Behind Private White V.C. is a rich history, a 100-year-old factory, and a creative ethos as diligently crafted as the garments the British brand produces. We visited both the London office and Manchester factory to talk with Mr. Nick Ashley, creative director of Private White V.C., to understand the brand’s source of inspiration and the engine that keeps it moving.
It only takes the sum of three minutes to realize we’re in the presence of a man who possesses as much brilliance as he does charm. And another two to start talking motorcycles.
“I’m 18 months away from a bus pass,” says Nick, laughing melodically alongside his pointed Welsh accent. “I’m nearly 60 years old, but I can’t grow out of it. I’ve already stopped doing motocross and desert racing, so now I’m only flat track racing. I’m trying to throttle back…but it’s hard!”
Throttling back, for Mr. Ashley, entails racing his 1943 Harley Davidson WLC V-Twin 750, regularly the oldest bike on the track. Racing seems to be as much an inherited pastime from his adventure-seeking father as it is a personification of his own zealous drive. “It’s just adrenaline, you know? If you’re really focused on something and driving towards it, you get kind of tired…but then you’re up again.”
Mr. Ashley is up again this day, like the day before it (and each day over the past four and a half years) busy designing his next collection and driving the creative vision for Private White V.C., an iconically British brand that’s creating some of the most beautiful products we’ve seen and worn to date.
Private White V.C. pays homage to its namesake WWI hero Private Jack White. In 1917, Mr. White was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious honor which can be bestowed on British and Commonwealth forces, for his courageous actions in rescuing his fellow soldiers in battle at the age of 21.
Shortly after his service, Jack White apprenticed in Manchester as a trainee pattern cutter at a local factory, going on to become General Manager and then owner. During his time as owner, Jack brought with him Yorkshire influences, which led to the company specializing in woollen garments, rather than just traditional Lancashire cotton raincoats and mackintoshes.
In 1997, nearly 50 years after Mr. White’s death and many changes in ownership, the company and factory was acquired by Mr. White’s great grandson James Eden who, as of 2011, now champions the virtues of his grandfather’s craftsmanship under the name “Private White V.C.”. The brand manufactures garments in honor of their family’s legacy, many items based on classic wartime pieces, updated with added functionality and detail for the modern man.
After a few minutes spent on Private White’s website (or as we did, in their London flagship store and Manchester factory), it is immediately evident that these garments are something special. Simple. Elegant. Functional. Masculine. Luxurious. And oh-so-wonderfully British.
While numerous brands are quick to denote a British pedigree, many of them only make a handful of products in the UK while the rest of their line is made abroad. At best, this is misleading and confusing to customers, and belies the true quality of each garment. Out of the many outfitters who lay claim to a Made in England label, Private White V.C. is one of the very few that does so with generations of expertise, traditional non-automated machinery, locally sourced materials, and an enduring reputation for quality. So much so that “Made in England” isn’t specific enough — the brand proudly labels every piece with their iconic mark of “Made in Manchester”. Practicing the same attention to detailed craftsmanship of its legacy, these garments are as aesthetically and authentically beautiful as they are functional and practical.
We had the privilege to spend several days with Mr. Nick Ashley, the creative director of Private White V.C., to discuss what makes him tick. We explored the ethos and creative process of this storied and immensely talented designer. In transcribing our interview, there was such richness in many of Mr. Ashley’s responses that we opted to publish them as such.
Tell us about your design experience. Where did you get your start?
“It started on the kitchen table with my mother. If I’d been a farmer’s son, I probably would have taken up farming. My mother was a designer and my father was a printer obsessed with factories — that’s the space I grew up in. So when I was old enough, I formalized it by going to St. Martin’s school of fashion for three years, then Savile Row for a couple of years, worked at Vogue magazine for a year. Then I went into the family business (Laura Ashley) when I was 21. I was creative director for about 15 years, and it was 15 golden years — the company grew from £50 million to over £500 million in that period. It was an incredible time.”
“Then I started my own business which I ran for 15 years, after which I did a few other bits and pieces, Dunhill and Tod’s mostly. And now I’m doing [Private White] and I absolutely couldn’t be happier. Everything I’ve done up to this point is like an apprenticeship, and here I am finally a master. The good thing about getting older is you become a master of something. If you’re not worried about age and getting old, then it’s something to look forward to. You can celebrate it. You can concentrate on being fantastically good when you’re older. It’s like living your life backward. They say Capricorns are born old and get younger. I’m a Capricorn. Ever since I’ve been born I’ve been improving myself all my life, and I’ve still got a bit of a way to go yet. I’m on a constant quest for self improvement, so I don’t consider myself a lesser form of myself when I was younger, I consider myself not quite there yet.”
How did you come to work at Private White?
“The Private White factory is one I’ve actually known for 25 years (previously by the name of Cooper & Stollbrand). I had my own label with a shop in Notting Hill and ten shops in Japan selling British made stuff, which I designed and had made here. Mike, who had been running the factory for years said to me ‘Nick, we’re going to have to close the factory down because it’s just contract work and they’re squeezing me more and more on price and everyone else has gone to China.’ But he had a lifeline in James (Eden) who had recently decided he wanted to have a go at running his family business and make it go vertical. Mike said ‘We have a factory and James knows how to run a business, but we don’t know how to design it or sell it.’ So I said ‘I’ll be on the next train’. I went up there, we chatted over it, put a collection together, and that was our first Private White collection.”
What’s happened since?
“From then until now, which is about a four-and-a-half year period, we’ve been trying to turn the factory from 100% CMT to 100% making for our own label (CMT stands for “cut, make, trim” referring to the manufacturing of other brands’ designs). We’re about 95% there now.”
“Now four years in, instead of just designer, I’ve also become the creative director. Not only am I designing the collection, I’m taking care of the image of the company…photoshoots, store design, website, everything. I’m really good at designing creative and absolute shit at everything else. Give me your money and I’ll lose it, but I’ll make it pretty while I’m at it.”
“James is the business and marketing and really clever guy — he’s got the balls on the table. It’s his business, not mine, and it’s his family business. He offered me part of the equity and I turned it down. I want him to have his family business, and I’m a component. If I fail to come up with the goods, he’s got to get rid of me and replace me. Because the business is more valuable than me and my ego.”
“I think design and fashion reflects the evolution of mankind. It’s questionable whether designers need to design more. Do we need more clothes on this planet? Do I need to exist in my superficial world, twice a year coming up with these must-have ideas and all that fashion crap? Not really. But so long as the customers are demanding it, then we’ll supply it. And the reason why customers demand it is because they want change and the world is changing around them — changing now more than ever. Technology is changing so people’s clothes are changing. It’s not just because they need plumbing in their trousers for their iPod lead, people are becoming more casual now. People are moving around more and traveling in more cramped conditions on cheaper flights with hand baggage. So they need more pockets on their coat because their coat now has to become a bag. All of these things have to be accounted for. Things are changing and evolving and I have to live that life to understand how these things are evolving. The guys in Manchester work in Manchester. I’m out here living the life of the customer. I understand what it’s like to race a 17-foot yacht and then head to dinner. Let’s say right now I want to go from this meeting straight back with you to Portland to race. I’ll go in the clothes I’m wearing. I’ve got my passport in the passport pocket in my jacket. They’re smart clothes you can wear in Mayfair, but they’re also great for racing a boat in Portland as well. Button it up and it’s waterproof. And then in the evening we can go to a cocktail party and look fly. That’s how people want their clothes to work.”
“So ultimately, I want to be a solution to my customers problem. The best clothes are problem solvers. Most people have everything already, so if they’re going to buy anything new, it’s going to be something that solves a particular problem — it’s got more pockets, it’s more machine-washable, it’s warmer, it’s more multi-functional, it’s cooler. It does something or performs some function you don’t have.”
What’s your process for design?
“I start with my eyes. I do design on my motorbike and in my car. And I watch people. I’m designing product for people, and my favorite thing in the world is to sit on the street corner and just eyeball. My father taught me that. You have to understand your customer. You have to be your customer. That’s the most important thing. And that customer is changing all the time, so you’ve got to be watching what they’re doing, what they’re buying, and what they’re not buying. The customer dictates what they want to wear — so that’s what we give them. I react to customer demand. To be merely active is being a fashion designer. To be reactive is to be a service to the customer.”
There’s a confluence of military background along with racing in the Private White collection. How do you get those to converge? How does the collection become a whole?
“There has to be some sort of signature to the clothing. It’s more than just the ethos of the brand. I love military stuff, and there’s a military heritage that we can use. But I’m not going to do WWI British military clothing because there were like, 3 items of clothing they wore. Soldiers were actually supplementing items from home because the government didn’t. I’m also inspired by lot from American military stuff, cause American military stuff is fucking fabulous. So that’s an influence. Soldiers are good at designing things — if you have bullets fired at you, you need to have an ammo pocket in the right spot and make sure everything works — that’s great design by necessity.”
“We’re also a British brand, so there has to be a sense of Britishness to it, but I don’t want to be all stuffy and stick-up-the-ass British. What people want from Britain is not the styling of the product – they want harris tweed. They want British materials. Our collection is made from cotton, linen, wool, horn, leather. And we use raw copper buttons custom made in Switzerland, and paper packaging. All elemental, natural stuff. There’s a particular kind of Britishness about that as well.”
What’s your favorite piece in the current collection?
“It’s called the yardi-cardi. It’s a multifunctional jacket. Made from washable suede in the body and polartec fleece on the sleeves. It stretches at the back, is windproof at the front, and has great thermal quality. It does everything from having lunch or working at the office to riding a bike or sailboat.”
What’s something new you’re working on?
“We’re reinstating an old British brand of sheep called a blue-faced leicester. It’s a beautiful and fine wool, almost like a cashmere. So we’re getting those sheep and will be able to control the fibers and up the quality of the construction of the cloth weave. We’ll use a venetian weave, which is a compacted, high twist yarn which will be made into a twill. It will be very wind proof and practically waterproof. It’s also breathable and lasts a lifetime.”
You’ve inherited much of your drive and sense of adventure from you dad – what’s one of the more memorable stories that exemplifies your father?
“One time, we flew to Australia to visit some Laura Ashley customers. I flew in a commercial jet and my father flew in his own aircraft. So we went from store to store on our visits. And when it came time to head home, I hopped in the British Airways jumbo jet and my father was going to fly his own plane back home. So the jumbo levels off after take off and the hostess comes back to me and says ‘Mr. Ashley, the pilot wants to see you.’ So I went up to the front of the aircraft and the pilot says, ‘Can you sit in the jump seat and put these headphones on? And then look out that window there and you’ll see your father.’ I looked out the window and my fucking father was flying on besides the aircraft. He said over the headset, ‘See ya, kid’, gave a wing waggle and then peeled off. I’ve certainly not got a normal dad. He did things that made him feel free. His home was a rock spinning in space with no borders.”
Any advice for other designers or creatives?
“If you come up with a good idea, people will rip you off. In fact, if others don’t rip you off, you want to be worried. But that’s what I like about it – it’s very highly competitive. So the most important thing is to be unique and original. And the best way of doing that is to be completely 100% yourself, because no one can be you. They can copy your design, your concepts, but they can’t be you. If you have a super personal approach and collection and ethos, then you’re uncopyable. Your DNA is pretty difficult to clone.”
Keep an eye out for a piece later this month featuring complete looks from Private White V.C. In the meantime, shop the entire collection at privatewhitevc.com.