Clothes to Make an Old Soldier Proud
Amidst the regeneration of Manchester’s suburbs, Private White V.C. shines as a beacon for the clothing traditions, standards and history of this part of the country. Riddle gets a tour with CEO James Eden
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
A brisk walk from Manchester town centre lies Salford. After striding past new developments and cranes doting the outskirts of Manchester, Salford still seems to have a slightly dilapidated air – as if the suburb is waiting for the money and regeneration to arrive. For many decades, the area’s busy Victorian factories were the beating heart of England’s textile trade. Today, behind the façade of one such building, a brand maintains the historic clothing and textile links to the region’s past.
Private White V.C. was started in 2011 and is resolutely keeping Manchester’s clothing heritage alive with design, pattern cutting and production all under one roof. Tapping into the archives of the many now-defunct firms, Private White VC has access to patterns and garments going back to the 1940s. Everything on the somewhat Dickensian premises is hand cut, the small amount of machine cutting for collars and thicker overcoat materials is carried out on 80 year old re-conditioned machines. As CEO James Eden says, there is a distinct whiff, “of the land that time forgot” in the factory though the charm and vibrant bustle across all floors tells of a thriving and innovative business.
Heading into the eaves of the building, the large cutting tables and bales of fabric are spread across the room – a scene that one could imagine happening in the now-derelict factories in the area 50 years ago. Moving downstairs, to where much of the sewing, finishing and pressing is done, one can see why this remains such a labour intensive process. That said, the retention of the 70 strong workforce remains pretty good. As James comments, they see a lot of churn in the first few months but, “if they make it to four months, they stay 40 years.” There are excellent relations with local colleges and Private White V.C. does tours for local school leavers to push both the brand and factory as a, “cool” environment to work in. Three apprentices are taken on each year as well.
The Private White of the firm’s name did indeed exist and win a Victoria Cross (VC) in 1917. Jack White – the great-grandfather of James – served in the 6th Battalion the Royal Lancaster Regiment (his story is told on the stylish Commando comic inspired wrapping paper the firm uses). Upon the end of the war, he took an apprenticeship in the very factory where his great-grandson’s firm now lives, eventually rising to be the owner. This intertwining and attachment of various generations continued with James. He worked on the factory floor as a holiday job when growing up; as he proudly says, he has been, “immersed” in the history and atmosphere of the fine clothing trade his whole life. Having studied for a Masters at Cambridge, James ventured into the City though did not find it to his taste.
Back in the 1950s, the factory had made for giant brands such as Burton and, by the time James was coming to the end of his spell in the Square Mile, was producing high end ready-to-wear for a number of Mayfair firms. This meant a seasonal production and business curve that by the time James bought the firm in 2010 meant the factory was in a perilous position. Creating Private White V.C. has allowed the factory to efficiently manufacture to its year round optimum capacity (it no longer produces for anyone else). Despite his previous financial career, James feels he still had to go back to scratch to learn about the clothing arena – bar some low level computing skills he has not found any of his City experience readily transferable or useful.
Given Private White V.C.’s access to the archives and garments produced in the whole area of Manchester – not just the actual factory – there is some remarkable clothing that the firm re-imagines for the modern audience. For example, they have examples of World War 2 “Ventile” coats dating back to 1943. Developed at the nearby Shirley Institute (that later became the British Textile Technology Group), ventile was designed for aircrew as a densely woven cotton order that could repel water. Venturing into the archive room is like disappearing into a time warp Narnia of clothing. Tweed, insanely thick, heavy military overcoats and an exhaustive spread of 50 years of waterproof wear assault the eye – and the nose. From of this inspiration, Private White V.C. designs the kernel of its collection; using the finest and most unusual materials to make sleek, neat, robust and modern coats. James comments that developments in how the seams can be sealed has improved the already sturdy performance of their base materials. This “techno-retro” approach does not stop with tried, tested and re-imagined materials. James demonstrated to Riddle an exceedingly lightweight, tropical weave safari type jacket. The firm’s newly patented ECOSEAM finish means a glass of water ran off the material onto the floor despite its thinness.
This high quality, unusual and slightly quirky approach has earnt Private White V.C. an international following. James points to over 60 global stockists – as far afield as Mexico and South Africa. Whilst their core range, revolves around technical overcoats, trousers and shirts are becoming ever more important as customers look to the brand for all their clothing needs. As James comments, they want people to, “buy into the brand and develop a sense of loyalty towards it.” Like all modern brands, there is the impetus to create a “go to” vibe – a company that produces the high quality essentials across the board. There is currently a small womens’ collection available in Japan, though James states a more comprehensive female collection is in the offing for September 2016.
According to James the Private White V.C. customer tends to be in his early 30s or older. Frequently professional, they have, “an appreciation and fascination with craft.” The brands use of retro-military materials is a huge selling point too as is the current international love affair with “Made in England.” Indeed, James smiles when he says it’s not unusual for many overseas customers to make a second pilgrimage to the factory in Salford after big European Cup matches at Manchester football grounds. The brand sees a fair number of women buying for their men. There is also, he feels, clear opportunity for overseas growth with Germany, Japan and the US currently level-pegging as the firm’s leading markets abroad. UK wholesale growth is strong with Harrods being recently added to Selfridges and Fenwick’s as a stockist.
A made to measure service has been offered at Private White V.C. ’s Mayfair shop for some 15 months now. Available across a range of garments, there is a separate small team on the second floor of the factory now dedicated to this.
James feels, “huge progress has been made over the past five years, everyone at Private White V.C. is very proud of what’s been achieved.” That said, he feels the biggest challenge over that time has been keeping the factory afloat financially over the early couple of years commenting “I can’t think of another vertically integrated factory brand that has thrived.” However, thrive it has and there are aspirations to open stand-alone shops within the next two years in New York and Tokyo. The factory retains some incredibly skilled and respected senior sample tailors who continue to set the standard to constantly aim towards. The factory shop was recently formally opened by Princess Anne who made a point of shaking hands with everyone there – and patting Brutus, James’s beloved dog.
Private White V.C. is undoubtedly niche as its prices are high. Having seen though the care, thought and history that shines through in the clothing, should you be looking for perhaps just one unusual, quirky but very robust and practical investment piece check out the old soldier’s Manchester based firm.
Enquiries: Private White VC, Factory Shop, Cottenham House, 1 Cottenham Lane, Manchester M3 7LJ / 01618 347521/ www.privatewhitevc.com/
& 73 Duke Street, Mayfair, London W1