Kevin Ekerson, 48, used to be a jeans and khakis guy. Then, in 2006, he bought his first utility kilt made out of durable cotton, and featuring belt loops and pockets. He now owns four such kilts and wears them five to seven days a week, even in the winter. The appeal “is the combination of comfort and rugged construction,” says Ekerson, who makes custom fitted orthotics in Jacksonville, Ore. “And my wife loves them.”
When Utilikilts founder, Steven Villegas, made his first kilt in 1999, he wasn’t trying to make a statement or launch a business. He simply wanted to escape the heat in Spain, where he was living at the time working various construction jobs and fixing motorcycles. “I wanted a kilt, but most are made out of wool,” he says.
He chopped up a pair of military pants, kept the pockets and belt loops, and then used the fabric from the legs to make pleats. Soon he was fielding requests from friends, acquaintances and strangers wanting utility kilts of their own. Though he has no formal training in design, Villegas opened a small studio in Seattle in 2000 and started sewing. “A sewing machine is just a tool, and I’m good with tools,” says Villegas, who started selling at the Fremont Sunday Market in Seattle and then making the rounds at music festivals, beer fests and Scottish gatherings.
Still in business twelve years later, Utilikilts has proven to be more than just a fad. To date, the company has sold more than 100,000 kilts, which are available in its retail stores in Seattle and San Francisco, as well as online and at select events.
Growth has plateaued in recent years, with sales holding constant since about 2006. It’s not for lack of demand, says Villegas, but a conscious decision to keep a steady pace and continue making the kilts by hand in Seattle. The company now has a dozen employees, six of whom sew full time. Still, assuming the right growth opportunity comes along, Villegas believes the company has the potential to be a household name. “I liken our product to Levis back in the day when they introduced the blue work trouser,” he says.
While the product seems particularly popular with men who work in warm places, want to be mobile and carry lots of stuff – photographers, artists, outdoor guides and construction workers –Villegas says customers come from all professions and all over the country. “It’s a mindset,” he says. “It’s not a demographic.” Women, he adds, are probably Utilikilts’ biggest proponents. They represent roughly half of all sales – buying not for themselves but for their men. Utilikilts doesn’t make women’s kilts, and Villegas says it never will. “These are men’s clothes,” he adds.
Buyers can choose from half a dozen models, which come in several colors and range from $150 for the economical “New Standard” to $330 for the “Survival,” which Villegas likens to a photographer’s vest made into a kilt, and with enough pockets to hold 20 bottles of beer. “I’m pretty proud of that,” he adds.
Diehards like Ekerson wear their kilts all year, but business always picks up in the summer. “You’re essentially walking around in a towel with pockets,” says Villegas, adding that the recent heat wave has been great for sales, both online and off. “If we go to an event and it’s unbearably hot, people come straight up to us and can’t wait to change.”
Beyond the occasional festival, Utilikilts hasn’t done much in the way of marketing. It doesn’t really need to since its customers are walking endorsements. “I get comments almost every day,” says Ekerson. Most of them are positive, though there’s always the occasional heckler. His advice to anyone who’s genuinely interested in a kilt: “Make sure it’s long enough,” he says “Otherwise you look like a man in a woman’s skirt.”