Why do Utilikilts appeal to many in the Northwest?
By Charla Bear
A Seattle guy set out to liberate men from their pants – his solution?
If you’ve ever seen a Utilikilt, chances are you haven’t forgotten it. Maybe you thought it was cool to see a Scottish-esque kilt with cargo pockets. Maybe you had a more visceral reaction ...
Whatever your feelings about them, they are part of the Northwest. The idea was born here. They’re manufactured here. They even have their own store in Seattle’s Pioneer Square Neighborhood. Why, then, are they so polarizing in their own hometown?
Who wears Utilikilts?
Phil Lacefield is the kind of guy who likes to be the center of attention. That extends from his personality to his outfit, comprised of a multi-colored tie-dyed shirt, boots and what he assures you is not a skirt.
“It’s only a skirt if you’re wearing underwear,” he says.
Draped around his waist is a caramel-colored Utilikilt. It has clamps, rivets, belt loops, everything he says a man needs. That’s why he owns five different colors of them: dark brown, tan, woodland camo, limited-edition gray, and black.
Of course, that’s not enough. He wears them every day, even during the annual Polar Bear Plunge into Lake Washington on January 1st. So he started volunteering at the Utilikilt factory in exchange for store credit. Once a week, he makes a 70-mile roundtrip trek from his house in North Bend to Seattle.
Splitting with pants
Sitting at a machine that puts snaps on fabric, Phil explains why he’s so crazy about them.
Before I became a full time wearer, I’d say ‘pffff, look at that guy,” Lacefield recalls. “He’s wearing a kilt. What a dork. I’m better than that. I’m somehow not as dorkified as that guy. But I put it on and it was like a light went on. The first thing I thought, I remember, was, ‘oh God, it’s happened to me.’”
He’s accepted his fate. So have his wife, kids, instructors at Green River Community College and even his employer. He can’t say the same for his parents, who live in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“They’re not sure what to make of it,” he says. “Every now and then I’ll get a bit from my mom in conversation, ‘are you still wearing those skirts?’ ”
The idea to liberate men from their pants came to Steven Villegas 13 years ago. The founder of the Utilikilts Company in Seattle says he’s always rebelled against “the norm.”
“It took a lot of energy to put men in skirts,” he says.
“Holy Crap. Think about it. That’s not supposed to happen. That’s a joke, actually. If I was borrowing money (they’d say), ‘He’s not, like, trying to put guys in skirts for Christ sake.’ Actually, I was. So, no, I didn’t go ask anybody for money. I just started making it.”
At $150 to nearly $750 a pop, Utilikilts is a multi-million dollar business. It’s been featured in everything from national media to a local insurance company ad.
Villegas says he and his customers can handle a little gentle ribbing. Their commitment to the kilt is strong. But for everyone who’s passionate about them, there’s someone just as passionately opposed to them.
At Cure, a bar on Capitol Hill, everyone has an opinion about Utilikilts, none of them good. Co-owners Eric and Amy Haldane are clearly not fans:
“It’s just gross,” says Eric.
“There’s not a single person that looks better in a Utilikilt,” says Amy.
Customer Cameron Bowden hates them so much, he got excited when he mistakenly thought the factory was burning down.
“I called my roommate and said, ‘It’s a great day here in Seattle,’ ” he recalled. “I mean, I’m glad no one was hurt and you never want to see a local business go under. But there was a moment where I thought, ‘The universe is sort of evening itself out. It’s taking out that Utilikilt factory. It knows. It knows.’ ”
The level of disgust
It’s impossible to gauge just how many others wish the universe was free of Utilikilts. One indicator could be a comic on the popular satire blog The Oatmeal (a NSFW link, by the way) created by Matthew Inman.
He says he picked on Utilikilts for the same reason he chooses any topic, because it strikes a nerve.
“What occurred to me is that every time I see a man in a Utilikilt, I don’t picture the rolling hills of Scotland,” he says. “I picture his nether regions, every single time.”
His comic depicting that thought is one of the top hits when you search “Utilikilts” on Google. Evidently, he’s not the only one who considers it a fashion mistake, kind of like fanny packs.
“It looks silly and it’s a skirt, with pockets. You can attach a chainsaw to a bra and you’re still wearing a bra.”
All the scoffs and jeers don’t seem to faze those who’ve embraced Utilikilts. Phil Lacefield says they fit him better than jeans, from his body to his personality.
“If I’m comfortable and I’m happy, who are you to tell me I’m wrong,” he says.
Regardless of which side of the line you come down on, most people are able to agree on one thing – the culture in the Northwest is to tolerate things even if they’re not our style.