The breeze between your knees

Stephen Villegas' concept kilt celebrates its first birthday.

IT'S A CAUSE, a commitment, a crusade; it's a fashion statement, an aid to physiomental fitness, an emanation of the world-soul evolving toward perfection. It's the Utilikilt, and it's one year old this week.

Ex-street performer Stephen Villegas has never been a dreamer of small dreams, but even he, when he hung out a few of his handmade kilts for sale last April at the Fremont Sunday Market, could not have imagined what course his life would take over the next year. That very day, for one thing, he met Megan Haas, the first recruit in his quixotic campaign to put the world's men back into skirts, where they belong. The same day he discovered the mysterious effect his reconceived, reconfigured, grooved-up garments could have on the random passing American male.

A free spirit himself from birth, Villegas discovered that more buttoned-up souls than his experience epiphanies at the very idea of a little air between the knees. Testimonials from satisfied customers, and many repeat buyers, told Villegas that he and the zeitgeist were in harmony, but it wasn't until Haas put together a Utilikilt Web site that the couple realized how the idea resonated worldwide.

Orders for kilts in three shades of camouflage, crisp twill, and heavy 12-ounce duck cloth began pouring in. Fans started sending snapshots of themselves wearing their purchases, bare-kneed and grinning. A gang of Wisconsin golfers began making the round of the links in theirs; team-play-obsessed business executives called to explore the possibility of purchasing Utilikilts in bulk for distribution free or at a discount to senior employees; Hugh Hunt, entrepreneur and world traveler, sent snaps of himself in the Workman's model standing in front of the Taj Mahal and an Easter Island tiki, hoping "you folks become multibillionaires!"

The primary immediate problem facing Villegas and Haas was filling a flood of orders with a converted-garage shop in Interbay, two used industrial-strength sewing machines, no staff, and no money. The problem became acute when CNN shot a segment about the team and then sat on it right through the Christmas sales season, only to pop it on the air in January and run it hourly for three straight days.

Into the ensuing chaos stepped Villegas' older sister Danielle to take control of the business and production side, with Stephen the Evangelist out there embodying the brand. He and Haas took advantage of a fabric-buying junket to L.A. to crash the Golden Globe Awards, where Stephen's prototype formal kilt (complete with satin stripe down each side) attracted favorable comment from, among others, Russell Crowe. (Had Crowe ordered one on the spot, the world would have been spared seeing him turn up at the Academy Awards in his grandpa's dickey.)

MAINTAINING THE BRAND is a constant preoccupation with the Utilikilties. Despite their cult popularity and CNN exposure, their product has somehow remained beneath the radar of voracious multinational cool-threads conglomerates, always ready to pounce on the latest street thing and knock it off by the hundreds of thousands in their pet Southeast Asian sweatshops.

There's no way, cutting and sewing to order with American labor, that Utilikilts can compete with that, so before it happens the company has to define itself as the One and Only Original Accept No Substitute article. And the best prospect for doing that is building brand loyalty, with satisfied customers turning others on to the pleasures and advantages of a life liberated from Y-fronts. (The company thoughtfully fills one pocket of each kilt sold with business cards bearing the portrait of the founder.)

Once worn, I can testify from experience, Utilikilts sell themselves. For the first few minutes, the ventilation sensation (what old Archie in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire calls "a healthy breeze round my privates") is more disquieting than comforting. Half an hour in, you've all but forgotten you're wearing the item. The first few ventures in public may produce a little self-consciousness; the third or fourth time, you glance up and wonder what people are gawking at.

Comfort alone doesn't explain the violent loyalty customers feel for the garments. The Utilikilt staff suspects that apart from a little pleasure taken in a little unconventionality, there's a male thing going on—sort of wearable Iron John stuff. And then there's the simple fact that a big guy, even a seriously overweight guy, can look good in a kilt, particularly when it's strapped on with one of the Russian Army belts Villegas provides as an accessory.

Will the thrill of kilting fade away when kilts are everywhere? Maybe; but owners of vintage VW busses still get flashed the peace sign by passersby. Fads pass; evergreens stay—and, except for a couple-hundred-year aberration, something resembling a kilt in structure and function has been the male norm, not the exception.

No, the real threat is already upon us and visible in the picture on this page. Women are starting to wear them. Girls: They spoil everything!

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