‘Local Boy turned Hero, Saves the Day’ sounds like the plot of a good book, but in Private White VC’s case it is a true story… twice over, one could loosely say.
Picture this…Private Jack White comes home to Manchester after his acts of bravery earn him the revered Victoria Cross in World War One, and as a civilian once more, his hard work ethic means he works his way up through the ranks of the textile industry to become the owner of a raincoat manufacturing company making handmade, high quality garments worn by Kings, Queens, Prime Ministers, armed forces and civilians alike.
Fast forward a few decades and James Eden returns home to Manchester after carving a successful career in The City – which enables him to buy the garment factory his great-grandfather Jack White had once owned to save it from imminent closure, as Lancashire, the once heartland of the textile industry, struggles to compete against globalisation and cheap imports of mass-produced textiles.
This is a story of bravery, skill, toil and honest hard-work, which has resulted in James Eden at the helm of a rejuvenated company, re-branded in 2010 to Private White VC, in honour of his great-grandfather, which, with understated pride, states specifically ‘Made in Manchester’ on the labels. The now fast-becoming global brand – Private White VC – still retains the simplicity and authenticity of a skilled artisanal work-force, many having worked there for decades, using the highest quality British materials, traditional non-automated machinery, and practising the same attention to detail it had back in the early 20th Century, for example hand-stitched button-holes, to ensure the garments produced are both aesthetic and authentic as well as functional and practical.
Recent collaborations with similarly well-respected traditional British & Irish manufacturers, such as John Smedley, Cheaney Shoes and Inis Meáin, as well as recently appointing Nick Ashley (son of Laura Ashley) as Creative Director, who, like James, has textiles in his genes, has meant that classic garments, quite often with military and racing influences, take on a contemporary twist in order to adapt to modern day functionality resulting in a ‘Techno-Retro’ style, rather than an often all-too-general ‘vintage’ feel.
James Eden is kind enough to allow us a rare insight into the world of modern day textiles within his thriving company, as he takes time out of his busy schedule to talk us through the fascinating story of ‘Private White VC’…
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Private White VC, please can you tell us about the company, your ethos and style?
The company is named after my great grandfather, Private Jack White, who, at the end of the First World War, returned to civilian life after being awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery. In those halcyon days, before the era of Celebrity Masterchef and the like, he took an apprenticeship in a local raincoat manufacturing company, of which there were many in the area. Through hard work, grit and determination he worked his way up from pattern cutter to general manager and then eventually owner of the company. After he passed away in the 1940s, the company went through various guises and owners, until I bought the factory in 2009, saving it from closure.
Since then, my focus has been on repositioning, reinvigorating and revitalising the business and the factory, specifically looking at how it sells, why it sells, who it sells to etc. Originally, the business was a factory brand, making garments for other companies, but this is no longer the case and we are now vertically integrated, and our items go from sheep to shop. We re-branded the factory ‘Private White VC’ paying homage to my great grandfather, and our clothing line has a subtle nod to his legacy.
Our design style takes a lot of reference from military and archive pieces, particularly inspired by vintage motorcycle and car racing clothing, updated using modern fabrics and modern techniques. Our garments are simple, elegant and very functional, and we take pride in the fact we do things nicely with a lot of thought and integrity.
All of our clothing is made by hand by our skilled artisanal workforce and of the products we sell, 90% is made in our factory, and the other 10% is made by like-minded manufacturers such as Inis Meáin, based in the Aran Islands, who make our knitwear, as well as Grenson and Cheaney, both based in Northamptonshire, the home of British shoe-making, who make our footwear. All our fabrics, trims and materials are of the highest quality and sourced regionally, such as buttons from Derbyshire, canvas from Rochdale, and corduroy from Lancashire; in fact the majority of our cloth is supplied by mills in the surrounding area and the factory has a trading relationship with them that goes back to my great grandfather’s days.
What was the catalyst that prompted you to acquire the private-label factory and reposition it by establishing the Private White VC brand?
I’ve always had an emotional attachment to the business; as a teenager, I would often work in the factory in my spare time and during school holidays cutting fabric, counting buttons, sweeping floors, moving rolls of cloth etc. After leaving school, though, there really wasn’t an opportunity to work there and I didn’t even think about it as an option in all honesty as the UK garment industry was on its knees at the time. I know it seems a formulaic approach to life after finishing school – ‘go to Cambridge, get an economics degree, then work in the City’ – but that’s what I did. But then the world imploded in 2008 and I had a reality check. I was deeply unfulfilled working in the City; I didn’t have any ties, wasn’t married, was living in rented accommodation, and I thought about moving back to Manchester to explore the opportunity to buy the factory. Burberry had pulled the plug on outsourcing items to be made there, and the factory was close to going bankrupt.
What the business needed was an injection of capital, youth, energy, passion and a difference of perception and outlook. The people within the factory are the same highly-skilled artisans, but we looked at how we could market differently, how we sell, how we distribute and package the products etc. Things have changed – we’ve got a website now, we ship internationally, and we have access to a global customer base where we can sell products at full margin.
Your great grandfather – Private White – has served as a creative inspiration for the brand, but how important is Nick Ashley’s influence, and what drew him to Private White VC initially, which I imagine was quite a marked change, coming from established brands such as Dunhill and Kenzo previously?
Before Bernard and Laura Ashley became famous, Nick grew up in a caravan in Wales and spent most of his formative years in-and-around factories and is inherently drawn to textiles. He is incredibly down to earth and has devoted his life to British manufacturing.
When I was looking at Nick to join us as our Creative Director, it was clear that we shared values and ethos; he isn’t overly precious, he has nothing to prove and doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. He’s very well liked, very enthusiastic, and doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone, and neither does anyone about him. Nick has built up a successful business in his own right – the Nick Ashley brand was sold in a large number of stores in Japan – and he was very inspired and excited at the opportunity to reinvigorate our factory. In fact, the factory knew Nick before I did; when he was at Dunhill, the factory made as many British-made products for Nick as Dunhill would allow.
Since joining he’s been a huge influence on the brand. Nick coined the phrase “techno retro” to describe the style he has created – embracing heritage by using classic military shapes or vintage garments, such as old school British hunting or racing outfits, but updated with our own modern fabrics and contemporary twists so they’re not overly revivalist or too vintage in style.
Many of your designs are inspired by classic military clothes, such as your extremely popular World War Two-inspired Jeep coats and G-1 flight jackets, but how do you manage to take these traditional designs and make them desirable to a modern audience?
In fact, our most iconic piece is not the Jeep coats or G1 flight jackets; it’s actually a single-breasted fly-fronted raincoat, the sort of raincoat you’d have seen in L.S. Lowry portraits from the mid-20th Century celebrating the urban landscapes and factories around Manchester. L.S. Lowry was actually a close friend and confidant of Private Jack White, which is a nice link.
Whether it’s designs like Lowry’s favourite raincoat – the SB Mac, or military-inspired flight jackets, we know people like the classic style, but they want a modern version with a refined pattern and cut which looks and feels good, using modern high performance fabrics such as Ventile which is 100% waterproof or traditional fabrics like Harris Tweed or cotton gabardine. Our designs even incorporate modern-day functions, such as internal pockets perfectly-sized to fit a mobile phone or tablet computer. Furthermore, we know our customers like the fact our fabrics are sourced ethically, that we only use components that have a story behind them – whether that’s the lining or Riri zips from Switzerland, and the fact that we make all our products by hand in Britain.
Why do you feel Private White VC has been so well-received, not just in the UK, but globally?
People aren’t buying our products as the brand is named after a war hero. Sure, it’s a nice short story, likewise, having the ‘Made in England’ label is nice also, but if the look and style and quality aren’t there, the products won’t resonate with people and they won’t buy them, or if they buy them once, they won’t buy them again. Simply put, you won’t build a sustainable business that will last for many years purely based on country of origin or a war story. All the elements have to be there: quality, style, look etc., and that’s why we feel our products are so well-received as they are all an intrinsic part of what we create.
Is there a typical Private White VC customer?
With the internet, we have customers all over the world and we’re attracting people from all walks of life. If I had to define a ‘typical’ customer though, it would be people that appreciate how things are put together, how things are made – which could be architects, engineers, creatives….people interested in engines, cars, watches, fine wines, architecture and the like. People that like to reflect and ponder on life and the things they invest in…
Geographically, our customer base is now made up of 60% international customers, but looking at trends, I anticipate that will be 70% soon. We’ve seen a particular increase in demand in South Korea, Russia, North America and Switzerland. We picked up a number of new international stockists from the recent menswear trade fair – Pitti Uomo – held in Florence, Italy in June. We’ve been attending Pitti Uomo for several years now, but it takes time to gain the confidence of retailers, knowing that we are a robust business that can provide them with service, quality and reliability. No international retailer is going to give up some of their prime real estate – whether that’s a rail, section or corner of the shop floor – to a brand if there are doubts about their supply chain and whether goods are going to arrive on time, but that’s not an issue for us, as we’re vertically integrated and we have full control over our production and delivery.
You have been involved in a lot of collaborations, such as with Inis Meáin, John Smedley and Smyth & Gibson; why is that, and what do you look for in collaborations with other specialists?
We’re strong at woven products, but still we don’t have the experience, expertise, infrastructure and skills to produce what specialists can produce. We could never, in a million years, produce what John Smedley does, for instance. Sure, we could go out to another producer and ask them to try and create a similar product, but it would lack authenticity and conviction. Only John Smedley can do what John Smedley does. We look for expertise in manufacturing throughout the British Isles, and design within our comfort and capabilities.
There’s no doubt consumers are confused and misled these days as to what does constitute a heritage brand. There are certain ‘British’ brands that are keen and eager to promote the ‘Made in London, England or Britain’ label, but aren’t so keen to show the care label which denotes the actual place of manufacture in small print, which could be Turkey, India or the Far East, for example. Likewise, some brands may make one or a few of their products in the UK, which is the justification for the ‘Made in Britain’ emphasis on their website, but the rest of the range could be made abroad, and this, again, is very confusing for consumers. Consumers can be confident, though, that any collaborations Private White VC is involved in, all products and their raw materials have been curated and sourced ethically, sensibly and with full transparency.
As a factory brand with an emphasis on handcrafting of products, could you give us insight into your artisanal production and briefly describe some of the techniques that go into make Private White VC garments?
It all starts with our designer, Nick Ashley, who will design for a requirement within his wardrobe or take inspiration from his extensive archive. Nick will create a sketch of his design showing pocket details etc, together with his thoughts on suggested fabrications, and an explanation of the purpose of the garment.
A meeting will take place with the pattern cutter who will take the brief to understand fit, stitching details etc.
The pattern cutter will then create the pattern, starting with a blank piece of card for each pattern piece, of which there could be up to 35 pieces in total that makes up the garment. None of this is computerised and it could take two solid days to complete. The card pattern is then cut-out using a pair of scissors to be used as a stencil, which could take a further two or three hours, depending on complexity.
The sample machinist will then create a sample of the garment, which could take a further day-and-a-half. We don’t use any automated cutting machinery in the cutting room, unlike most companies that could cut thousands of pieces with the simple pressing of a button, and everything we do is done by hand by laying out and cutting manually. Once the fabric is cut, certain pattern pieces are fused to give extra strength and rigidity.
The garment is assembled by different teams: one team works on the fronts and pockets, another on the sleeves and linings, and further team works on the backs and collars. Once it’s been made up, it gets a final press and then it’s ready for quality control inspection.
We don’t work with any automated machinery, such as automated cutting machines, sewing jigs or pocket-making machines and we don’t use any automated pressing machines either, as we rely on the traditional steam iron as well as the Hoffman press machine for certain panels that make up the garments such as fronts, backs and sleeves. Any machinery we do use to help us is decades old and hand-operated, such as the Manchester-made T.Walker & Co. band knife used for cutting cloth, dating back to the 1950s, and the techniques we use to make our garments have been tried-and-tested over decades. All our garments are produced in small runs by hand by skilled craftsmen and we don’t want the soul of our garments pressed out by automated robots and machinery.
Each new design could take up to a week to produce from initial sketching to finishing, although fabric sourcing and development – to develop the right fabric for the garment – can add another six-to-eight weeks to the process, so it’s safe to say that each new item can take up to two months to create.
The artisanal approach to our design and production process by the finest, skilled craftsmen using components and fabrics made by similar-minded local producers, which are on the whole family-run enterprises that have given a long-standing service to British textile manufacturing, exemplifies the reasons why hand-crafted items such as ours are an investment by people who really care about the provenance of the products they buy, and the love, care and attention to detail that goes into making them.
Can you explain the connection between Private White VC and the Manchester factory you operate in, located in an area of the country with a rich heritage of woven cotton production?
Our factory is housed in a two hundred-year-old building in Manchester, which was once a steel mill, but which has been used as a factory for making raincoats for the past hundred years.
Once my great grandfather returned to civilian life after the First World War ended it was inevitable he would work in the textile industry as there were literally thousands of jobs for youngsters like him after the war. One of the core employers in the area was the local raincoat factory, and he worked his way up from apprentice, to pattern cutter, to sample machinist, to foreman to general manager and then ultimately the owner. I’ve always had an emotional attachment to both Private Jack White and the factory, as my parents and grandparents would talk about his heroic achievements on the battlefield and in the factory. I’m extremely proud of the connection between our brand and the rich heritage of textile production in the area, and our factory is an intrinsic part of this.
Manchester was, and still is, the heart of cotton production in Britain – the global cotton industry was founded in Manchester, and it was even once known as Cottonopolis. The Manchester Ship Canal is only a short distance away from our factory, and from here raw cotton and yarns were brought in, woven in the widespread Lancashire mills, and the end products were then shipped throughout the British Empire. Less than half a mile from our factory is the Manchester Royal Exchange, which is where the cottons and textiles were traded. Our wool and cotton is still woven in local Lancashire mills, which we then make up in our factory. We are the last factory to operate using traditional artisanal production techniques in Manchester.
How important is the quality of materials in creating your products and do you only source fabric from the British Isles?
It’s absolutely critical for us to select the highest quality products. 90% of our fabric is from the UK, although certain products, such as Ventile, aren’t woven in the UK and so we need to source abroad for these materials. Our business is analogous to the restaurant trade, whereby any top chef will tell you how important it is for them to select their ingredients as locally as possible and of the highest quality. And like a top restaurant, it’s easy to over-design and over-elaborate what is created. The difficulty is in stripping it all back and keeping things simple and stylish. We don’t have zips for the sake of zips, or pockets for the sake of pockets – we only ever add things for convenience to the wearer, things that serve a purpose.
British textile manufacturing has long been appreciated in overseas markets such as Japan, Germany and Italy for its tradition, quality and being at the forefront of menswear design. Why do you feel it has not necessarily had the recognition it deserves domestically in the UK, and do you think there are signs that the younger generation are more interested in the provenance of products and investing in quality over quantity?
I think there always has been an appreciation for British textile manufacturing in the UK, but there has been such a seismic shift in policy by retailers in the past couple of decades to look at cheaper overseas products to improve the bottom line that it became unsustainable for many producers and the market shrunk; producers either went bankrupt or started moving production overseas to cut costs, but the most determined and hard-working survived. In a sense, it is Darwinism at work: those that were able to make the best products at the best price were able to keep production going in Britain. These businesses have stood the test of time and deserve their success and where they are today. Of course, there are exceptions, and some really good businesses went under, simply by making the fatal error of having all their eggs in one basket by supplying too few British retailers who hung them out to dry by cancelling their contracts.
There does certainly seem to be more interest in provenance of products than in previous years, and I put this down to the advent of the internet; there’s so much more information, transparency and detail available – particularly through bloggers – for the sophisticated and inquisitive consumer. Nowadays, it’s not just about country of origin; it’s about county of origin, or even factory of origin. People interested in our type of product can find out about us at the click of a button.
As to whether I think the younger generation are actually more interested in investing in quality over quantity, no I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; young people are still far too committed to disposable fashion and garments generally. I accept that a lot of people can’t afford to buy our products due to price alone due to the costs associated with artisanal manufacturing in the UK, although we believe they are getting staggeringly good value for money, as all our products are handcrafted using the highest quality materials, and represent a good investment as they will last a lot longer.
What’s next for Private White VC and what are your ambitions for the brand?
Whilst we have rescued the company and secured many jobs over the past few years, we haven’t accomplished all of our goals just yet. The company is still too small, and would like to continue to grow the factory, brand and sales. It’s important that we drive efficiency, not in the ‘penny pinching sense’, but in the sense that production requires sensible runs to ensure the staff are well paid, motivated and working efficiently. As the business grows our infrastructure has to get slicker, our runs have to get bigger (but not too big) and we constantly need to look at ways to improve all aspects of the business.
There are various ways in which we can achieve this growth. Firstly, we’ll continue growing our online and standalone retail businesses – our three bricks-and-mortar stores, including our flagship Mayfair store in Duke Street – by pushing and promoting these internationally. There’s a very, very ravenous global market out there, and whilst we’re a niche businesses, there’s a lot of niches in every city in every part of the world, and if you aggregate that, we have a very interesting market to look at.
International expansion is something we’d like to achieve, and ideally we’d love to have stores in Stockholm, Tokyo, Berlin, New York etc, but the reality is we’re a privately-funded business, and we have huge responsibilities not to expose the business to unnecessary risk as there are a lot of jobs at stake, so we need to tread very carefully and look for growth in a sensible, measured and balanced way, and not over-leverage ourselves. For now, we’ll refine and perfect our existing stores, as if we do too much too quickly we risk making mistakes. Feasibly, we’re looking at Tokyo in 2016, and then either Berlin or New York in a couple of years.
We’ll also develop our wholesale business in the UK and internationally, although being very selective over which stockists we work with. There are lots of stores that could buy our products to sell in their stores, but not that many that could sell our products. It’s about the store owners having the right sensibility, respect and appreciation for our products, as if they don’t have that, they’ll just be just another garment on a peg, which isn’t what we want. We conduct due diligence on all our stockists before agreeing to work with them, which entails either a visit by us to their store or their buyer visits our factory. It’s really important that stockists understand the DNA of our business as they’re not selling a merchandised or commercialised product and we don’t want our products to get lost alongside others.
We’re also developing and broadening our offering both in-store and on our website by creating a lifestyle collection of products that are all strictly UK-made. So as well as jackets, coats, shirts, trousers and jerseys, we’ll be offering ranges such as sunglasses, toiletries, underwear, socks, key rings, and even ceramics. I believe this is positioning us as a unique business, as I can’t think of any other company that can credibly and honestly say they are making such a diverse collection that is 100% made in the UK.
Thanks to James Eden for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. All images © Private White VC.