there's nothing anybody's stigma can attach about a man and a skirt."
Indeed, many of Hutchins's customers are not exactly cross-dressing types.
"This time of year, it's all about the breeze," said Kevin Edwards, 37, a Fairfax County firefighter with a dozen Utilikilts in his closet. "But I wear them all year round," he added, ticking off several kilt-suitable fatherly duties. "I've shoveled snow, mowed, gone to get our family Christmas tree."
His wife bought him his first Utilikilt four years ago, but it took him six months to get up the courage to wear it outside. He finally decided to debut it at a local beer festival. "A lot of guys were busting on me," he recalled.
But others wanted their picture taken with him, asking where they could get their own kilts. "Eventually, it comes down to a willingness to be out of the norm," he said.
Hutchins knows this psychological barrier is bad for the growth of the Kilted Nation. He'll even walk customers outside in solidarity if they're a little shaky in their new attire.
"You get odd looks," said Tim Fowler, 46, another Fairfax firefighter and store loyalist. Fowler has a contracting business on the side, so he's partial to Utilikilt's durable "Workman" model. "I've worn it on a couple jobs. It's quite handy," he said. "It has a place for most of the stuff you need to carry on a tool belt."
Fortunately for the shop, the kilts have something of a cult following among the enlisted, a key market demographic in Hutchins's back yard. During the store's opening weekend, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dean DeLeon, 36, drove from his home in Alexandria to pick out his sixth kilt.
"I've been wearing them for about five years now, and it's kind of a mixed bag when you wear the kilt," he said. "Either you get no attention or there's some fuss about it."
Years ago, he'd steel himself a little before he walked out the door, bracing for mockery. No more, he said. "Once you get used to it, it's like any other thing in your closet."