Founded in 1932, after the man it’s named for returned a hero from the First World War, Private White V.C. is a high-end menswear brand born from one worldwide trauma, and currently wrestling with another.
Despite The Interline and Private White V.C. (hereafter “Private White”) both being Manchester, UK businesses, we observed social distancing measures and met up virtually with James Eden, the brand’s current CEO, and great-grandson of its founder.
On the slate was Eden’s commitment to vertical integration, local sourcing, high-skilled regional employment – all pillars of the Private White business model – his attitude to technology, and the company’s commitment to producing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.
This is a profile of a different kind of company, a story of how passion and principles can weather cataclysmic change, and how being traditional has rolled around to being progressive again.
The Interline: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us at an exceptionally difficult juncture for fashion, and retail in general. How is Private White faring right now?
James Eden: We have furloughed a lot of our staff. We’ve got a flagship store in Mayfair that’s been closed for some time now – since about a week before the official lockdown. We have a factory here in Manchester – the last clothing factory in the world’s first industrial city – that’s closed until further notice. And we’ve got an online business that’s still actively trading and still in-demand, which I’m thankful for.
From a commercial point of view, we’re having to be sensible and pragmatic, because we have stocks that we need to sell, and we’re trying to navigate that terrain as best we can.
We’re also in ongoing, deep and meaningful discussions with the Ministry of Defence and Department of Health about setting up a significant operation in our factory to manufacture non-surgical, non-sterile gowns for healthcare workers, because those are the most coveted and in-demand personal protective equipment today.
[Shortly before going to press, Private White submitted final samples of non-surgical gowns for independent testing, paving the way for its Manchester factory to begin one of the UK’s largest domestic production runs of this sort of PPE – Editor]
The Interline: Like a lot of brands and retailers right now, you’re straddling a very difficult line between wanting to do some measure of social good, but also needing to stay afloat. How are you conveying that message?
James Eden: We’re in a fortuitous position for a few reasons. First of all, there aren’t many startups in textile manufacturing, so if, like us, you’re still weaving fabric and cutting and sewing in the Northwest of England, it’s because you’re doing something right. From that point of view, we run a very neat, high-performance, regional supply chain and we employ the best of the best. People have been here for, in some cases, forty or fifty years, so our model has been tested before.
Secondly, we have high demand and not a great deal of seasonality in our products. In summer we might use lighter fabrics and lighter construction, and in wintertime we use heavier wools, but a Private White jacket is designed to be quite timeless. So we’re seasonal in terms of climate, but not in terms of prints and patterns, for example. And as I mentioned, most of our products sell out. Given that we’re a small factory by global standards, the demand for our products always outstrips supply even in normal circumstances.
But even with those things in mind, we have to be sensible. Our customers need to know that, yes, we’re doing what we can to minimise and suppress our operating costs, but we need cash coming into the business in order to survive. So while we don’t want to discount – nobody wants to discount – we’re doing it today as a way to show our appreciation for our customers, and fortunately people are leaping at the opportunity.
In terms of actually conveying that message, I think people like transparency. We’ve tried to be as honest and open as possible about how our business is coping, and we’re being incredibly clear about what we’re doing with the PPE effort.
The Interline: On that point, how did you take the decision to start trying to manufacture PPE at your Manchester factory? From a family and friends perspective, The Interline knows a lot of people who either currently work in hospitals or used to, and if this crisis has any sort of silver lining, it’s that a lot of people are in the same position – suddenly reminded of how much we owe the National Health Service.
James Eden: Like a lot of people, I’ve been extremely distressed by the horror stories I’ve heard – some first-hand – about the people who are defending us not having the right equipment. My uncle and grandfather were both GPs [General Practitioners, or community doctors – Editor] and my mother-in-law is a retired nurse. So the NHS is dear to me like it is to everyone.
I’ve also long lamented the tragic demise of the British textile industry, and as you can tell I’m very passionate and quite vociferous about the need to have a domestic supply chain – at times of war and at times of peace. And not to sound too sensationalist, but we’re at war now and we all have to do everything we can to defend ourselves. So this was not a difficult decision to make.
The Interline: When it comes to having an almost purely domestic supply chain, do you see yourself as being ahead of the curve? If we think back a year, or even a few months, your model could be interpreted as an anachronism; sourcing and making in one country when the whole interconnected world was at your disposal. Today, though, with the longer tendrils of multinational sourcing and manufacturing being taken away, a way of working that looked quaint not too long ago suddenly looks a lot more future-proof.
James Eden: I think the way you look at that is going to depend on your business model and on what you’re comparing yourself to. Should a cobbler from Northampton have a global supply chain, for instance? Some money men would say yes; some people would say no. The route you take is going to depend on what you stand for.
I like to source things from within the UK because I think it’s the best quality that I can get my hands on, and it also sits conveniently with my moral compass and my desire to have closer control. Is my way of doing things antiquated? To me, no. To someone else it may be. But it’s something I’ve always clung to.
Now, does it make me feel all warm and fuzzy to say “I told you so”? No. Do I actually say that to anyone? Absolutely not. Does my model make my business more dynamic or more desirable right now… maybe, maybe not. But I don’t look at it like that. I prefer to say that we’ve got a supply chain that’s as strong as ever, our demand is still far outstripping our supply, and I’m happy being able to make the best quality product we can, with the best locally-sourced materials.
I want to point out, though, that we’re not a one-country business. In fact our model is primarily export-led; something like 75% of our sales go to customers outside the UK. And while we have that big, buoyant Mayfair store, there are a lot of travellers, bankers, engineers and other professionals who shop there. It’s a very international community.
Our wholesale business – about 20% of our group turnover is allocated to strategic wholesale – is also mainly outside the UK, with coverage in Mexico, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
The Interline: One way to look at it could be that, the tighter-knit your operations are, the greater insight and oversight you have, the less risk you’re exposed to. And risk is obviously everywhere at the moment.
James Eden: I think there’s some truth in that. Having full control over quality and delivery is extremely important to me, and that goes hand-in-hand with being able to identify and mitigate risk. If there’s a problem with one of our looms, I can get in a car and go and take a look. If there’s an issue with the fusing or the auxiliary on my factory floor, I can go and fix it.
If I wanted to just make money, I wouldn’t be pouring blood, sweat, and tears into making products in Manchester – I’d be doing it somewhere else. But not only do I like that level of ownership, but it also reduces our reliance on external factors and other people. It’s our factory, and we’re the only customers – except for the room we’re making for the Ministry of Defence at the moment.
I’ve run that other model before; when we first took over the factory we were manufacturing for a British luxury brand, and every quarter was like snakes and ladders. You’d have a buoyant, profitable quarter, then the next moment you’d have the carpet pulled from underneath you when one of your customers has a change of direction, a change of heart, or a shift in procurement policy. Suddenly your business is decimated overnight.
The Interline: That’s more than likely a position a lot of manufacturers find themselves in at the moment, with big brands and retailers pulling payments for existing orders and not placing new ones. We’re talking about risk here as though it’s something only the brand has to bear.
James Eden: Absolutely. It’s a picture I’ve seen both sides of, and that’s definitely informed the way I want to run my business.
The Interline: Changing tack, what’s your relationship like with technology? Where does this commitment to tradition and craftsmanship meet the modern edge?
James Eden: When it comes to textile manufacturing, there are some things you can automate – cutting cloth, for example, is fine – and some things you currently can’t. The actual sewing and assembly of our products, where we work across different compositions, textures, drapes, and thicknesses… it’s not impossible to automate that, but it’s certainly not something I see coming in the next five or ten years.
I do still see Private White as progressive, though. We’ve invested heavily in getting hold of the right machinery and the right equipment to get the best possible job done – without compromising quality. And if I can find a manufacturing process that can be automated using technology, without cutting corners, then I’ll embrace it like you wouldn’t believe.
We’re also, I think, well-placed on the curve in terms of our marketing and distribution. Everything we do online, from Shopify to SaaS inventory management, pricing, and workflow and stock monitoring, is done digitally.
The Interline: And what about the creative side? If we look beyond the operational aspects, how do you feel about the use of technology in design and development?
James Eden: Because we do everything in-house, we’re quite conventional in that regard. We start with a product mix that we create by sticking sketches and fabric swatches on a physical moodboard. And because we don’t outsource anything except the weaving and sourcing of raw materials, we do our master patterns by hand, on card.
We do use computers for grading, alterations, the printing of the lay plans and so on, as well as working with 2D CAD software.
The Interline: Our current editorial focus is 3D, so we’re keen to get your take on that. In the face of the coronavirus crisis, there seems to be a real rush towards 3D because it allows designers and technical designers to visualise how a prototype or a sample might look in person. For the most part, though, 3D has value there because it solves a problem that was introduced by offshoring – people can no longer touch samples immediately, because they need to be shipped overseas. In Private White’s case, that same disconnect doesn’t exist. Do you see a place for 3D design or visualisation in your business?
James Eden: I think the value of 3D is going to depend on your business model and your product mix. A friend of mine runs the eyewear brand Cubitts, and they use 3D models to allow customer to try on the glasses with their smartphone camera. We don’t have anything like that, but it’s something I’d like to explore in due course, when the results look good enough.
For the actual design and development process, though, I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with 3D yet. If you’re a shirting brand, for example, or you’re making a maxi dress, 3D sampling is probably adequate, because those product types can be quite forgiving, fit-wise. Whereas with us, at our price point, with the complexity of our products and the different fabric combinations, fit is vital for our guy. A Private White trench coat or blazer has to fit like a glove.
I also see the value of 3D as being more for huge teams with thousands of wholesale partners, where they need a relative affordable way of presenting a collection. In our case, we have much more limited capacity, and we’d rather sell direct where we can.
The Interline: Perhaps the best way to look at technology adoption is that digital transformation looks different for everyone. The Interline has recently made the case that fashion needs to finish its digital transformation, but that doesn’t need to imply that there’s a universal solution for every brand and every retailer.
James Eden: The way I look at it: we’re doing what needs to be done. We’re not trying to spearhead any kind of digital campaign, because I think our real value-add is the product. Everything we do – all our investment, all our skill – is done in service of the product first and foremost.
I don’t doubt that there will be margin gains to be made to our efficiency and our sleekness of selling, but we’ll embrace those technologies when the time is right. Whether it’s internal collaboration or customer loyalty programmes, we keep an eye on what’s out there, and when it makes sense for the business, we’ll embrace something new.
The Interline: Finally, you’ve obviously staked a bold claim to national and regional identity for a long time. Do you think that’s resonating with people in a new way now? The world is clearly in the grip of a horrible tragedy, and we don’t mean to diminish that, but from a consumer perspective it feels as though the crisis is reframing people’s outlook and prompting them to look inwards and at their immediate surroundings – in a positive way. Are you seeing that, and if so do you expect it to continue when we eventually reach a post-COVID-19 world?
James Eden: I believe so, yes. Let’s be clear: ours is a very niche product. The price point, the design sensibility, and the philosophy behind it… it won’t resonate enough with that many people to bring about any large-scale change by itself. The lion’s share of people – in the UK and around the world – might give principles like ours some thought, but ultimately, for them, price is everything and quality is a distant second. And that’s fine.
But then you do have the early adopters and brand evangelists who are fascinated by businesses like ours. We have Private White enthusiasts around the world who are incredibly loyal, and who have an unbelievable respect for what we do. When we release a new product, they’ll buy it. And I believe there will be more and more of those guys as a wider audience finds out about us.
I do see a bigger shift happening in society, though. Lots of people are opting to buy their meat and vegetables from a local butcher, farm shop, or regional supplier. And I think that kind of emotionally-charged buying behaviour is similar to what drives people to our clothes.
So will this pandemic evolve the thinking of more people? Yes. I think it will. There are people out there who can afford to buy better clothing – better sourced, better made – from a regional supply chain that resonates with them, whether it’s local or not. People are increasingly thinking about the implications of where and why and how and who they’re buying from, and the knock-on effects their decisions have.
Whatever you do, I believe that as long you’re documenting the process and working with honesty and integrity, the right people are going to be charmed by that.
For more on Private White V.C.’s involvement in supporting healthcare professionals in the UK, and what the COVID-19 crisis could mean for regional manufacturing and supply chains, consider reading James Eden’s article “A Watershed Moment For Made In Britain”.