J. T. Centonze only wears pants for three hours each year, when he needs to protect his legs while working with fireworks on Independence Day.
For the other 364 days and 21 hours, he’s rocking a kilt.
Centonze is “somewhere between the CEO and president” of Off Kilter Kilts, a specialty kilt store that moved from Pasadena to Santa Clarita around the end of 2018, to both save on rent and be more central to his customer base.
Kilts are defined as belted, pleated skirts, and though kilts are occasionally called skirts as a form of mockery, Centonze uses the term as a way to combat the idea that men cannot wear skirts.
“It was a cool thing to do and as a big guy, pants were just leg prisons to me,” he said.
Though not of Scottish descent, Centonze began wearing kilts in college over 20 years ago as a more comfortable and fun alternative to “bifurcated pants,” and he now owns over 20 kilts. His goal is to make kilts more visible to the public and to make them a more mainstreamed clothing option.
“It’s really rare that that people will tell me that I’ll get pushback for selling kilts while not Scottish, but that might be also because I kind of look like I could be Scottish,” Centonze said. “It happened a bit at the beginning, but I just told those people that the Scottish aren’t the only people allowed to be comfortable. And as an man of Italian descent, we had the Romans wearing skirts before the Scottish anyway.”
Off Kilter Kilts began in 2015, after Centonze left his job working in the college textbook industry. After struggling to find work due to the poor economy, Centonze put his master’s degree in business to use and decided to create his own niche.
“If you wanted a kilt you could go to an event and try on maybe one or two brands of kilts, but I wanted to a store where you could go and try on multiple brands and styles,” Centonze said. “I decided that if I was going to open a business, I was going to do something I wanted and at the time no one was doing this.”
There are approximately 80 kilt brands on the market that manufacture in the United States, Pakistan, Canada and Scotland, according to Centonze. The modern kilt is made of cotton, poly-acrylic or a poly-cotton blend, while traditional kilts are made of wool. Additionally traditional kilts are a single sheet of fabric that must be manually pleated, while more modern kilts are pre-pleated and ready to wear and utility-style kilts also come with pockets. Out of the 200 kilts in the store, only one is a traditional kilt.
The majority of Off Kilter’s customers and sales come from the 30 to 40 renaissance fairs, pop culture conventions and other shows. The customers Centonze meets at these events range everywhere from avid kilt wearers to people who only know about kilts from seeing them on television and movies.
Despite being the initial vision for his business, Centonze said he still considers the brick-and-mortar store something of an experiment. A majority of the customers he sees in the store are those who are actively seeking out kilts, rather than curious people off the street, which causes him to refer to Off Kilter Kilts as a “destination business.”
“We don’t get a lot of walk-by traffic, but anyone who wants a kilt in the greater Los Angeles area comes to us,” he said.
The biggest barrier for the business are the stereotypes and lack of understanding surrounding kilts. While people in general do not mock Centonze about wearing a kilt in public, which he attributes to his imposing stature, his fiancee, Beth Ann Sweezer, who helps out in the store in her free time and also wears kilts year round, bears the brunt of many jokes.
“There’s the idea out in pop culture that the Scottish did not wear underwear, which is a fairly modern invention, so I’ll have people come up to me and ask, ‘what are you wearing underneath your kilt?’” Sweezer said.
What Centonze does hear are a lot of men who see wearing skirts as exclusively feminine and cannot see themselves wearing it, especially while he is at pop culture conventions.
“Humans have been wearing skirts for far longer than we have had pants, and some of the most ruthless warriors in history have worn skirts, so I don’t really understand the masculinity argument,” Centonze said. “That being said, I never want to question anyone’s masculinity in order to get them to wear a kilt. But people are so programmed against it and you’ve never had to fight so hard to get people to be comfortable.”
Going forward, Centonze said that he hopes to increase the visibility of kilts and of his store. He would also like to expand to other states like Florida and New York and allow people in those states to be able to try on and purchase kilts.
“It’s rare to see someone wearing a kilt in Santa Clarita besides, but if you go to L.A. in the springtime, you’re bound to see at least one person in a kilt,” he said. “The kilt is a little more cosmopolitan of a garment than Santa Clarita is ready for but we’re slowly but sure trying to change that.”
For more information about Off Kilter Kilts visit https://www.offkilterkilts.com. Actual store hours may vary due to trade show dates so call (626) 817-9999 to schedule an appointment.