For our very first international edition of The Helmsmen, we had the immense pleasure of sitting down to chat with Nick Ashley, Creative Director of Private White V.C.
Private White is one of the last standing outerwear manufacturers in Manchester, with a history that dates back to 1853. Their products have been worn by royals and rock stars alike, and they have even been worn to summit Mount Everest.
This is a brand that takes incredible pride in their work, producing classic outerwear pieces that have been known to stand the test of time. That sense of pride is evident in Nick Ashley, who is the son of fashion icon Laura Ashley and her husband/business partner Sir Bernard Ashley.
We got to talk with Nick about his dedication to fashion, provenance, homemade cider, and motorcycles. Watch the full interview below.
THE HELMSMEN WITH NICK ASHLEY, CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF PRIVATE WHITE V.C.
Chad: Why does Private White continue to produce in Manchester?
Nick Ashley: Manchester is the home of coat making in Britain, and there used to be 5000 coat makers in Manchester. There's now one. This one. We’re the last man standing. So the whole thing is Manchester based.
Chad: I own one of your twin skin jackets. I find it very functional with the layer over the shoulder. It keeps me dry. How much of that vintage, heritage-inspired product goes into your designs?
Nick: Varying amounts. It depends on the design. I like to work in a kind of evolutionary way, so I like to look behind before I go forwards. But I like to take quite iconic styles and then update them a little bit.
I very much like techno retro, as they call it in Japan. So taking something classic but introducing some sort of technological update, whether that’s the way it’s made or the fabric or the process or whatever.
“I like to take quite iconic styles and then update them a little bit.”
Chad: A remix.
Nick: Yeah, exactly. So I don't really go in for heritage. I don’t do perfect remakes of vintage stuff because I think if they worked in the 50s they might not work now. It’s normally pockets that are the wrong size or something.
But I do think that good design is invisible. So if something is truly classic, it just looks, a man looks appropriately dressed, and looks fantastic, but you don’t really know why. I don’t really like to leave any signs of a designer having meddled with the product.
“Good design is invisible… If something is truly classic, a man looks appropriately dressed, but you don’t really know why.”
Chad: Until you get close.
Nick: Yeah, I think the closer you get to a man the more you appreciate the beautiful way he’s dressed, and that says a lot about the man. Quietly spoken.
Chad: That makes sense. Well spoken.
Chad: In a world of fast fashion, how does Private White and yourself maintain the authenticity of the brand?
Nick: With us it’s about provenance basically. And the reason why people buy clothes in the first place. You know, we’ve been kind of trained by marketing men and the fashion industry itself to consume this product twice a year, and I just don’t think that’s how people live their lives.
If you look at anyone’s wardrobe in their home they have a mixture of all sorts of clothes all in one wardrobe. It’s not like they get rid of it because spring summer collections coming up. They're consuming too much. So we’re kind of an alternative to that.
I’m giving people the choice to buy something that’s really really well made and classic enough to last a long time. You can change the styling on it to update it or whatever, but hopefully it’s something that might last successive generations. Hopefully.
And okay it’s going to cost a little bit more to buy that in the first place, but it’ll last you that much longer than in the long run you’ll save in so many ways.
“I’m giving people the choice to buy something that’s really really well made and classic enough to last a long time. You can change the styling on it to update it, but hopefully it’s something that might last successive generations.”
Chad: It’s not throwaway. It’s something you can pass down to your grandkids.
Nick: Hopefully, yeah. That would give me the most pleasure of all. I’ve not been doing it long enough to actually see that happen, but I have products that I wear myself that the rest of my family share, so it’s kind of happening within my family. And it’s not because I'm forcing it on my kids. I have two daughters in their twenties, and they're like, [whispers] “Dad’s not looking. I’ll just borrow his coat.”
“I have two daughters in their twenties, and they're like, [whispers] ‘Dad’s not looking. I’ll just borrow his coat.’”
Chad: Yeah, that’s awesome though. They're choosing to because it’s quality and it’s cool.
Nick: Yeah because you can’t argue with the quality. And it’s functional as well. It might be cold, it might be raining so they’ll just grab it. Or if they’re going off skiing or something they’ll just steal it. They steal. I’m flattered by that.
Chad: Going back to the customer comment. To a person who’s never heard of the brand, tried the product on, what would you tell them about Private White?
Nick: Private White is a maker’s label, it’s not a designer label. Maker’s labels are all about provenance. Where the product is made, why it’s made there, who made it, what it's made from. In our case, we start with the actual fiber. We use cotton, wool, linen; some of the wool that we use is actually produced on our own farm.
My wife’s a farmer. It’s not a very high quality wool, but we do use it for wadding. You don’t see it but you get the final properties of it.
We call it sheep to shop. We start with a sheep in the field, process the sheep-- just the wool because we’re all vegetarians--and then we’re in control of where it’s milled--we have partner mills that mill the wool and the cotton--then it's made up in our own factory, then it’s sold in our own shop in Mayfair in London. Sheep to shop. So you can’t get any more high provenance than that.
“Private White is a maker’s label, it’s not a designer label. Maker’s labels are all about provenance. Where the product is made, why it’s made there, who made it, what’s it made from. We call it Sheep to Shop.”
Chad: So it’s a vertical process for you guys. It’s rare these days.
When we arrived you took us through the archives and I asked you how much time you spend in there when you’re doing your thing and working on the collection. How often do you refer back to the archives when you’re designing the product?
Nick: It’s a bit scary actually because I'm a very archive-based designer. So I spend a lot of time in the archive. This big archive here and I have my own personal archive. I spend a lot of time in both because they're full of my friends.
My clothes are my best friends. It’s a bit scary sometimes but I do spend a lot of time in there and you know, “Hey, hi I haven’t seen you in a while." When you were coming I got out certain plans for you to see and that’s the way it works.
And sometimes I can do them as they are and sometimes I can redo them a little bit and update them, but they're still fundamentally that same kind of friend. I’ve got some design friends that I've been buddies with for 25 years. Scary.
“My clothes are my best friends.”
Chad: You like something for a reason.
Nick: Yeah I’m just very passionate about clothes. I always have been. My friends tease me about it but I make a living off of it, so who gets the last laugh.
Chad: I want to touch on your time in fashion. Where did you get your start? How did it all begin for you?
Nick: I was born into a fashion family basically. My mother was a designer called Laura Ashley, my father was a printer called Bernard Ashley, they had a little workshop that they produced their stuff in. And I was born into a very mom and pop style workshop experience.
There wasn’t a lot of money around, I was brought up on the canvas for the first few years of my life because my parents both came out of the army and they didn’t want to waste money accommodating their kids with a proper roof and stuff. A tent was fine. Because they were putting all their money into the business.
They were 20 years designing and making stuff and supplying it to retailers and then after about 20 years they realized it was the retailers who were making all the profit. Add then they got into retail and had a vertical company and they went from no money to way too much money.
Chad: Right. It blew up. Things got big.
Chad: That was during your childhood. As you transitioned personally into the fashion game, what did you do? How did you start?
Nick: I started my own brand. My mother died unfortunately, prematurely, so my father and I sold the business and I started my own business in menswear which I did for about 15 years and it was going very very well….
Chad: Was that here in London?
Nick: Yeah I had a shop here in London and about 10 shops in Japan. And it was all going very very well but I got a bit stressed from the actual running of the business. I much prefer to just design stuff. And so since then I’ve been kind of freelance creative director, and that’s what I’m doing now.
“I got a bit stressed from the actual running of the business. I much prefer to just design stuff.”
Chad: Your sort of comfort zone
Nick: Yeah, until my next reinvention. Porn star.
“Until my next reinvention: Porn star.”
Nick: I know it’s a little bit late, but you know. It’s niche.
Chad: I think you still have it.
So when you're not dreaming of being a porn star...
You like motorcycles. You like to race often, is that correct?
Nick: Yeah, it’s very strange. I still race after about 40 years. I’m a petrol head. An adrenaline junkie.
“I still race after about 40 years. I’m a petrol head. An adrenaline junkie.”
Chad: What kind of races?
Nick: Desert. I’m the fifth best desert racer in Britain.
Nick: There’s only 5 of us. [laughs] But I have done a lot of desert racing. I’ve done the Paris-Dakar rally, I've done the Baja race. I’m going off to do it in a couple of weeks time in fact. I’m just hooked. When I get out to the desert, that’s my spiritual home.
“When I get out to the desert, that’s my spiritual home.”
Chad: When you ride, what do you ride on?
Nick: It depends on the desert. In Baja I’m riding a 650 Honda Desert Sled specially built by the Californians because they know how to prep them properly. In Africa I have KTM 660s because there were more spares for those. Baja is a Honda place. Africa is a KTM place.
Chad: Does it come down to parts?
Nick: Yeah, it’s all about resource. You’re only as fast as the amount of spare parts you have.
Chad: How long do these races go on for?
Nick: The Dakar is 2 weeks, 14,000 kms. Baja is 1400 miles. Depends on the year.
Chad: Is it gruelling?
Nick: Not really. It’s gruelling in terms of endurance because you're in the sand for a long time. From sun up to way after sun down. And in Africa you get to see the dark side of the dune. When the sun goes down you have to go over the dunes and you have to jump off the top and the light comes down and you have to see where you're going to land. And after you’ve done that for a few kilometres, you sort of just like phase out really. Don’t let it bother you.
“When the sun goes down you have to go over the dunes and you have to jump off the top and the light comes down and you have to see where you're going to land.”
Chad: Have you ever found yourself in an uncomfortable or dangerous spot on the course?
Nick: I can’t say I have, no.
Chad: Where you’re like, I’m going to die.
Nick: No, I’ve had a couple of big offs where I thought, “This could hurt,” but what happens when you’re flying through the air you go into this kind of slow motion type thing and you can really think ultra clearly and you think, okay, tuck the arms in, kick the bike away.
Then you just kind of land, stop moving, and think, okay I think it’s all there, and then you pick your bike up and hope that nothing’s too broken, and then away you go again.
“When you’re flying through the air you go into this kind of slow motion type thing and you can really think ultra clearly"
Chad: Interesting. That’s incredible. What’s your most memorable race?
Nick: Dakar. Yeah, for me that was like climbing Everest or something. In fact, once I’d done that I could chill a little bit. Because I’d done it. I’ve got the medal, that’s it. You know, everything else is just now fun.
Chad: So 40 years.
Nick: Yeah, I was brought up in Wales on a sheep farm with farm bikes, so you know it’s just like, you come from Canada you probably ski really well. I came from mid-Wales so I ride a dirt bike really well. It's just that simple.
Chad: What’s your drink of choice?
Nick: Cider. I make my own cider in Wales. Homemade cider. More like scrumpy. It’s kind of homemade, really strong, liquid mushrooms basically. It’s pretty strong stuff. It’s giggle juice. It’s great. It’s free of charge, and I used it as a kind of currency in Wales. If someone does you a favour you give them a little keg of cider.
“I make my own cider in Wales. Homemade cider. More like scrumpy.”
Chad: Last question. You currently live in Wales. Have you lived there your whole life?
Nick: Unfortunately yes. I say unfortunately because I get terrible cabin fever in Wales. It’s a terrible place for a fashion designer to live.
Chad: But you continue to retreat back.
Nick: Well that’s where my wife lives. She’s on a farm, she doesn't care for any of the fashion malarky at all, and cities and all that kind of stuff that I do. She doesn’t.
We’re different. That’s fine. I go and do it, and then when I’m finished with all this nonsense I go back to her and actually have to shovel shit from one place to another.
Chad: So you go from the high life in London to shovelling shit for your sheep
Nick: High six to that.
Chad: Keeps you humble
Nick: It does. Keeps me earthy.
Chad: Thank you so much. Appreciate it Nick.