For a brand that was only officially introduced in 2011, Private White V.C. packs a heritage that’s far beyond their years. The brand operates out of a factory that their namesake, Private Jack White worked at back in the early twentieth century, and it was this legacy that led White’s great grandson, James Eden to take over the factory a handful of years ago. This appreciation of the past continues on through in the brand’s designs. Nick Ashley the lead designer of Private White leans heavily on classic English shapes such as harringtons and moto-jackets. Not only does Ashley’s resume include the likes of Dunhill, Kenzo, and Tod’s, but his parents founded Laura Ashley, a company whose impact on the English textile industry cannot be overstated. We had a chance to speak with both James Eden and Nick Ashley about their brand’s history, the future of Private White V.C. and what it means to be a British brand in 2014.
ACL: Unlike many brands, with names that are pure fabrications, Private White was a real person that has a real impact on the shape of your brand. Could you give some background on Private Jack White the man?
James Eden: Private White was a local hero both on the battlefield and in business. He was quite a character who certainly made the most of his celebrity after the War. He loved his life, he loved his ladies and most of all he loved his family and factory.
ACL: White was one of the founding fathers of the Manchester Factory that you produce out of today, so at what point did you all step into the picture and found Private White V.C.?
JE: Even though my great grandfather, Private White, passed away in the late 1940s, my family has always had an emotional attachment to the factory. As a kid growing up, instead of having a paper route or working in a local shop for pocket money like many of my pals did, I would work on the shop floor or in the cutting room – cutting fabric, counting buttons, heaving rolls of cloth, basically doing exactly what I was told! Six years ago the factory was on the brink of going under and so I decided to take a leap of faith and left my job in Finance in the City of London to try and revitalize the Factory.
ACL: While Manchester has a rich manufacturing history, there aren’t many brands that produce clothing in the city these days, what made you decide to keep all of your production in Manchester?
JE: Without our own factory we have nothing and so shifting our production overseas was never an option. Our skills, history, reputation and expertise lie solely with UK production, Manchester specifically. It’s all we have and all we know.
ACL: Private White is based out of that Manchester factory, so could you elaborate a bit on how that factory operates on a day to day basis?
JE: The factory is opened at 6:45am, by our warehouse manager Pat, who has worked here for over 30 years. By 7:30am the place is rocking, rolling & pumping to the sound of sewing machines and Hoffman presses. In terms of scale we are small but beautifully formed. We have no automated cutting machinery in the cutting room whilst we have no automated jigs or automatic pocket machines on the shop floor. All our buttons holes, pockets and panels are all made by hand. We have used the same techniques and largely the same machinery for the past 30 years.
ACL: You all have really planted the flag for “English heritage,” what does that term mean to you?
JE: Heritage can mean many things to many people, to us, as a Factory Brand or Maker’s Label it’s about community, family, tradition, craft, dedication, skill and passion over generations.
Nick Ashley: As far as menswear is concerned, the British invented most of it, the suit, the overcoat, the sports jacket, the button down, the polo the wingtip brogue, the chino, etc. Many styles have been adopted by the rest of the world but as Brits we can be quietly confident with our status.
The global woven cotton trade was also founded in Manchester with Lancashire mills doing the weaving. These mills still weave our wool and cotton, and we make it up. We are the very last factory to operate like this, we are the holy grail. A heritage as powerful as this needs to be treated with respect, it needs to be nurtured, fed and moved into the sun at certain times, I like to embrace heritage, but introduce any useful and relevant technology, I call this ” Techno-Retro.”
ACL: Where do you see your collections headed?
NA: We don’t really do collections, or fashion. I prefer to think of our shop as a quartermasters store where people get kitted out in some really useful stuff. So far, we have been concentrating on getting the basics right, then pushing the quality of every component part. This is a constant quest that will never stop. When we started the direction that we took was guesswork, but now that we have customers they can help us shape the products that we make.
ACL: How does your background play into the style of the line?
NA: My background is based more on manufacturing than anything else. Both my mother (Laura Ashley) and myself have worked beside a factory as a means of supporting the manufacturing process. Ideas are cheap, it’s getting them made up that takes the time and effort. However, I have learnt quite a lot along the way, primarily about what not to do, I love knowing all the rules, then breaking them, I love leaving things out. “If in doubt, leave it out.” I strive to be effortless in design.
ACL: What sets British textiles apart?
NA: British textiles are uncompromising. They are built to last and designed to enable clothes to become entirely appropriate for the particular function that they have to perform whether practical or aesthetic . This in itself is beautiful. Attempting to move things along is a colossal challenge, but now that we have our own mills to work with the opportunity to experiment is much greater.
ACL: American audiences generally think primarily about “household names,” like Savile Row, or Harris Tweed, or Barbour when we consider English menswear, so tell us, what are we missing out on over here in the states?
NA: Savile Row continues to be fabulous, but it is only for tailoring, Harris Tweed is exquisite, but cannot be washed and is scratchy, Barbour I love, but it is a middle market product. Private White has addressed all these pitfalls, our clothes are all casual, we are developing cloth that is more user friendly, and if Barbour made a premium brand, that would be us. There is a tradition in Britain that when a man walks into a room, you should see the man, not his clothes, anything other than that is just too “try hard” this is what sets the Brits apart. The Americans see British style as being based on tailoring, but as previously mentioned, we actually wear a lot more casual clothes over here. America has made and continues to make some outstanding casual clothes, the difference with British casual clothes is that they are more multi functional, we have learned to do more with less, that means that the quality can be pushed up because it’s investment dressing.