Ask anyone with a passion for the past and they will undoubtedly tell you that reigniting interest in traditional culture is no easy feat.
These days, traditions can quickly fade into the back of our minds, easily exchanged for more contemporary interests, and lost amidst endless chatter and distractions. The speed of life has become dizzying, especially in an age when the world is, literally, at our fingertips, awash in social and streaming media. In his bestselling book Future Shock, American author Alvin Toffler noted that, in modern society, by the time we have adapted to a single change, another hundred have already taken place.
However, one need not exist independently of the other. Classic and contemporary customs can co-exist, and some might even argue that current trends can breathe new life into older conventions.
For Geoffrey Scott Carroll, founder and chairman of New York City’s annual Dressed to Kilt fashion extravaganza, the past permeates the present.
“We do really need to celebrate our roots,” shares Carroll by phone from his home overlooking the Long Island Sound. “And I believe it is vital that we not only pass that heritage along, but also explain to future generations why it is so important.
“That said, I have gone to many Scottish events in here in the States – and I am not being critical here – but a few things came across as just drop dead boring, and with little, if any relevance with what is going on in today’s world. With a lot of the Scottish celebrations, we tend to go backwards. You know, the ‘twee this’ and the ‘twee that.’”
Originally from Scotland, Carroll moved to NYC from Belgium in the early 2000s. He was quick to note that cultural staleness at a Manhattan charity dinner.
“It was one of the older Scottish charities in the area, and they did great things, but it was just a typical chicken, black-tie dinner. I didn’t see anyone under the age of 50 that night. It had no significance to the modern world, and that simply made no sense to me.”
After some thought – and a few chuckles among a few good friends – he came up with the idea of hosting a stylish soiree showcasing Scottish men in kilts.
“When everyone stopped laughing, they said, ‘Geoffrey nobody is going to pay you a bloody dime for this,’” he recalls with a giggle. “I thought they were wrong; I am a businessman first, and I follow my instincts. My instincts told me that my idea was a winner.”
“I had no background in fashion whatsoever, but I knew Scotland, I knew my heritage, and – most pertinently – I had a closet full of kilts.”
Established in 2003 by Carroll and the late Sir Sean Connery, Dressed to Kilt has become one of NYC’s premier fashion shows and goodwill events. Aptly described as a night of “charity, fashion and fun,” the gathering has generated significant interest since its inception, attracting the attention of many notable celebrities, including Gerard Butler, Andie McDowell, Arun Gandhi, Keifer Sutherland, Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Mike Meyers, and many more.
Carroll remembers the first festivities with fondness.
“It was held at the Council of Foreign Affairs on Park Avenue. I arrived at the venue and there was a line-up around the block – it was completely sold out, and it was fabulous. We had no idea what we were doing, and we made a few mistakes, but people loved it. We had the appropriate music with the appropriate model or designer, and the audience was shouting and cheering. It was just off-the-charts fun, and nothing like a normal fashion show.”
As the event evolved over time (it was briefly rebranded as From Scotland With Love), so did the featured designs and wares. The media celebrated that growth, with the
New York Examiner calling it one of “New York’s hottest fashion shows” and Scottish newspaper the Scotsman lauding it for breaking Celtic stereotypes and showcasing “edgy” new fashions.
“Thankfully, we now know a great deal more about fashion,” laughs Carroll. “Today we include fashionistas who design frocks and gowns, we invite North American designers with Scottish backgrounds, and we have more celebrities involved. As we moved into the realm of high-profile people, we started to get a ton of international press coverage. It blew us away.”
Although much has changed, Carroll says that the event’s heart will forever remain the same.
“The objectives haven’t changed in the last 20 years: to promote a more contemporary vision of Scotland, to provide real commercial opportunities, to showcase and promote Scottish talent of all ages, to promote Scottish fashion, textiles and style industries, to raise funds for worthwhile charities on both side of the Atlantic and – perhaps most importantly – to leave the impression with all attendees that Scotland can be a benchmark for being the very best in the world.”
Over the years, Carroll and his team have worked hard to highlight diversity on its runway, including models and designers from a variety of different backgrounds.
“Every year we wonder how we can expand on it; how can we make it better or more interesting? How can this year be better than the last and have it interest more people?”
By way of example, Carroll points to the 2020 DTK show, the idea for which came about after a discussion with a close cohort.
“One of our Navy Seal friends told me that he grew up in Scotland but spent his summers in Wisconsin as his father was a chief of the Oneida tribe. He noted that the similarities between Scottish clans and Native American tribes are uncanny: the size and structure are basically the same, the number of tribes and clans are basically the same, and their histories are also alike. So, he suggested that we do a show that highlighted both cultures and I thought, why not?”
Carroll and his crew dove in head-first, studying the history and connecting the dots. He was then introduced to Tisha Thompson, an entrepreneur and member of the Mohawk tribe with strong connections to several Indigenous designers.
“She said it was the coolest thing that she had ever heard and told me to count her in. She agreed to invite several Northern tribe designers – Mohawk and Iroquois, among others – and we would include Indigenous models on the runway. And so, about a third of that show involved these designers and models, and our audience just loved it.”
Those models included Brenda Schad – the first-ever Native American international supermodel – actress and model Jessica Matten, Ashley Callingbull – the first Indigenous woman to become Miss Universe – and actress Grace Dove, known best for her role as Hugh Glass’ wife in the award-winning 2015 film The Revenant.
Matten, who is Red River Cree Metis, was working on the show Frontier, alongside actor Jason Momoa, when she got the call to participate in Dressed to Kilt.
“They contacted my agent and asked if I was interested,” she explains. “It has been a beautiful partnership since then, and I made some friends for life. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I haven’t been able to go back, but I am really hoping to be a part of it again this year.”
Matten’s involvement with Dressed to Kilt took on an educational role as well.
“Geoffrey didn’t really know that there were a lot of Native-Scottish mixes, so I was able to open that door for him a bit. If you know Metis culture here in Canada, we are all Scottish and Native mixes or French and Native mixes. That is what Metis is; Metis means ‘mixed.’ I am a direct descendant of Cuthbert Grant, who was the first Metis leader of Canada, and his nephew was Louis Riel. They were both known as ‘half breeds,’ which is obviously a derogatory term. With that, there was a lot of mixing within the Cree communities. I have a lot of First Nations’ blood in me as well. Half of my family is from Peguis First Nation.”
Matten says she is incredibly proud to have worked alongside Carroll and the team at Dressed to Kilt, calling the work they do “beautiful.”
“I believe that we make these connections in your life for a reason, and I always try to honour those connections. Geoffrey is the nicest person ever. We bonded right away. It was reminiscent of some past-life thing. He is so good-hearted, and his intentions are certainly in the right place.
“Showcasing Indigenous designers at Dressed to Kilt came in a little bit before it became trendy to have alliances with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Colour) movements and the call for greater diversity. Those doors still need to be kicked open a little more, but Geoffrey and his partners have spearheaded some strong momentum in that direction.”
Carroll agrees that inclusion took DTK to the next level.
“It added a new dimension to our show. It was an incredibly well-received addition, and we will be doing it again this year.”
As expected, DTK 2021 will look a little different. Aside from the current challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is also a personal motive – the passing, last October, of Carroll’s friend, business partner – and show co-founder – Sir Sean Connery.
“It still feels weird calling him the ‘late’ Sir Sean Connery,” sighs Carroll. “We can’t think of anything more profound than honoring Sean and his family this year. It will be a fitting tribute.”
To that end, and in commemoration of the actor’s life and accomplishments, the Connery family – along with a Dressed to Kilt representative and the Scottish Tartan Authority – has designed and commissioned a Connery family tartan.
“The first 25 meters of the cloth has been finished in Scotland and is now being sent to the designers to make into clothes for the runway,” notes Carroll. “It is a combination of the colours of the places that the family and Sean loved the most: the Bahamas, Scotland, and France. It is bright, bold, summery, and very stylish. Sean’s son will be wearing a kilt in the tartan, and his beautiful granddaughter Saskia will wear something made from the same pattern.”
Some of the show’s cast are scheduled to share their experiences with the Scottish thespian to honour his memory.
“Before they take to the catwalk, a few folks will speak about how and when they met Sean and what that was like,” Carroll says. “These could be funny or serious stories, or whatever. We have about a half a dozen people who are going to share. We want everyone to know what a wonderful family man he was and how much he loved his country.”
Honouring Connery and his family, and returning the Indigenous-Scottish showcase, have struck a chord with the public.
“I am blown away by how many tickets have been sold,” shares Carroll. “People want to get out, go to parties, dress up and dance. They want to do exciting things and meet new people. Think of all the people you have not met in the last year. None of us have met people – we have all been stuck at home watching TV.”
Not even COVID-19 will stop this year’s festivities.
“If you show your vaccination certificate at the door, you will be fine and can come on in. If not, we have a team ready on-site immediately give you a quick test, and by the time you get form the front gate to the castle, you will have the results. Everyone will be tested, and we have 100-150 Scottish tartan masks that came to us from Nova Scotia at the ready if need be.”
In addition, the decision to livestream the soiree will help it to reach a global audience.
“Instead of 400 people, we could get up to 40, 000. It is a totally new business model for us, and we hope to do better for our designers and for our charities. Everyone involved in the show – be it the designers, celebrities, etc. – all have their own social networks that they can promote the show to.
“Who knows what will happen. This is a huge new variable, but we believe it is a really positive opportunity for us.”
For those attending in-person, this year’s show will be held in the Mill Neck Manor House, a Tudor-styled estate built in the 1920s.
“It is over-the-top stunning in the summertime,” Carroll says. “We have never done a show in the summer. We figure that if this goes well, then we will just keep it during the that time of the year. Half the show will be done indoors – we no longer use an actual runway, we put chairs on either side of the catwalk – inside of the main hall of the castle. And then we will venture out onto a magnificent patio.”
Several big names are already confirmed to appear, including Scottish rugby player Thom Evans and his girlfriend singer Nicole Scherzinger, author and former Navy Seal Will Chesney, and 9/11 survivor Andrew Cullen, among others.
Dressed to Kilt also plans to honour the those who have been working at the forefront during COVID-19.
“It is called Real Heroes,” explains Carroll. “These are the doctors, the nurses, and all the emergency workers who worked during the worst of the pandemic at NYC hospitals. We will have four or five people come out and the audience will stand up and thank them and cheer for them.”
Carroll’s biggest hope, however, is to move and inspire future generation.
“The show has emotional moments and will bring tears to your eyes, and it will also have moments where you can’t stop laughing. It is not a normal fashion show. It is much more fun. I like to say we put a modern glove over a traditional hand. If you don’t have that ‘modern glove’ then you lose people. We reserve a third of our tickets for millennials and those tickets sell out faster than anything else, and they rock to the beat of the music. They have electricity and the add emotion to the show. It is essential to create something special that is multi-generational – to both reignite an interest in our older traditions, and to create new ones.”
Virtual tickets are available here; www.dressedtokilt.com