Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
You'd think a Wisconsin kilt-maker would experience peak activity right before the regional Highland Games. But Alt.Kilt caters to a different skirt-hugging crowd. Regina Davan's Madison-based business goes great guns when TeslaCon, a steampunk convention, clanks into town, and CONvergence, the Midwest's premier sci-fi gathering, beams into a Doubletree four hours away, in Bloomington, Minnesota.
"Kilts hit the alternative community very hard," says Davan. "Musicians, gamers, steampunk, fetish--they all fell in love with them."
Founded in 2006, Alt.Kilt resides in a 2,000-square-foot concrete studio near Dane County Regional Airport, adjacent to Smokey Jon's #1 BBQ. Davan shares the space with GrayCat Workshop, the part-time business of her husband, Jeff Peterson. GrayCat makes armor, specifically helms and shields for medieval reenactors. "We vend together wherever we travel," says Davan. "He models for me."
Working with three employees--more in the busy summer months--Davan custom makes each kilt based on a customer's measurements and desires. Traditional tartans can look busy (or downright garish in the case of this reporter's family pattern, the Buchanan plaid), so Davan typically starts with a solid color and builds from there. She'll embroider people's family crests or organizational logos. Or she will layer on stainless steel plates, box latches, and dial locks bought from luggage-company suppliers. She's created kilts inspired by the late, lamented TV show Firefly.
While she works mostly in cotton and cotton blends, Davan also makes kilts from leather, microsuede, brushed corduroy, and even vinyl. For a firefighters' pipe-and-drum guard in Las Vegas, she fashioned kilts from members' old Kevlar bunker gear. "I can pleat most anything," she says.
Most of Davan's kilts are in the mid-$200 range, although prices rise as high as $450 on models such as the Steampunk Welder (hand-painted patina, antique brass rivets). Customers--95 percent of them male, and half of whom have bought more than one kilt--often wear the garments to conventions. Alt.Kilt's biggest event of the year is International Mr. Leather, held since 1979 in Chicago. "It's 16,000 gay men," says Davan. "In one weekend I sell two months' worth of stuff."
Others buy kilts for comfort as much as for show. "Kilts are comfortable," says Jason Robinson, who owns three of Davan's creations, including a Firefly-inspired kilt that he wears to conventions. "Especially if it is warm out, you can--how can I put this delicately?--catch a breeze." (When winter chills domestic sales, Alt.Kilt's sweltering Australian customers pick up the slack.)
"I wear pants and a button-down shirt every day. It's my uniform," says Robinson, who works for a medical-device company in Madison. "A kilt is a way for me to tell myself I'm not at work anymore."
Edgy as this college-town business sounds, Davan is not some punkish rebel. Like many entrepreneurial ventures, Alt.Kilt was born when its founder's life took an unexpected left turn. Davan has the skill and sensibility to make the business work. But before she came to it, she was a desperate mother with a sick child. Kilts were her serendipitous salvation.
A diagnosis and a divergence.
Davan grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, working summers at the nearly century-old Levi's store owned by her mother's family. She was a crafter for fun, not profit: knitting, cross-stitching, making Christmas ornaments, and giving it all away. In 1997, Davan followed her brother and cousins to the University of Wisconsin, Madison ("This place that was almost mythical in my family"). After studying computer science for two years, she left to take advantage of the white-hot market for such skills. The boom busted, the market cooled, and Davan was left scrambling.
She sought a job at Shopko, a regional discount chain based in Green Bay. The company was relaunching an in-house optical lab; instead of the cashier's job Davan had applied for, it hired her to set up the new department's systems. Davan fell in love--with the eye part of the business, not the computer part. She started working as an optometric assistant, then re-enrolled at University of Wisconsin--this time to major in biology--as the next step toward becoming an optometrist. Upon graduation, she would require several more years in a specialized program.
By that time Davan was divorced and caring for two young children. The second semester of her first year back at school, leukemia was diagnosed in her younger son, Michael, age 2½. "I had to stay in school because that was what was helping us get insurance," says Davan. "But leukemia treatment for boys is three and a half years long. I couldn't enroll in anything that required attendance. I couldn't do my organic chemistry."
Davan changed majors to liberal arts and took costume technology classes in the theater department to fulfill her requirement. Costume technicians take a designer's sketch for a garment and figure out how to render it in real life. Working on school productions, Davan mastered corsets, bustles, and other period wear. "The goal was to finish this degree while getting Michael through his treatment," says Davan. (Michael is now healthy.)
In 2000, a company called Utilikilts, based in Seattle, had begun manufacturing contemporary kilts, fashionable alternatives to traditional tartans. "It was a real hard-core, rugged-man outfit," says Davan. Utilikilts' products ran upwards of $250, and "a friend came to me and said he wanted one but didn't want to pay that much," she recalls. "He wanted to know, could you make something like that?"
Davan did so, altering Utilikilts' design enough to make it her own. She posted photos on the social media site LiveJournal. "Instantly," says Davan, "I had people wanting me to make kilts for them."
From Muppets to steampunk.
But not enough people to sustain a business. So in 2006, Davan packed up her family and moved to St. Paul for a job building life-size Muppets. Specifically, she worked for Vee Corporation, the business behind Sesame Street Live. While constructing familiar cast members and helping conjure new ones ("What does a friendly ant look like versus a nonfriendly ant?"), she mastered new skills in hand-sewing.
In the evenings in her tiny apartment, Davan continued to make kilts. Her friends bought them to wear to CONvergence, a science fiction and fantasy convention held near Minneapolis. In 2007, she attended the convention herself as an exhibitor. "I put my product in front of 5,000 people. I walked away with a ton of orders," says Davan. "All these people saying I want to give you money. There was too much interest. It was scary."
Davan redoubled her efforts. It takes her about four hours to make a kilt, from pre-washing the fabric to embellishing the garment with embroidery, paint, or hardware. "I would hand-sew all day and come home and machine-sew all night," she says. But working full-time and caring for her children, "I was bad about my deadlines. I spent a lot of time apologizing."
Deciding to go all-in, Davan returned to Madison and got a $5,000 loan through the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation. She moved into a group home with other artisans, with whom she also shared studio space. (Davan and Peterson met there, as housemates.) The Midwest has a busy schedule of comics and sci-fi conventions. "I would go to a con and come home with 20 orders. Get those out. Get to the next one," says Davan.
At first, Davan designed chiefly solid kilts with accent colors, often from actual tartans, in the pleats. Then in 2008 the lead singer of the Seattle band Abney Park asked her to make him a steampunk kilt. "I started with a spice color--nutmeg brown--and used dial locks and latches, antique brass accents, and buttons," says Davan. "I hand-distressed the fabric. I used archival ink and painted it so it looked like there were oil splatters and dirt." Steampunk styles are now among Alt.Kilt's biggest sellers. They're especially popular when the genre event TeslaCon comes to Madison each fall.
These days, Davan spends less time at the conventions. "Those communities are small enough that everyone knows me now and knows where to find me," she says. Most of her new business comes through Facebook. She also advertises on X Marks the Scot, an online community of kilt wearers that leans plaid but includes a subcategory for contemporary styles.
Big guys, big moments.
Fancy hardware notwithstanding, Alt.Kilts is all about the fit. Customers enter their measurements into an order form. (The instructions are quite specific: "Please remove your wallet from your back pocket," for hips. "Kneel on the ground and measure from the top of your jeans waist to the floor," for length.) "The main thing is that they look good when they have it on," says Davan. She uses a customer's hip measurement to determine the optimal number of pleats and how wide the apron should be, and then hand-tailors the garment to the waist. Alt.Kilt produces many kilts for larger men, including some with waist sizes up to 80 inches (a certain Austin Powers villain springs to mind). "That is a whole different level of manipulating fabric," says Davan.
The length is important too. Ideally it should split the kneecap. "A lot of guys want to wear modern kilts really low," says Davan. "But then they just look like really bad skater pants."
Sometimes customers want to collaborate on designs--particularly the comic book artists among her clientele. Others will send in their old traditional kilts and ask her to incorporate some parts of them into something more stylish. "One guy wanted me to turn a karate [uniform] into a kilt," says Davan. "I made a pocket for his nunchucks."
Davan sells about 400 kilts a year. She has customers all over the United States, as well as in Australia, England, Wales, and Ireland. (No Scottish orders, though. She's not sure why.) About 15 percent of her customers are still in Wisconsin. Locals, who often buy multiple kilts, routinely drop by the studio to be fitted or to pick them up.
Pro Daulo, a Wisconsin state worker who lives in Madison, is a regular visitor. He has bought four garments from Alt.Kilt, including a steampunk model to match one Davan made for his wife. Daulo even got married in a kilt. "My wife made her own wedding dress and gave [Davan] the leftover material," he says. Davan then incorporated the material into kilts for Daulo and his two best men. "We matched her dress," says Daulo. "It looked great."
Davan also made a kilt for Robinson's wedding, a more traditional model using his ancestral tartan (Clan Gunn). Davan "has got work to do and employees to pay and a family to feed, but she is an artist," says Robinson. "She works with every individual to make the kilt that person wants to wear."