Private White VC - the designer label inspired by a Salford war hero
PUBLISHED: 12:43 04 December 2014 | UPDATED: 14:25 09 December 2014
It started 100 years ago with a VC awarded to a tailor and it came full circle with his grandchildren reclaiming his business. Roger Borrell reports
It is an extraordinary story of wartime heroism, high fashion and Hollywood stars and it all takes place in a sprawling, red brick hive of industry on the banks of the River Irwell in Salford.
Inside this 200-year-old rabbit warren skilled people from around the world work shoulder to shoulder with local men and women, disproving the oft-repeated claim that we no longer make anything in this country.
Their blend of hard work and talent now produce some of the most sophisticated clothing on the market with some big names, including Prince Harry, David Cameron, Kevin Spacey, Jake Bugg and Bryan Ferry, choosing to include the brand in their wardrobes.
However, to appreciate what’s happening today, we need to go back 100 years to the outbreak of war when an 18-year-old called Jack White joined the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment and found himself fighting what the troops called Johnny Turk.
On March 7 in 1917 Jack’s unit was ordered aboard a series of pontoons to cross the Dialah River in Mesopotamia. Two craft ahead came under raking machinegun fire from Turkish troops and by the time Jack’s pontoon reached mid-stream he was the only man aboard who hadn’t been killed or injured.
Despite constant gunfire, he tied a telephone cable around his waist, jumped overboard and pulled the pontoon ashore to safety, saving the life of his commanding officer and a great deal of valuable equipment.
It was this act of valour that brought him our highest decoration, the Victoria Cross - a boy’s own story that was eventually turned into a strip in the Victor comic. After the war, Jack returned to Lancashire and became a trainee pattern cutter at this same Salford factory, named Cottenham House.
Jack, a hero in the Jewish and wider community, worked his way up to the general manager’s office and eventually bought the business. He retired in the 1940s through ill-health and there the story would have ended but for a twist of fate decades later.
The business changed hands several times. Jack sold out to Emblem Raincoats who continued to manufacture military coats and uniforms before it was taken over by Waverley Weathercoats which specialised in supplying High Street tailors.
In 1983, a local entrepreneur Mike Stoll partnered up with Waverley and the new business flourished, designing and manufacturing for premium brands such as Aquascutum, Burberry and Nigel Cabourn.
Under Mike’s guidance, the company rode out many economic storms by selling a wide variety of quality clothing – from top end coats to anti-gas suits for the Gulf War. The Metropolitan Police still wear the Waverley designed jacket.
The twist comes in 1997, when the company was acquired by Private Jack White’s descendants with great-grandson James Eden taking over as managing director. They have now rebranded the business Private White VC and have a shop at the factory, a third has opened in London, this time in Mayfair, and they are due to launch soon in Tokyo.
They still make quality clothing for other companies but they are now promoting their own Private White VC brand for men and women and it has caused quite a stir in the market, producing a full range from coats and jackets to accessories.
Mike, who still plays a major role in the business, said: ‘I got the business from my father’s best friend and now it has gone to my best friend’s son. There are some tremendously exciting times ahead. James is a charismatic character and in 25 years time this business could be as big as Ralph Lauren.’
Both he and James are proud of the fact that they have drawn talent from around the world to work alongside local employees. They have staff from Poland, Mongolia, Romania, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Spain, Syria, Kurdistan, Bulgaria, Latvia, Slovakia, the Czech republic and Russia.
As a 31-year-old economics graduate from Cambridge, James has not made a conventional entrance into the ‘rag trade’. He was on what he calls a formulaic career path as an investment banker.
‘But I wanted something more rewarding, more fulfilling, engaging and stimulating,’ he says. ‘I wanted something real. A big challenge.’
He spent many months travelling back from London to Manchester to learn the business inside out before taking over. ‘Jack White worked his way to the top and that’s what we have been doing.’
On board is creative director Nick Ashley, the son of legendary Laura Ashley. He has worked for Kenzo, Tod’s of Italy and Dunhill Menswear and is now one of the driving forces behind the look of their clothing lines.
Private White VC
Mike Stoll and James Eden
A newspaper clipping about his heroism
Inside the factory which is around 200 years old
James and Mike with Princess Anne during a recent visit
Kheran Nisa at work
Cloth cutters Derek Hughes and Miguel Valient
Man at sewing machine
Lots at sewing machine
Floor manager Ahmed Rezai
Technical designer Kasha Stani
Brutus, the company bulldog
Barbara McGill, pattern cutter
Mike Stoll beside a blow-up of the Victor comic strip
A despatch rider jacket
A twin track coat
A mans flying jacket
James, who comes to work with his bulldog Brutus, added: ‘We are aiming at people who aren’t particularly influenced by the latest fads. They want well-designed quality clobber, things that aren’t fashion-driven but are of the time.
‘Our clothes are worn by people who care about craft and tradition – things you could wear and so could your son because they are cool. They are for people who are interested in things like classic cars and high end watches.’
Mike chips in: ‘The competition from abroad is all geared to low priced clothing. We can’t make everything cheaply in England but we can make quality and style and that can be expensive.’
‘We are taking the fight to the enemy,’ says James - in the same way his grandfather might have said on that pontoon. ‘We are having a go for Lancashire.’
As we chat a claxon goes off, indicating that a £600 jacket has been sold on-line to a customer in central Europe. The internet is an important weapon in their fight. ‘People like the fact we’re completely transparent about the authenticity of our products,’ says James, who recently accompanied David Cameron on a trade mission to Asia. ‘You have to be when you are on the internet. If you say you are a heritage brand you can be quickly found out.’
There is no question of this company’s heritage and Private White’s precious VC remains with the family. ‘We are immensely proud of his achievements,’ says his great grandson, ‘and his legacy lives on in this building.’
It is apt that the Salford factory workforce is a united nations of tailoring. Jack White was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant father and British mother. After the war he lived in Broughton, Salford, and worked in the textile business. He was also a founder member of the Jewish Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
In 1929 he attended the VC’s dinner at the House of Lords where he met Captain Patterson, the man he saved, for the first time since the war. At the outbreak of the Second World War he applied to join the Home Guard but was rejected as his father had not been naturalised. The regulations were later changed, but according to reports he never forgot the slight. He served instead as a volunteer Air Raid warden. Jack died on 27th November 1949, aged 54, and was buried with full military honours in Blackley Jewish Cemetery near Manchester.
Both Mike and James are immensely proud that many of the materials they use are sourced locally where possible with the majority of cloth being supplied from the mills in the surrounding area. Several have a trading relationship with the factory going back to Jack White’s days.
Private White VC’s very own signature cloth is made at Mallalieu’s of Delph, on the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire. The mill has been in operation since 1840. Meanwhile, their yarn comes from Gledhill’s just across the valley.