Amidst the post-punk flair of emerging labels at London Collections Men, another name is sailing along quietly, keeping the faith, making beautiful clothes but keeping its finger firmly on the pulse of what the men want right now.
Private White V.C is a menswear brand with a focus on tough good-looking outerwear and a 100 per cent British provenance of which it is justifiably proud. It is inspired by its namesake, the WWI hero Private Jack White, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery under intense enemy fire at the age of just 20.
On White’s return to Lancashire, he began an apprenticeship at Cooper & Stollbrand, a raincoat factory, which he eventually bought. Today, the factory is headed by his grandson, James Eden, producing the label he has inspired and providing its heart and soul. White, who died in 1949, is a continual touchstone: vintage military touches run through olive shooting jackets, luxurious Chesterfield coats and natty bombers, but clever detailing and design twists keep the clothes completely up-to-date.
But what stands out about the brand today is its intelligent mix of tradition and modernity, soul and sales. Late last year, Private White VC opened its first London store, on fashionable Duke Street, where it teamed up with like-minded brands including Dr Harris, John Smedley and Globetrotter to present a comprehensive offering to a sophisticated clientele. I speak to creative director Nick Ashley, son of Laura, about the brand – past, present and future.
Bel: The shop is looking impressive.
Nick: Yes, I like the idea of it being like a quartermaster’s store. If you’re going to the tropics, we have tropical weave; if it’s going to be rainy, it’s raincoats. We don’t provide Savile Row tailoring but we can outfit like a gentleman’s outfitters.
Bel: Tell me about the beginning of your involvement with the brand.
Nick: I’d used Cooper & Stollbrand when I was head of design at Dunhill because I thought Dunhill should be made in Great Britain. Then, when the current owner Mike Stoll was about to shut down, I said, ‘let’s start our own label and see if we can make some nice product.’
Bel: Who is the Private White VC shopper?
Nick: I’ve two daughters; one is 23, the other is 19. Some of their friends are wealthy; they’re all into their clothes. And they want to wear hoodies and tracksuits, with a really lovely cashmere coat over top and a fantastic pair of trainers. That’s the way they’re dressing. We make stuff for the dads as well, but it’s the young ones I’m interested in. And it’s surprising. When we opened this shop in Mayfair, you’d think it would just be old hedge fund managers, but actually it’s young hedge fund managers wearing really nice sneakers.
Bel: Private White VC is still an informing force?
Nick: Private White Nick is James’ Great Grandfather. He was a Private in the Army in the First World War. He was the first Jew in this country to get a Victoria Medal for bravery, so he was a very significant man. Because he was a military man, I’ve used that theme for the collection.
Bel: “Made in Britain” is core to the brand.
Nick: It’s everything to us. And it’s not something we set out to do, it was because people wanted stuff made in Britain. There are a lot of companies out there, with a small part of their production in Britain, pretending to be Made in Britain, but they’re just greenwashing. With us, from sheep to shop, the whole thing is British. We’ve got control of the manufacturing in our own factory, we weave our cloths using our own mills.
Bel: There’s seems to be an enormous sense of community in the factory.
Nick: The factory was started by Jewish migrants and there are migrants there today. We invite anyone to come and see it. You can touch and prod the machinists. They’re alive and they’ve got full welfare. Mike is an expert at employing people. The last time I was up at the factory, he said, ‘Come and meet Tracey, this girl from Romania who’s been there about a month. She’s terribly happy. She was living with some gangsters before and now she has her own council flat.’ And we went to see her and he said, ‘How are you, Tracey? Are you comfortable?’ And she said, ‘I will be comfortable.’ And he said, ‘What do you mean? Doesn’t the heating work?’ And she said, ‘No I’ll be comfortable when I have a mattress.” She was sleeping on the floor. So, Mike said, ‘ah, ok we’ll sort that out.’ So, van, Ikea, mattress, sorted it all out, got a few other things. That’s what running a factory is all about. I get excited about colour schemes and everything but not half as excited as sorting out Tracey’s mattress. And if we have to be a luxury brand selling to uber wealthy people to do so, then so be it.
Bel: Materials are sourced locally …
Nick: Yes, my wife is in then sheep production but then again, we can only do 25% of our annual collection in wool because we’re mainly selling to people from abroad, where three quarters of the time, it’s summer. We love making in the UK with UK fibres but people love our cotton and cotton’s not a UK-produced fibre. I come from a family that made a fortune out of cotton so I can’t bite the hand that feeds me too much but I’m shifting to linen as fast as I can. The fact remains it takes 20,000 litres to make a pair of cotton jeans, and that’s normally in a country where they’re a bit short of water.
Bel: This move away from cotton sounds ethically driven?
Nick: I’m driven by my daughters and their friends. They’re people who will save up to buy something that makes them feel good about themselves; what the Japanese call a ‘high-touch product’, something that enriches their soul and is meaningful to them. They’ll look after it, they’ll maintain that relationship with it, and they want to know who made it and where it came from.
Bel: What would you like to see for this brand in five years?
Nick: I’m very commercial so I’d like to be making exactly what the customer wants. I’ve always worked with factories – my parents had 13 – so I’m happiest when the factory is full and busy. That means we’re selling stuff. I’m not interested in awards, I don’t even want much attention. What floats my boat is to see everyone gainfully occupied, everything flying out, everyone happy, customers getting exactly what they want. And then we can expand. If I can create 500 jobs in this country in my lifetime, I’ll be happy.