Private White V.C.
Private White V.C. was a real person; he volunteered in the First World War, won a Victoria Cross fighting in Gallipoli and returned to Manchester to work in and eventually own a clothing factory which is now managed by his great grandson, James Eden.
Based in a very traditional redbrick Manchester factory, the business has weathered the storms that have affected the British clothing industry by manufacturing for many years for a wide variety of brands. The Private White V.C. label, designed by Nick Ashley, produces a range of casual and outerwear that has rapidly gained an outstanding reputation both at home and abroad.
Going round the factory with James Eden and meeting and chatting to the workers, (many of whom have been there for decades) makes us appreciate how much of their personality shows in the brand’s products – reliability, character and that indefinable hint of Britishness and quality evident in the best UK-made items.
James, tell us something of your role in the business?
As it’s a privately financed and independent family business I have an extremely varied and always evolving role. I oversee the marketing, sales, finance, PR, retail, wholesale, and internet for the business. The areas that I am not involved are the manufacturing and pattern cutting. We have a staggeringly experienced and skilled team of people working in these areas – mothers & daughters, husbands and wives, brothers & sisters here, some have been manufacturing at the factory for over 40 years. Unsurprisingly, I have little to offer!
How did you get started?
Growing up as a teenager I would earn my pocket money in the family factory counting buttons, cutting fabric, cleaning machines, basically doing what I was told! I then went to university, studied economics, and after a Masters at Cambridge I scuttled off to the City of London to earn my fortune.
Back home in Manchester (it always has and always will be home) my family’s former factory had fallen on hard times after the UK’s most famous check-adorned luxury brand decided (literally overnight) to pull the production from the factory and make all its outerwear offshore. As a result, the factory was on the edge of the financial abyss and had about 4 weeks to survive.
I decided to resign from my job in investment banking and move back home to see if I could prevent the factory from closing. That was 4 years ago.
What are the core values of the business?
We proudly make all our own fabrics and garments in Britain. We pride ourselves in our longstanding relationships with our suppliers and make concerted efforts to source as much as possibly locally. There is nothing we won’t do in our quest to evolve and succeed.
Last year, the same check adorning luxury brand that almost took us under a few years ago strong-armed our cotton mill in Yorkshire to stop doing business with us. This was a huge shame and real problem as cotton cloth, gabardine, twill, canvas etc is a core part of our outerwear offering. Not to be perturbed we have since invested in our own looms and are now weaving our own cottons in the UK. To my knowledge there is no other factory or brand doing what we do.
How important is the UK-made and designed aspect of the product to you?
It is everything to us. It is all we know. Our supply chain, staff and infrastructure are all firmly entrenched here in the UK. It’s all we have and it’s all we know. If we could no longer make in the UK I would shut the factory tomorrow and turn it into flats!
We are the polar opposite of the “Designed in Britain but farmed out to China” brands and businesses that masquerade behind a circus of Union Jacks and misleading slogans and labelling. This approach does nothing but detract from, and dilute, the huge efforts and progress of brands like ourselves.
How do you clarify your authenticity in the crowd?
We encourage and invite the world to come and see for themselves our garments being made. We have just opened up a Tour and Store at the Manchester factory. What can be more authentic than that?
How easy do you think it is for consumers to shift to British made products today?
These days I am delighted by the scope and breadth of products that are being made in the UK. Between us and companies like John Smedley, Globe-Trotter, Church’s, and Cherchbi there is loads of opportunity to buy British. These products don’t come cheap, which will deter many, but I can assure you that one our trench coats will last more than twice as long as something you could pick up on the high street for half the price!
Where did your passion for British manufacturing come from?
Many of my earliest & fondest memories are of working and playing in the factory with some of the colourful, charming (& scary) characters you could ever wish to meet. They were so passionate to the point of being fanatical about their craft, their section and their industry and I guess their enthusiasm was embedded in me from childhood.
How often do you delve into the archive to create new designs?
Nick Ashley, our designer, (ex head of Dunhill and ex Creative Director at Laura Ashley) spends an obscene amount of time with our archive. We have thousands of amazing patterns, specs and garments to inspire and influence his designs. It really is an Aladdin’s cave.
Do you have a favourite item of all time from Private White?
My favourite is our SB Unlined Ventile mac. The single-breasted fly-fronted raincoat has unquestionably been our most iconic style over the years and it has been a garment we have made every season for the past 60 years. Nick is a champion of what he calls “Techno Retro” and our Ventile mac encapsulates this perfectly. It has taped seams, so it is 100% waterproof.
What’s the biggest misconception of ‘made in the UK’ products?
That they are always made ethically. As a factory owner I know only too well how much it costs to support & sustain a UK based factory and it frustrates that more isn’t done to expose those that are cutting corners. There are workshops out there that offer UK made products (often with dubious quality) but there is no way that they can be paying their suppliers, staff or indeed the taxman as they should be.
How does it feel to focus on British craft? Is it difficult? Has that become more or less difficult in recent years?
Once again, it is all we know. It has always been difficult and I don’t expect it to get any less challenging. If craft comes easy to you then I suspect you aren’t setting your expectations or ambitions high enough.
Private White V.C.