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Scotland’s Fashion Traditions Reborn

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Photo: Julian Broad

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Please don’t call it a fascinator!” instructs the avant-garde Scottish milliner William Chambers, proudly showing me a hat that he constructed from raffia and pink drinking straws. As I stare wide-eyed at the rows of exquisitely batty caps in his second-floor atelier on Glasgow’s buzzing Bath Street, I am convinced that I am in exactly the right place at the right time. Now more than ever, the country’s sartorial influence is infiltrating the bastions of high fashion, from the pervasiveness of tartans on the runways (an affection perhaps reawakened by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent punk exhibition) to the quietly freewheeling spirit that makes a fuchsia drinking-straw cap seem as much a matter for national pride as a traditional tam-o’-shanter.

I am not the only one who has noticed. Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld—fashion’s literal éminence grise—staged his pre-Fall Métiers d’Art show west of Edinburgh at Linlithgow Palace, dressing the models in all manner of gloriously reinvented tweedy plaids and plaidy tweeds. And what could be better, as autumn descends, than conjuring the clans of the mist-shrouded moors? The appeal of these Highland tropes—the cult of the kilt, the deep allure of a Fair Isle pattern—may also have something to do with a burgeoning longing for the artisanal, for historical roots rethought for a new generation—a response, perhaps, to the tidal wave of fast, throwaway trends. But it’s not only the charm of the old ways reimagined that seduces: Scotland has lately given birth to a host of young fashion stars—Christopher Kane, the wunderkind who designed for Versace and has his own label; Jonathan Saunders, who turns women into rock-star goddesses; and Louise Gray, who shows her joyous prints on the London catwalks. And Edinburgh and Glasgow, about an hour from each other by car, are the movement’s unofficial training grounds.

After sampling the wonders at Chambers’s studio—I am especially taken with a leather-orchid headpiece, for its flapper/Emperor Nero effect—I convince my friend S., a proud Glaswegian (identified only by his initial, so as to better quote the off-the-cuff aperçus he shares), to drive me to a picturesque area known as the Lanes, in the West End, so that I can visit a vintage store called Starry Starry Night. I procure a pristine fox-fur cape-collar for a mere 55 pounds, apparently donned by some 1940’s debutante exactly once. “You can’t wear that thing in Scotland,” S. says, and though it is chilly out, especially at night, he is emphatic that anti-fur sentiments have won over the population.

Around the corner is Ruthven Lane, a narrow, antique alley filled with such wide-ranging wares they could have been culled from the sets of both Braveheart and Trainspotting. The spectacular Arts and Crafts furniture at Studio is but a few doors down from W2, Ruthven’s jewel in the crown, housed in a reconstituted cowshed and bursting with off-price Comme des Garçons for men.

S. and I join Mary McGowne, who runs the annual Scottish Style Awards, for dinner in the city center at Rogano, a beloved seafood haunt opened in 1935 whose interior is inspired by an Art Deco cruise-ship design. They take advantage of my jet-lagged condition to convince me to order haggis, which I adore. (Alas, my pleasure is considerably dampened when I find out later that haggis is composed of sheep’s lungs, liver, and heart.) McGowne, who formerly worked as chief buyer at Cruise, a store in a Glasgow retail district called the Merchant City (a name straight out of The Wizard of Oz), explains the local style customs: there’s lots of new money here, a growing affection for ersatz tans, and a penchant for the brash femininity of the Gucci/Versace variety. But I protest, as I also see lots of red-haired girls in vintage frocks and nipped-in-waisted jackets with a Westwoodian air. And although the scene offers its quotient of high-end international labels, it’s the deconstruction of classic tropes that fascinates me—a young tough in a leather jacket carrying a vintage schoolboy satchel, perhaps; or a bejeweled cashmere cardigan tossed carelessly atop a plaid ball gown.

When I tell my dining companions that I will be heading to Edinburgh in a few days, S. snorts almost inaudibly and then says, “Edinburgh? It’s the kind of snobby, faux-polite place that when you visit someone they say, ‘So you’ve had your tea?’ ” There is a friendly rivalry between the two towns. Indeed, a Glaswegian tells me proudly “Glasgow is G for Grit; Edinburgh is E for Elegant,” while another will struggle with similes—“It’s like Washington is Edinburgh and Glasgow is New York!” In truth, none of these statements is true—each city has a distinctly individual personality—and I found the populace in both places unerringly, almost unnervingly, gracious.

The next morning I have breakfast in the Room de Luxe of the Willow Tea Rooms, a Charles Rennie Mackintosh–designed salon. The 1904 tearoom has its original interior, including a pair of elaborate doors enshrined under glass and rumored to be insured for more than a million dollars. Mackintosh championed Art Nouveau throughout the U.K., and by the look of the floppy ascot he wears in his portrait in the tearoom’s foyer, he would be right at home shopping the Lanes today.

I take the subway, fondly dubbed the Clockwork Orange for its cadmium hue, back to the West End to a locally famous home-design store called Timorous Beasties. Named for the first line of the Robert Burns poem, it was founded by Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons and specializes in louche products that are, despite their transgressive subject matter, perversely refined and delicately rendered. Where else can you find linen cushions decorated with Hitchcockesque crows, or toile de Jouy upholstery fabric depicting demonstrators and cops clashing in an Occupy Wall Street scenario? The wares seem to sum up the Glaswegian temperament perfectly—they may be wittily irreverent and vaguely naughty, but they are uncompromising in their intellect and craft.

We set off early for E-for-Elegant Edinburgh, as I want to stop at the 15th-century Linlithgow Palace, where Lagerfeld had his show. The residents are still marveling at the whole crazy event—how he took over their little town 19 miles west of Edinburgh, and even built a wooden awning inside the ruins. We are remarkably free to roam the crumbling castle unchaperoned—no tours or docents, just perilous stone staircases, unexpected glimpses of heaven from the roofless heights, and the ability to imagine what this was like when Mary, Queen of Scots walked the halls. (Or last winter, when Scotland resident/top model Stella Tennant strode the catwalk.)

Not 20 minutes later we are driving past stately Georgian crescents in the heart of Edinburgh. Joseph Bonnar’s antique-jewelry store is on narrow, cobblestoned, 18th-century Thistle Street, more suited to carriages than to SUV’s and so atmospheric it looks like a transplant from a Hollywood back lot. Bonnar, who has been in the business for more than 40 years, shows off, amid breathtaking Deco diamond brooches and demantoid (green garnet) rings, a case full of 19th-century Scottish silver-and-agate jewelry. The shop is a literal jewel box, and one could spend hours browsing the merchandise, but I have miles (or kilometers) to go before I sleep. So we head to the Grassmarket, on the other side of Edinburgh Castle, which looks over the town like a friendly craggy monster. (Even S. will admit there is something wondrous about a city with a castle stuck in the middle of it.)

Currently a small neighborhood of close-knit retailers, the medieval Grassmarket has a venerable history—for centuries it was a cattle market and also the site of public executions. Even in 1977, when Bill Baber opened his knitwear shop here (sweaters in gorgeous hues, made in the back of the shop from all-natural fibers) the environs were kind of dicey. Now the street is, like Scottish style itself, a mixture of raw and refined. W. Armstrong & Son, the town’s premier vintage shop, specializes in—no surprise—a breathtaking collection of kilts, some so heavy they risk putting your luggage into overage charges; next door, Hawick Cashmere of Scotland is as sedate and spotless as Armstrong’s is fearless and dusty. Nearby, Totty Rocks offers short pinstriped waistcoats and scarlet equestrian jackets. And Walker Slater (which really is E for Elegant) reinterprets balmacaan overcoats and shirt jackets in Harris Tweed, off the rack or made to measure, and not a scrap is wasted—there is even a tweedy lipstick pouch made from tiny remnants.

Edinburgh is eminently walkable, so I set out on foot the next day. At Corniche, the national enthusiasm for Vivienne Westwood—she has her own shop in Glasgow—is at its height. I am besotted as soon as I glimpse the window; who wouldn’t want a pale pink velvet ballet skirt with a vast crinoline underneath? (Okay, maybe I am the only one desperate for this—the rest of you can settle for the jaunty Westwood handbags.)

But puffy-skirt fantasies are replaced, at least temporarily, when I chat with Howie Nicholsby, the owner of 21st Century Kilts. Nicholsby is the scion of a kilt-making family, and he is famous for reinterpreting this staid item in camouflage, purple denim, faux python, and other unlikely fabrics. The day I visit, Nicholsby has just arrived in his bicycle kilt to help a hot hunk get fitted for his wedding kilt, and both client and owner are enjoying a mid-afternoon tipple of Scotch. Amid the ensuing hilarity, Nicholsby tells me that this is chiefly a bespoke business—while anyone is free to look around, serious customers need to book a two-hour appointment.

If Nicholsby offers the most rarefied examples of the form (the fabrics may be offbeat, but the tailoring is dead serious), it’s a different story over on Broughton Street, where Joey D. has also taken a second look at kilts. At his namesake steampunk-influenced shop, the aesthetic is deliberately rough-edged, and the deconstructed goods are made of everything from rubber to well-worn, shredded vintage tartans. They are not the only items to have received this treatment—there are handbags that combine camouflage netting and ammo belts, and leopard-print wellies customized with tweed tops.

The spirit of Joey D. is the perfect example of what is so modern and intriguing—and also, so much fun—about Scottish style today. Rubber boots, gun bags, hoary old kilts, no longer confined to their assigned roles, have shaken off the circumstances of their humble births, and are ready to take on the wide world.

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