Private White VC – Factory visit

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Friday, December 30th 2016
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private-white-vc-manchester

I don’t write about Private White anywhere near enough.

I did a piece last year on their outerwear, which remains their best category, but frankly you could a separate post on almost every coat they sell.

The Twin Track is the best modern take on belted Barbour/Belstaff-type jacket anywhere; the Pilot’s Bomber is a perfect short winter jacket; and the Jeep Coat has to be worn to be believed; its wool wadding makes it phenomenally warm.

They’ve recently added more luxurious coats too, so while I wouldn’t go there for a more formal overcoat, if you were looking for a short coat to go over tailoring you could choose between: a more workwear/country piece like a waxed-cotton twin track, a classic pea coat, or a top-end donegal-cashmere shooting jacket. All different looks, and with price points varying with the materials.

I’ve also been wearing the merino T-shirts - great as a base layer in winter.

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About a month ago I finally found the time to go up to the factory in Manchester.

I’d read a few features over the years about the factory and its history. But none of them had really conveyed how much it sticks out in the surrounding landscape (as shown in the top image).

It is, in many ways, a relic of another era. There is another empty factory next door; there are vacant lots; across the river a residential development is going up.

But this is the last factory - the last reminder of a time when Manchester was the industrial centre of the world.

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The factory has been in operation for over 100 years. At one point it employed 450 people and was turning out 2,000 coats a week.

“There were basically five big customers, retailers like Burtons, and they all sold similar things,” says factory manager Mike Stoll (pictured below). “Everyone round the country would be wearing pretty much the same coat.”

Mike still runs the factory today, and makes a great foil for Cambridge-educated owner James Eden (whose grandfather was the eponymous Private White) and old industry hand Nick Ashley, the creative director.

When James bought the factory in 1997 there were 30 people working there; today there are 75.

“One interesting aspect of the growth has been the different immigrant populations,” says Mike. “We pay well and treat everyone equally, so we get a lot of applications from skilled people coming in from abroad. The Iranians and the Afghanis are wonderful with leather, for example.”

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Touring the factory, its machines and archive, it was nice to learn how many of my favourite pieces from other brands had been made there.

The Criterion jacket made by Brooks saddles, for instance, and designed by Timothy Everest. Or the Rapha x Christopher Raeburn wind jacket that was made out of old military parachutes. (“That was an absolute nightmare, getting it all untangled and then matching the patterns!” remembers Mike).

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For most of its history, the factory hasn’t had any signage outside. It was just a manufacturer and had no need to declare its presence.

Today ‘Private White VC’ is displayed proudly on the outside, there are posters on the inside, and there is a little factory shop that often hosts tours.

“To survive today, a factory needs to be a brand,” says James. “You need to have more control over at least some of your production, what it is used for and how the product is sold.”

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Many of our favourite brands have been through a similar evolution of course - Drake’s, Bresciani, Simonnot-Godard.

But Private White seems to be doing it particularly well, creating a brand with a tight aesthetic, and in the process improving the range and quality of what it can produce for its private-label clients.

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Jamiemcp

Private White is one of those brands where I really want to own one of their pieces but for some reason there is nothing that does it for me. I’ve been round their shop on Duke street countless times ( E Tutz next door is in the same category) but have never been persuaded to part with any cash.

One of the purchases I regret not making was the Rapha x Raeburn jacket.

On a UK factory note, I would be interested to read something about Patrick Grants Community Clothing venture.

Hugh

I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling this way!

The twin track is, by all accounts, a remarkable garment, but I’m not into the belted motojacket look.

Now if they made a field jacket with zip and chunky horn buttons….

Adam Jones

one of the lines in this made me quite sad. “There were basically five big customers, retailers like Burtons, and they all sold similar things,”

How amazing would it be today to walk into Burton and buy a basic, well made coat made in the UK.

PJM

I’m not sure as to the relationship between PWVC and Cooper & Stollbrand, (as in, if this is a case of a manufacturer developing its own brand) but C&S do produce for the high-street I think, certainly for Marks & Spencer’s Best Of British collection and John Lewis JOHN LEWIS & Co. line. Is this a case two different arms of the same body? And if so, it would be interesting to know more about any differences in terms of quality of materials, construction etc, and indeed the differences in the design process. Apologies if this is off the mark, I do understand if a business likes to have a degree of separation between it’s different parts, but I’m genuinely interested in discovering how such businesses survive & thrive.

PJM

Indeed, and I imagine that as a highly capable producer it could, on occasion, be frustrating if you are comprised by a clients brief. (Obviously l’m not that I’m saying that this is the case here). Could it be that this provides another incentive for manufacturers to develop their own more public facing brand, an opportunity to showcase the best expression of their experience, knowledge and skills. That could be very good for the consumer.

Colin

I own a number of Private White pieces and they are superbly made garments; I never tire of their modern take on the classics and usually have my eye on a couple of pieces from each season. I believe the factory also made Burberry’s raincoats before their migration to the far east.

Adam Harvey

A great peek under the hood of an awesome manufacturer. Thanks!

Jeff

Simon,
Great writeup as I am a big fan of their work as well. The garments are beautifully crafted and the presentation is immaculate not to mention their superior customer service. (They were out of stock of a coat in my size and did a one off for me as a favor since the coat was listed as available online, all within one weeks time!)
Jeff

Hugh

More articles like his please! Information on well made casual wear is quite hard to find- would be interested on something about Nigel Cabourn as well.

Thomas

Simon, speaking of outerwear, I was wondering how come you do not seem to have covered Norwegian Rain coats yet, given they have a shop right in the heart of your home turf and also seem to make an interesting product. Or have I just overlooked it?

Tor

Since discovering PWVC I’ve bought lots of stuff from them. Many of these items have become staple items that I revert to again and again. They are well made, and “fashion-less” in a way that means that they won’t be out of fashion next year or the year after. Their shirts are among the few off the peg shirts that I can be persuaded to buy. The price level is very attractive compared to more famous brands with similar quality. The only negative experience was with a winter coat that was fused in such a way that I doubt it will last many years.

It’s great to see a brand pop up like this. I would be amazed if they managed to maintain this level though. Most brands that hit a creative streak like this “sell out” and then become uninteresting. Belstaff for example, were exceptional quality for the money until they were acquired, jacked up their prices and went for the luxury end.

Scott

I own one of their Pilot Bombers and wear it all the time. It’s extremely well made with a classic design that will always be in style.