Local heroes: Private White VC founder James Eden tells us about honouring his remarkable family legacy

By Michelle Johnson | 19 Jul 2021 | Culture, Style, Brits, Leaders

The menswear maestro, whose clothes are a staple of the industry, wants to celebrate the best of British manufacturing

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Manchester-based menswear brand Private White VC has been an understated style staple of discerning gentlemen since its launch in 2013. But, behind the scenes, founder James Eden is also using his unshakeable determination and energy to honour a family legacy while flying the flag for sustainable British craftsmanship. 

Former investment banker Eden packed up his lucrative life in the City in 2012 in favour of trying his hand at running the clothing manufacture business his great-grandfather, Victoria Cross-recipient Jack White, had owned in the 1940s. 

Soon seeing a market for an independent brand that championed the fine materials and high-quality craftsmanship the factory’s artisans had at their fingertips, Eden launched Private White VC with a uniquely local ethos. In fact, 90% of products are made in the brand’s Salford factory, with the remaining products coming from a small number of partner factories. 

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“We get our shoes from Northampton and knitwear from Scotland,” Eden tells Tempus. “What we’re brilliant at, what we’re known for, is the products we make ourselves. I think we make some of the best products in the world – but, I mean, I would say that.”

Since then, its classic-contemporary style (which Eden describes as “techno-retro”) has gone from strength to strength, honouring the traditions of “Cottonopolis”, as Manchester was once known, while leading the charge in responsible fashion through the use of recycled fabrics and other innovative techniques. Here, Eden shares what it takes to go head-to-head with fast fashion and why he remains inspired by the original Private White.

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James, please tell us about your inspiration, the original Private White?

My great-grandfather, Jack White, served as a private in the First World War and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroics in 1917 – an amazing accomplishment. When he got back to civilian life, he went back to working in his local raincoat factory here in Salford. He got an apprenticeship and trained as a pattern cutter, before becoming factory supervisor, general manager and, eventually, the owner of the factory.

My grandmother was, obviously, very proud of her father. He was quite an icon and was revered and respected in the region. There was this big halo that shone from Grandpa Jack, as well as the factory that he took over. When he passed away at the end of the 1940s the business moved through different guises and family members. 

Do you have early memories of the factory? 

The factory was always part of my life. I worked there in summer holidays cutting fabric and sweeping the floors, whatever was needed. I developed an acute love for the building, the processes and the people. At the time, the factory was a private label company making garments for ostensibly the best brands in the world. As an impressionable teenager, I was always quite seduced by the Burberry check or Aquascutum patterns. 

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What made you leave investment banking to take on the factory in 2012?

I worked in the City for a couple of years after completing my Master’s in economics at Cambridge [University], but I soon lamented my decision. I was a very predictable, self-loathing financier – I knew I needed to do something different but, like a lemming off a cliff, I thought I could chase the pound and happiness would follow. My reality check bounced when the credit crunch happened and I realised that if I was going to excel at something I had to be passionate and determined. Meanwhile, back home in Manchester there was a threat to the business – so I put my hand up for redundancy. 

Was it daunting to undertake such a complete career change? 

Honestly, I thought, “Well, how hard can it be?”. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I ploughed a bit of capital into the factory and just went in with enthusiasm and lots of naivety. It occurred to me pretty quickly that, instead of making beautiful things for well-established brands, we should make our own brand, with our own badge of authenticity and endorsement. But it became clear we couldn’t use the existing trading name, because the brands we supplied didn’t like the idea of their private label makers sticking their heads above the parapet. It was immediately obvious that we should name the label after my great-grandfather, one of the cornerstones of our history. Everything grew from there. 

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How crucial is craftsmanship to the brand?

I would say the core of the brand is the manufacture of the products. There’s a unique handwriting that purveys and persists throughout all our collections. We make everything ourselves and source all our supplies locally, even within a 50-mile radius, wherever possible. We work with the same mills for our cottons, wools, silks, linens; all our hardware is hand-polished in Switzerland. We have a community of makers and suppliers that we work with. So, we don’t look for celebrity endorsements or gimmicks in how we get our name out there, we just try to communicate our story as best we can, cutting through the noise of the fashion world in a sensible, direct, subtle, but still ostentatious way.

How would you describe Private White VC’s style?

It’s extremely understated. We like our quality to whisper, as opposed to having garments that roar. We’re quite stealth in that way. If you see a guy wearing Private White, you know he’s a man of confidence and substance. At the same time, we don’t want to be overly commercial and have big logos or motifs; we want the product and quality to do the talking. We have a classic-contemporary aesthetic – another phrase I like to use is ‘techno-retro’, because we’re using timeless silhouettes but embrace the technology, techniques, fabrics and machinery to elevate the function and performance of the garments, whether that’s waterproofing zips to incorporating recycled-fabrics made from plastic bottles. 

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Do you think we are seeing a renaissance in British craftsmanship? 

I would push back on that, actually. If you look at big brands or the high street, there’s still not much made domestically. However, there is more visibility for British-made brands, who can use social media or other direct marketing to reach the purists and consumers directly, and grow their businesses in a way they’ve never been able to, historically. But there’s a lot more work to do before those factory brands, maker labels, craftsmen and artisanal brands are fully embraced by the mainstream. 

How did you come to manufacture PPE during Covid-19 lockdowns? 

When the pandemic started, we were hearing so many horror stories about lack of PPE and medical equipment. My mother was a medical secretary, my grandfather and uncle were both GPs and my mother-in-law is a retired midwife, so I was very aware of what a problem that broken supply chain could be. Equally, when the shops shut and borders were closed, we really felt that sense of fight or flight, and knew we needed to reposition. So, with the experience and infrastructure we had at our disposal, we offered our services to make what was needed. We worked with local authorities and public health services to manufacturer medical-grade gowns and millions of surgical facemasks here in the North-West. I’m very proud of these efforts and the work we’ve done.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking to launch a new business? 

If you’ve got a vision or an instinct, you’ve got to be as dogged and determined as your resources will allow. I can say, with the utmost confidence, that I’m stubborn as hell – I’m quite resilient and determined – and you need that if you’re going to succeed. That can also be a shortcoming if you have a tendency to ignore good advice, but part of the pain and privilege of being a business owner is following your convictions. There’s never a good time to start a business, but I would always encourage someone to go for it: stop procrastinating or striving for perfection, and just get on with it.