By Karen Toussaint
Photos by Karen Toussaint and H. James Riddell
Kilts. They swing from the hips, pleats dropping to just above or below the knee. In Seattle, they are likely to be Utilikilts, a wash-and-wear kilt made from cotton duck. The brainchild of Mexican-Polish Steven “Krash” Villagas, Utilikilts sport various pockets and loops to hold tools like screwdrivers and hammers, even small saws.
As Thomas Alva Edison said, invention is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. With Villegas, it was probably more like 98 percent perspiration. While working on his motorcycle on a very hot day, he cut up the pair of army fatigues he was wearing in order to get some ventilation. The result: the prototype of the Utilikilt. It worked so well that he figured other men might like the idea.
In 2000, Villegas, joined by his girlfriend Megan Haas and later by his sister Danielle, began making Utilikilts in basic colors and selling them at Seattle’s popular Fremont Street Market. Since then, more styles and colors have been added to their line of kilts, and they have sold more than 20,000. In fact, they are the largest kilt manufacturer in the world. Outside the United States, outlets range from the Netherlands to Japan.
At the flagship store on Pioneer Square in Seattle, it’s salesgirl Persephone Salmon’s job to encourage customers to try one on. This particular day, the customer was my husband, Jim, a retired Presbyterian minister from Maryland. We were visiting our daughter and grandchildren.
“Come into our dressing room,” crooned Ms. Salmon, leading him to a set of shelves in the back of the store. As he faced the wall, wondering where the dressing room was, the clerk held an open kilt behind him like a curtain, and then commanded, “Drop your pants!”
As the pants hit the floor, she leaned into his back, closing the kilt around his hips. After the snaps were closed, Jim went to a mirror and asked me, my daughter Becky and the teenaged grandchildren, Allison and Davis, what we thought. We thought he looked darned good.
Then the store manager, Nicky Sweets, asked Jim to straddle a fan lying flat on the floor. As the kilt puffed in the breeze, Jim admitted, “Talk about a cool feeling!”
“We sell freedom,” said Sweets with a smug smile.
Jim’s kilt, neatly pleated in olive green, flew back to Maryland with us. It was the center of attention when he played the bagpipes at his mother’s 95th birthday party in New Jersey a week later.
Utilikilts are not primarily for bagpipers, however. While traditional kilts represent the tartan of a particular clan, Utilikilts make a fashion statement all their own. They are utility kilts, meant for everyday wear by confident men. While we were still in the shop, a darkly handsome bearded man came in wearing a black Utilikilt and a black leather vest that showed some of his manly chest.
“I wanted something cheap and basic that I could get blood all over,” he told me cryptically.
Sweets explained that the man, Mok Moser, was playing the lead in “The Tragedie of Macbeth” for Sound and Fury Productions.
At the Northwest Folklife Festival going on in town, I spotted Tim Knoblauch, wearing a sporran (Gaelic for ‘purse’) hanging down the front panel of his Utilikilt. He explained that he was a contra dancer getting ready to perform with his group. Contra dancers face each other in two long lines and respond to s caller’s commands.
“It gets warm, and this keeps you cool,” he said.
His companion Mariette said, “I think they are very cute. I think a lot of women like a guy in a kilt.”
The Utilikilt logo looks like a celtic design with a shamrock in the middle. Three Fs written in flowing script intertwine with each other to symbolize the company slogan—Form Follows Function. The shamrock stands for Villegas’ birthday. He was born on St. Patrick’s Day.
Utilikilts unsnap easily after a hard day’s work—or play.
“A kilt is hard to get on,” said Persephone Salmon, “but it’s fun to take off.”
According to Nick Sweets, the first customer was a local bouncer known as the 14th strongest man in the world.
“Dudes don’t mess with dudes who have got the rocks to wear a kilt in public,” he said solemnly.
Visit www.utilikilts.com to see some of these dudes in Utilikilts. The company does not pay professional models. The men on the web site are just satisfied customers—and good-looking to boot.
1. Wearing his new Utilikilt, Jim Riddell played the pipes at his mother’s 95th birthday. (photo by Karen Toussaint)
2. The flagship store of Utilikilts is in Pioneer Square in Seattle. (photo by H. James Riddell)
3. Mok Moser models the Utilikilt he will wear when he performs the title role in “The Tragedie of Macbeth for Sound and Fury Productions. (photo by Karen Toussaint)
4. To discover how cool a Utilikilt can be, this customer straddles a fan which has been set on the floor. It’s the ultimate convincer. (photo by Karen Toussaint)