The Interview: James Eden, Owner, Private White V.C.
Private White V.C.’s owner, James Eden, talks on how made in England, sustainability, quality production and nurturing new talent is making a comeback - with premium pieces for discerning chaps at home and abroad.
How did your recent collaboration with Loro Piana come about?
We’ve known the guys at Loro Piana for many years. They’re the makers of the best fabrics and yarns in the world. There’s not many more revered and prestigious than them. What we try to do here at Private White V.C. is source and use the best of the best. We set a very high standard, and that’s what we try to maintain. We wanted a technical, high performance, quality, tactile and soft fabric that men could perform in, whether for work or play, and all roads led to Loro Piana. Marrying that with our level of expertise when it comes to sewing and hand finishing, then you’ve got a great partnership. We recently produced a raincoat, a shacket and travel blazer using Loro Piana fabrics. In our main collection, our waterproof Ventile raincoat and Ventile Harrington are the best sellers.
Do you have any other collaborations going on?
We’re always looking to grow and develop our relationship with Jaguar. We do the ultimate driving jacket with them, and that’s going extremely well. It’s a Ventile Harrington with a zip-out wool-wadded gilet, which currently retails at £795.
How is your business in general at the moment?
Across all areas of the business we’re growing quite significantly, and we’re finding that we don’t need to push that hard. If you stand for high quality, and the product is good enough, then people will come knocking at your door – which is what they are doing. We’ve reigned in the costs associated with our wholesaling, and we’re reaping the benefits because we’re letting our products do the talking.
Are you finding you’re getting more interest in your brand as people look for product that’s quality and built to last?
Absolutely. In April just gone, year-on-year for that month we were up something like 500%. May is also looking strong. So, like-for-like we’re doing some staggering numbers. And that’s without me having an Amex card behind the counter at Facebook! We don’t have huge bills to deal with, it’s through word of mouth and organic endorsement. It’s taken people a while to find and convert to Private White, but then we’re a relatively young business. But people are noticeably now seeking out product that will last them a long time and serve them well. Also, product that is made beautifully and ethically, with social responsibility and sustainability. I think we’re quietly becoming known for all of those things, without the ability to really roar about it. We can’t sponsor football teams, or do tube takeovers, because we’re just not set up to do that. So, we just let the product do the talking and hope that enough people will create a network of brand ambassadors that will continue wearing and loving the product, singing the virtues to their friends, family and associates.
When was it that you actually launched the Private White V.C. brand?
It was 2013, so six years ago now, but it does take a while in the clothing and fashion business to appear on the radar of most consumers. Also, you have to bear in mind that our price point means we are not an impulse buy. Our guy is quite purist and considered, and he wants to research the meaning, quality, heritage and back story. It takes a while for him to become convinced that our product is worthy of his investment.
How old is the Manchester factory you’re in?
It’s still a contentious issue, but we’ve got the deeds that take it back to 1878, so a long time! We resurrected it. I took over the factory when Burberry pulled the plug on it. But my family does have history with this factory from way back. Private White was my great grandfather, Jack White, and he who won a V.C. in WWI. He became an apprentice here, then a manager and then the owner, but he passed away at the end of the 1940’s. The business then moved on in to other ownerships.
Do you sell directly from the factory as well as online and in your shop at 73 Duke Street in London’s Mayfair?
Yes, we have a shop attached to the factory that people love to visit. In fact, we’ve got the most fantastic access all areas factory here in Manchester, and we’re on the outskirts of the city centre, by the River Irwell. We’re actually only an eight-minute walk to or from Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. People come and have a walk around and breathe in the blood, sweat, tears, years and enthusiasm of what we do.
Do you have plans to open any more stores going forward?
We’re always looking for opportunities, but I still think we need to make a few more mistakes and perfect our retail proposition, which we’re doing all the time. Retail is a tough business, but I do think there is a real appetite for additional units in London, and then I think from there we would probably look to somewhere like Paris or New York. It’s very much in our plans going forward.
Do you have a strong international business?
It’s the majority of our business, with something like 70% of our turnover coming from overseas. The US actually takes up some 60% of our overseas sales. People are now innately comfortable about buying a product online. They trust what they see on the page. With online buying I think you either love doing it, and feel comfortable doing it, or you just don’t do it full stop.
Once they have committed to a Private White V.C. purchase, do customers come back for more?
Yes, our retention rate of customers is extremely high. I think that’s why we’re growing so significantly. Virtually all of those people that have bought from us historically come back in a much bigger way. Once you’ve invested in one of our products, and you’ve utilised it and benefited from it, then it makes sense to come back – even if it’s after one or two seasons. If you’re in the market for something else, and you’ve already harvested that level of trust, respect and confidence in something, then you return to it. That’s prompting a lot of repeat customers for sure.
How would you best describe your customer base?
It’s a mix, but our customers tend to be fairly affluent. We’ve got some guys who are very fashion conscious and stylish, and who loves clothes and wardrobe building, but we’ve also got another customer who just likes surrounding himself with good, high quality things. He’s not necessarily in the market to shop all day, every day. So, when he does make the effort to shop, he’ll shop in quite a big way.
What’s new that you’ve introduced to your business recently?
We’ve just opened a new training academy on site, making shirting, which I’m very proud of. It serves as a vehicle to train our budding seamstresses. It’s actually for anyone who wants to work in textiles, who has the enthusiasm and desire to make things. The chances are they’ve not had the experience or the opportunity to make things elsewhere in the past. The halcyon days of hundreds of raincoat factories up and down the River Irwell are long gone, so the opportunity is not there. If we’re going to continue growing then we need to train and develop the raw skills and enthusiasm of our staff. It’s very difficult to train someone up on a very complicated trench coat or overcoat, so we’ve identified shirting as an area whereby we can upskill and train people here on site. So, we’ve opened that up as a new product category to give us that opportunity.