For generations in the Scottish Highlands, men of Gaelic lineage have donned the kilt in lieu of trousers. Today, that tradition lives on at New Jersey-based outfitters American Highlander. Recently we spoke with owner Chris Beyer about how his company carries on those Celtic customs.
What are your own roots?
Irish. My mother was born in New York but moved back to Limerick, Ireland when she was a baby – very similar to Frank McCourt’s experience in Angela’s Ashes. Her family moved back to the United States when she was still a girl but we have always been very involved in Irish issues. My grandfather, Frank Lee, was a medic during the 1916 revolution and the ensuing Irish civil war. He finally left Ireland in 1930 under some duress but made frequent, periodic trips back to Ireland over the decades. I became interested in kilts and Gaelic attire when I found out that many Irishmen including Padraig Pearse started wearing kilts during the Gaelic revival in Ireland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
What is the company’s history and mandate?
American Highlander was founded in 2004 as a company that imports kilts and kilt accessories to men of Gaelic and Celtic heritage. The American Highlander mandate is to provide high-quality, authentic kilts and highland wear to an American clientele at reasonable prices. We sell pure wool kilts handmade in Scotland as well as sporrans, pins, socks, and other highland items to Bagpipe Bands, grooms for their weddings, and others. These products can be very expensive so we also offer a lower priced alternative. Our wool blend, machine sewn kilts are manufactured following the same sewing pattern as the expensive version but cost much less. They are authentic kilts priced at around $100 to $150 so they are affordable for most Americans. We have been selling these kilts and other affordable highland wear at Irish and Scottish festivals, Highland Games, Concerts and other cultural fairs and events all around the country. We also sell on line and have a shop in Toms River, NJ
What are your core products & services?
Core products: Kilts for Men and Women, Utility-Style Kilts, Sporrans, Kilt Pins, Kilt Belts and Buckles, Kilt Hose, Flashes, Ghillie Brogues, Jacobite or Ghillie Shirts, Glengarries, Balmorals, Sgian Dubhs, and other kilt related items including Kilt Beer Koozies and Kilt Purses for Women. Services: We carry kilts in all sizes and take the time to fit each of our customers individually to make sure that every item that they buy from us fits perfectly and looks great. I have personally completely dressed thousands of customers who wear our products. We also take orders for custom-made kilts and other items for our customers.
How do you differ from the competition?
Our competition sells cheap, lightweight Acrylic Kilts and fake leather accessories. We sell wool-blend kilts, hand pleated and machine sewn using the exact same pattern as Scottish made kilts that cost hundreds of dollars more. These are real kilts, not costume grade items like the ones sold by our competitors. We also contract with Scottish kilt makers to offer the real, 8-yard, pure wool, custom hand made, kilts in every available, registered tartan to our customers who are looking to get the genuine product.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the Celtic marketplace?
I don’t like the “Kiss Me I’m Irish” or “Irish Drinking Team” shirts that are so prevalent at many festivals. I have noticed that many vendors are doing what American Highlander does and offering higher quality, more unique items to customers. I don’t think you need to dress like a leprechaun to show your Irish lineage. You don’t need to wear a fake red beard or wig to prove your Scottish ancestry. There are still some vendors who offer the costume type items but I see fewer and fewer of them each year.
What can be done to overcome the current challenges in that marketplace?
Customers are the key. If they keep buying cheap and Gaelic or Celtic stereotypical items then the market won’t change. However, if the present trend continues, then the marketplace will keep migrating to more traditional and higher quality items made in Celtic nations. I recently visited Spain, Gallicia to be more specific and explored the Celtic influences still present there. In the city of Santiago De Compostela there is a kilt store that sells the Galician tartan kilts and other kilt accessories. I also attended outdoor, impromptu concerts featuring the Galician bagpipes which are brilliant. I plan on importing items from Galicia, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany, Wales etc and offering these products to Americans of Celtic heritage. I am also looking at starting manufacturing in Ireland. We are researching the Irish Leine and Brat, the precursors to the Irish kilt, and we would like to make those items in Ireland and sell them at Renaissance Faires and other cultural events.
What are your future plans for the business?
We plan to expand into events of our own. American Highlander is planning a “Kilt Fest” which will feature a kilt run, Highland Games and concerts in New Jersey later this year. American Highlander is also planning a kilted golf outing also to be held in NJ. We are also planning on offering travel services in the form of guided tours to Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland, we are looking at a kilted hike from Fort William to Inverness. In Ireland, a tour of Belfast and Derry in the north and Cork and Kerry in the Republic where we explore the history of the Irish conflict including the IRA and the “troubles” is in the works. Our tours would be different in the fact that the emphasis would be on education and history and we would visit historical sites such as Culloden, Bealnablath, the Bogside etc. Also, our tours would require that travelers wear kilts while traveling.