Interviewing Private White V.C. CEO James Eden is refreshingly different to meeting the boss of any other fashion brand. A far cry from a glass tower in the city, James's office is located in the heart of his Manchester factory, with only a wall to separate it from the machinists who cut and sew his garments together. Next door, his team dash around the factory office kitted out in the Private White aesthetic – chinos with turn-ups, lace-up leather boots and khaki button-up worksuits. The effect is effortlessly cool, but there is no air of pretension – the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, with colleagues throwing a cheery 'hello' as they pass, cracking jokes and grabbing garments off rails. I get the sense James’s office door is rarely shut, not just out of a sense of community but also to let office bulldog Brutus pad in and out at his leisure. “We let one of the lads take him out to the park when they’re single as he’s a bit of a lady magnet,” he jokes.
It seems natural that the Private White factory has developed a family dynamic – a place where many of the brand’s employees have worked for decades, along with James himself, who used to work shifts in his school holidays cutting fabric, sweeping floors and counting buttons. James's family history is embedded in the brand – named after his great-grandfather who took up a job at the factory after returning from World War One with a Victoria Cross for bravery on the battlefield (hence the 'V.C.'). Starting out as a pattern cutter, White rose through the ranks to eventually become the factory owner in the 1930s, overseeing decades of success during Manchester's period as the booming centre of the British cotton industry. The mythology of Private White runs as a theme throughout the brand, with drawings from the Victor Comic that portrayed his act of heroism pasted across the walls of the brand's stores and printed onto packaging.
Following Private White’s retirement, the factory changed hands several times and in 1983 was bought up by Mike Stoll, who oversaw the production of private label goods for a range of high-end brands including Burberry, Stella McCartney and Holland & Holland. However, the fortunes of the factory took a turn in 2008 when the British manufacturing industry fell into decline and a recession began to bite. Several key clients cut their orders and Mike faced the grim prospect of switching the factory’s machines off for the last time. Desperate to keep his community in employment, he contacted James, who had grown disillusioned with a life in finance. After a few visits, James agreed to raise some capital and return home to rescue the business. Together they teamed up with fashion designer Nick Ashley who had commissioned the factory in the past, and founded a new label from scratch, committed to quality British manufacturing and timeless design.
Establishing a fashion brand in the wake of a recession came with sizable risks, but Private White V.C. has defied expectations and now boasts stores in Manchester and London as well as 90 international stockists located everywhere from Canada and Japan to Russia. Seven years on, James believes a key cornerstone of the brand’s success has been its ethics. “People like the honesty behind our product,” he explains. “We can offer total visibility and transparency in our supply chain. Most brands can’t tell the story of how its products are made in the same way we can.” This policy means customers can know exactly where each material in their Private White garment has been sourced from, whether it’s buttons from Derbyshire, corduroy from Lancashire or wool from Nick’s personal flock of sheep, tended by his wife on their farm in Wales. All fabric is woven in the UK, with the majority of cloth provided by local mills that have supplied the factory since Private White’s day, while knitwear is sourced from Inis Meáin, based on the Aran Islands in Scotland.
Inside the factory this attention to quality continues, with every garment hand-laboured using non-automated machinery. Designs are masterminded by Nick, inspired by Private White’s military heritage as well as his personal passion for vintage motorcycle racing (I recommend following his two-wheeled adventures on instagram). For him, Private White garments need to look as good walking down Bond Street as they do streaking past on a dirt track – designed for the kind of man who James says “has an appreciation for craft, architecture and engineering, but also loves a good oil change.”
The process begins with Nick’s sketches being passed to a pattern cutter who cuts by hand the card template for the garment – a task that can take up to two days to complete. The factory has retained every paper pattern it has ever created – templates for everything from military uniforms to trench coats – which have evolved into a strangely beautiful installation suspended around the parameter of the cutting room. Next, a sample garment is created and adjusted, before the final product is constructed – passed from the top of the factory to the bottom through each team who cut, stitch and trim according to hand-typed notes supplied with each bundle of fabric. Finally, each garment is pressed by a traditional steam iron and hand checked for quality before leaving the factory. The entire process is decidedly human – so familiar are the Private White team with their manufacturing process that it only takes one glance at a garment to be able to name exactly who made each component.
For James, the factory and the skills it houses will always be the beating heart of his brand. “This is the style and substance behind Private White,” he explains. “We offer unfettered access to the factory – we don’t ask visitors to sign a disclaimer to say they won’t photograph anything – we are proud of what we are doing here.” True to his word, during my visit I am given the freedom wander the Private White factory floor, chatting to employees (who are photographed so often they are becoming minor instagram celebrities), and satiating my curiosity with endless questions. It’s a refreshingly un-PRed experience that makes no apologies for being a functional environment with a real community occupying it – and it’s all the more exciting for it.
As the business expands, the Private White factory has evolved into a critical focal point for the regeneration of the Manchester textile industry. “We have become more and more important to our local suppliers as we begin to absorb most of, or all of, their capacity,” says James. “It’s a nice little British textile eco-system that we’re nurturing here and it’s beginning to flourish.” In an area hit hard by swathes of manufacturing relocating East, Private White has begun to open up crucial opportunities for young people in the local area. “We’ve invested heavily in apprenticeships and partnerships with local colleges to train up seamstresses and pattern cutters,” explains James. “We don’t compromise on the skill and pedigree of our machinists and we pay them accordingly.”
A particular strength of Private White is the brand’s ability to blend a rich heritage and traditional manufacturing methods with a modern approach to design and branding, (skilfully avoiding the old cliché of plastering everything in Union Jacks). “We have some older experienced sages working here, but we’ve also got a very young, thrusting dynamic team,” says James. This blend of old and new is reflected in the self-titled ‘Techno Retro’ aesthetic that Nick has developed, which involves using classic military or vintage tailoring updated with modern fabrics and contemporary detailing such as internal pockets designed for a smartphone or tablet. The brand is also breaking new ground with products like ECOSEAM – the world’s first environmentally friendly fabric finish that can render any fabric water resistant, which flies off the shelves in designs such as cotton blazers and sand-coloured chinos.
A timeless aesthetic means the customer base attracted to Private White is broad, but James believes there are some key common values that unite his customers. “We are becoming increasingly popular with people who feel alienated or disconnected from big brands who have lost the soul of what they do,” he explains. “We have some customers who are impulsive, but we also like those that have thought really carefully about what they are buying, researching exactly they want.” Thanks to the advent of the internet, finding detailed information about the origins of your clothes has never been easier – something that has shed light on the manufacture of luxury garments and the ‘Made in Britain’ tag that so many brands are keen to capitalise on, regardless of where materials are sourced from, or how much of the initial manufacture is carried out abroad.
“For me the key question is where are the components from and where is the garment stitched,” says James. “People also care where ultimate ownership of a brand lies, and with Private White it’s me who owns the business. I’m not located offshore and we’re not a big, faceless company. We’re a proper little community – of suppliers, machinists and creatives.” The sum of all this is what Ashley describes as a “high integrity brand,” which can tell a full and detailed story about every component it uses on its garments, down to the smallest button.
Despite the brand’s growing success, the Private White team continues to remain compact, which allows James to keep a close watch over every aspect of manufacture. “We want to be in total control of our supply chain,” he explains. “There’s no franchise partners or retail partners – that’s not us.” Remaining true to the Private White ethos is paramount for James, who believes that the brand has the potential to continue reaching a wider audience. “As long as we stick to our existing values, I don’t see an issue with expanding,” says James. “Both our stores are performing extremely well and if they continue at this rate, we’ll be looking into opening another site sometime next autumn/winter – whether in London, New York or Tokyo.”
Throughout my time with the Private White team I found myself enamored with the brand's complete lack of pretension or fashion snobbery. James and his team talk honestly about the challenges of running a factory, gabble passionately about fabrics and trimmings, and are happy to demonstrate the dustier, less glamorous corners of the manufacturing process that other labels like to conceal behind a veneer of PR gloss. The whole operation is very human, and seeing a brand with a genuine commitment to quality, ethical manufacture flourish is a real joy. In the past 'eco-friendly' or 'ethical' brands have sometimes struggled to breakthrough into commercial success, but Private White V.C.'s new, decidedly modern approach feels exactly right for our times, and I’m excited to see where this dynamic, friendly community takes its ambition next.