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Gordon kindly gave this interview in April 2020 - during a global pandemic and at the height of the UK's nationwide lockdown.
The timing for this conversation, in many ways, couldn't be better - the world had gone quiet, were are apart in order to come together, it was a chance to reflect on the hard work and achievements that will secure a future once this difficult time seeing off a global pandemic has passed.
On a day-to-day basis Gordon is the managing director of Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers. The Kiltmakers Chronicle took this moment of quiet in the world to celebrate his work in the highlandwear and Scottish textiles industry, from outsider to front-runner.
In the heart of Midlothian...At 189 Canongate, to be exact, is the flagship store of Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers. Nestled into the shop floor of a seventeenth-century tenement on Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile, it has been trading handmade kilts and highlandwear since April 2009.The man with his name above the door had a simple dream: to promote a better standard of kiltmaking. He'd worked in the industry before and wanted to do things differently - by focusing a little less on turnover and a lot more on authentic Scottish craftsmanship.He is an Edinburgh man with a Highlander's heart. Like Sir Walter, Gordon is committed to the preservation and celebration of his national heritage through his favourite medium. He is a progressive traditionalist. Or a traditionalist progressive. They'd build him a monument one day, but it would only embarrass him.
- words by Ashley Mauritzen
So, here's Gordon's story of true hard graft, facing ups and downs head on and having a brave leap of faith into questioning and changing for the better an iconic industry steeped in tradition and history:
- How did this all begin - How did you find yourself in the highland wear industry in the first place? What’s your favourite part of it?
Gordon - My career in Highlandwear started in Easter Road Edinburgh as a Saturday Boy working in a busy kilt/formalwear hire department. I have always had an interest in Scottish History and intrigued by the way we are viewed by the rest of the world (and ourselves Scots). A full time position then came up and as I was enjoying meeting people and the hustle and bustle and challenges of a hire department. Not all of it was fun having to polish up to 100 pairs of shoes weekly during the busy months. A hire department teaches you many things: attention to detail (nobody likes it when some part of the outfit is not right). Outfits are hired for a special event and we always have to remember this. From there I went on to Manage Dormie Menswear a nationwide group offering Kilt/formalwear hire on a grand scale, after a year was made Area Manager and after a year and a half made General manager of all 56 stores. Sadly they were bought over by Moss Bros on Christmas Eve and I was made redundant.
My career up to this point gave me a good grounding in how a small family company operated to that of a large nationwide group. The highlight of both these jobs was increasing turnover dramatically and this was achieved by setting high standards, great staff knowledge of the industry and outstanding customer service.
Emma - I can certainly say, having seen it myself, that Gordon has an unparalleled way with people - every customer is so important and made to feel so, their ideas and needs are carefully listened to and met to the highest standard! It isn't just buying an outfit, it is, for most, a once in a life time experience.
- What was the inspiration and the catalyst behind taking the plunge and creating a business you were so passionate about you literally put your name on it?
Gordon - After managing one of the largest kilt companies in Edinburgh and seeing the way this business was being run and attention was, in my mind, wrongly focused in achieving greater margin with little/no thought to where goods were made or the quality of product. I didn't feel comfortable working this way, so after much soul searching I felt going on my own was the right thing to do. It was the biggest decision of my life, we had a young family and little money but my belief was in my ability to run a successful business with all my skills accumulated up to this point, and support from Louise my wife.
The shop was opened on a shoe string and business started to come in. I hand picked the best kiltmaker I had ever worked with, I took the orders and she gave up her job and worked with me and still does to this day! The main reason for setting up my own shop was to work with the best manufacturers/suppliers Scotland has to offer (and it has a lot) - to know exactly each supplier and build relationships that would see us work closer and become partners.
The business name Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers came about as I had gained a good reputation in the Industry over the years and wanted to use this to my advantage.
And the Kiltmaker because this is such a fundamental and important part of the business and if we couldn't make kilts to the highest standard we would not have succeeded as a business. I also realised that you are only as good as your last kilt and the business has been built on word of mouth and referrals.
Emma - I think the richness of the GNK business and, now, brand is in the story that created it - it is as authentic as it's products in every single way, there is real heart in every aspect of it even to it's very conception and roots!
- No great story or true success is without its ups and downs. As a global community we are experiencing an unprecedented down right now – can you explain a little about how you keep going, how you weather the storms as they come so to speak? Gordon - With COVID-19 we along with all retailers are going through the biggest threat to business in my lifetime. There will be sadly so many businesses that won't make it through this crisis. These are testing times, they can worry and stress for both myself, family and team but we are strong and believe in what we are doing. So, GNK will get through this -How? Because I have built a great team, we have many skills between us and the ability to look forward and adapt quickly to any situations. This pandemic will pass and with my super strong team are working hard to pick up business immediately where we left off. Our biggest strengths are we have a great presence , reputation, ethos and EKA (Edinburgh Kiltmakers Academy). Our loyal following of customers who will continue to buy and recommend from us and our reviews also make a huge difference.
- GNK upholds values such as championing Scottish textiles and craftsmanship, can you go into more detail about why you think this is so important in an ever digital, outsourcing, fast paced world? Gordon - GNK upholds values such as championing Scottish textiles and craftsmanship - why? Because these are the most important things, we are hugely proud of the relationships built over years with suppliers and made numerous friendships, we work with the best mills in Scotland we work with specialised craftsmen to offer unique goods and show provenance to where everything is made and how in our supply chain.
I am very proud that through this process we have helped struggling craftsmen set up viable businesses and continue to work with them and support them. Working with suppliers, helping them move with the times and develop new products to attract business. And have a team behind me who share the same ideals & goals.
Emma - I think Gordon and GNK as a whole shows time and time again, that there IS an unwavering human desire for things that are made properly, thoughtfully and by local human hands. I hope, as the world changes, that an even wider proportion of people begin seeing that looking, essentially, back in time is in fact a means to a better future.
- Now for something more positive – what has been one of the greatest high points in GNK’s history and why did it mean so much to you? Gordon - My biggest Highlight in GNK (and there have been many) has to be EKA - it was always an ambition of mine to pass skills on and through the EKA we have set up an Industry standard in Kiltmaking, which has happened much quicker than I had ever anticipated. We have trained Kiltmakers from other retailers in our industry, we have seen existing Kiltmakers raise the standard of their own work as a direct reaction to EKA. Whilst setting the course up we had been working with organisations who promised access to funding and help for this historic trade, once we were ready to start no funding was forthcoming, so as I had students lined up ready to go took the decision to run the course free of charge, this was done to get the course up and running. The trade was very sceptical in relation to the course and did not think we could produce the level of skills in such a short time frame but we have proved otherwise!
The course itself has developed hugely since its inception. We have talked to Kiltmakers all over Scotland and have used knowledge to then make the best kilt possible. The Standards for the course are continually assessed and where necessary we have raised the standards for every aspect of the course - the kiltmaking, paperwork and teaching techniques and, now, offer the most comprehensive kiltmaking course. We are the largest teacher of Traditional Hand sewn Kiltmaking in Scotland attracting all ages, various backgrounds and from Stonehaven to Cumbria. We have also achieved this year one of my biggest goals, to have a waiting list for the course.
Personally, I have been uplifted by the sheer enjoyment that students have shown during the courses. Kirsty the course leader herself came through the Academy which clearly shows that it works. This has not been an easy journey we have had a few setbacks but resilience is one of our strongest points and with belief. We have created something extraordinary that guarantees our future. This makes me extremely PROUD!
Emma - In an industry where keeping secrets became the norm, and I found myself during my degree at a loss as to where to find out how to make kilts before I found EKA, there is nothing more uplifting to know that there is skill sharing happening and welcomed out there! EKA is just the beginning of a modern, exciting, forward thinking and INCLUSIVE industry moving forward and I am so proud to be a small part of it!
- We joke that you’re always branded, but please tell me in your words what the GNK brand ethos is and how you go about upholding this through the work done there? Gordon - It started when we opened in 2009 - Using the brand logo on polo shirts and paperwork at that time it was quite simply to increase awareness of the company and with GNK it let people know that there was a person behind the company and not just a brand. GNK has grown and developed organically over the years and as we expanded including a new website and shop fit. I believe it is now seen as one of the top Highlandwear brands. We evolve and have just made the brand look more up to date. Our Ethos is to - Keep it Real - honour traditional techniques this in particular Kiltmaking, maintaining the highest level of craftsmanship both in-house and through our carefully chosen suppliers, sustainability and using the best weavers of tartan and tweed and, above all, being Very Very Passionate about everything we do!
- Let’s now look to the future, coronavirus and self-isolation is a thing of the past, we’ve come out the other side – what do you think it’s going to take to ensure another 500 years of kilts, another 5000 years of tartan, and where is GNK headed as part of this?
Gordon - Hopefully GNK will still be around In 500 years! To ensure we are we need to continue on the path we have made - to strongly believe in what we do, keep it real, if we concentrate on getting the basic things right, as we grow older as a company we will continue to flourish, evolve and grow. There is no limit to what we can achieve, but we need to remember where we came from our values and ethos.
- The most stand out kilt moment that’s stuck in your mind – go!
Gordon - My Stand out moment has to be designing the University of Edinburgh Tartan, This was a goal I had set myself. They were the last Scottish University at the time not to have a Tartan. They were on my doorstep and for my business would give us a much higher profile and direct access to the thousands of students who go through the university and find a home here. I approached the University and initially was greeted with not much enthusiasm, but persisted and after 5 long years and 23 different tartan designs finally had designed the University Of Edinburgh Tartan. This was not over yet as they are a charity, and after 3 long long months I found out that we had also secured the contract for supplying the tartan and still do to this day.
Gordon's story is one of sheer determination, passion and commitment. Every storm can be faced head on and weathered with perseverance and dedication. Gordon is a wonderful example to his whole team and the wider Scottish textiles community! Here's to getting back to where we left off strongly, and pioneering another 500 years of kiltmaking in Scotland!
Many thanks to Gordon Nicolson for taking the time to do this interview.