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The Drapers Interview: James Eden on the journey from private label to Private White VC

Drapers 02 15 76

Armed with a strong family legacy and a loyal workforce, James Eden is now focused on taking his Made in Manchester message into new categories and territories.

“Just hold on while I take my trousers off,” is not the usual way to start The Drapers Interview. But then, Private White VC is not your usual premium menswear brand.

We are here to talk about the firm’s plans to further build its profile, expand its womenswear range, and open stores in New York and Tokyo. But, as its 32-year-old owner James Eden disappears behind a fitting room curtain in the shop on the ground floor of its factory in Salford to change for his Drapers photoshoot, he instead begins to explain the history of the 19th century building where his great grandfather worked after he returned home from World War I with a Victoria Cross. All the while, the office bulldog, Brutus, licks my feet.

Private White VC

Private White VC

Private White VC

Jack White came back a decorated war hero but, as Eden, explains: “There was nothing like Celebrity Big Brother then for him to fall back on, so he had to get a job.” He began to work as an apprentice at a factory in Manchester’s garment manufacturing heartland and rose through the ranks to become its owner in the 1930s. In the years following his retirement more than a decade later, the business changed hands many times.

Eden first began working in the factory in his school holidays because his father was a close friend of managing director Mike Stoll, who took over the business in 1983. The Cooper & Stollbrand factory, as it became known, had a flourishing CMT (cut, make and trim) business for third-party customers including Savile Row tailors, Burberry, Aquascutum and Paul Smith, but hit problems in 2008 when one of the brands cut its orders. When Stoll took the decision to close the factory, Eden, by then a 25-year-old Cambridge graduate working in finance, stepped in to try to revive the company where his great grandfather had once worked.

“I wasn’t particularly enjoying my existence in London, and felt like I wanted to do something I was passionate about and could be a lot more creative with,” recalls Eden.

Over the next three years, Stoll and Eden began to reposition the business. They launched premium menswear label Private White VC in 2011, with Laura Ashley’s son, Nick, as creative director, and phased out the private label business and the Cooper & Stollbrand name.

Ashley, whose CV includes stints at Kenzo, Tod’s and Dunhill, is sensitive to the brand’s history, Eden says. He takes the military legacy of Eden’s great grandfather and reinterprets it in a contemporary way. It is an aesthetic that has gained fans from around the world, as well as a roster of wholesale accounts of which any five-year-old brand would be proud. Private White VC is stocked at Selfridges in Manchester and London, on Mr Porter, as well as in high-profile independents such as Beams in Japan, Modern Anthology in the US and Aart in the Netherlands.

Sam Lobban, buying manager at Mr Porter, appreciates Ashley’s take on classic silhouettes: “I like the use of interesting details. He takes the four-pocket jacket and adds a double-zip function, meaning it can be worn with a jumper underneath, but slimmed down again in warmer weather.

”Touches such a heat-seal seams add a modern element,” he adds.

For Ian Maclean, chief executive of Derbyshire knitwear firm John Smedley, Private White VC’s appeal comes from its use of technical fabrics such as the locally sourced cotton, Ventile, which features on many of its jackets (retail prices start at £450 and rise to £950).

“I have personally purchased several coats and jackets from them made of Ventile over the years,” he says, adding: “The Ventile story is only one element of a totally authentic Made in Britain brand that I hope will continue to thrive.”

Private White VC

Private White VC

Private White VC

The company now employs around 90 people, up from just 30 in 2008, and is on track for turnover of £5.5m and a profit for the year to October 2016 – up from £3m and a small operating loss in 2015.

Gaining the attention of a new demographic is on the agenda for autumn 16: an expanded womenswear collection is set to launch through its own stores and website. Private White currently offers a small selection of women’s outerwear but this will be extended to 20 pieces later this year, priced from £200 to £1,400.

The expansion ambitions do not end there, as Eden reveals plans to open stores in New York and Tokyo later this year or in early 2017, and in one of the bigger cities in Germany in the next couple of years. Private White VC has two stores in the UK, in the Salford factory and on Duke Street store in Mayfair, London. Sales at the latter, which opened in October 2014 and replaced a smaller London store on Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury – are “going through the roof”, Eden says.

He is also converting another 6,000 sq ft within the 30,000 sq ft factory to increase production, which is currently anything between 600 and 1,000 units per week, depending on the product.

“It should be done by the end of March and will be primarily for trousers and shirts,” Eden explains.

Turnover is split 50:50 between wholesale and retail – stores and online. Eden believes the business is well positioned thanks to a diversified customer base – 70% of sales come from overseas – as well as its range of product categories.

“Last year, we exported online to more than 45 countries, which is just amazing,” he says. “People discover things like where the fabrics are from and how it is made in that nice factory with that lovely little dog, and how it is stocked in all those amazing stores, which helps build that connection.”

He points to a growing tribe who are becoming more passionate about how and where they buy things from, helped by the transparency of the internet.

“It’s like my mother,” Eden says. “She will not buy her eggs, meat or cheese from a supermarket – she just won’t do it,” he says. On the Private White VC website, visitors can tour the cutting room floor using a Google Maps plug-in and Eden encourages them to do so.

“The more you scratch under the surface of Private White, the more interesting, soulful, compelling, charming and enchanting it is.”

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