NICK ASHLEY - CREATIVE DIRECTOR AT PRIVATE WHITE V.C.
“When I think about the one thing that has been constant in my life, it has been making things in Great Britain, whether that is bespoke suits in Savile Row, frocks in Wales or outerwear in Manchester. I inherited that from my mother and father.”
As the son of Laura Ashley, the renowned fashion and interiors designers, Nick Ashley was surrounded by creativity and design growing up on the family farm in rural Wales and knew from a young age that he was destined for a career as a fashion designer. Nick inherited his mother’s passion for British manufacturing as well as her flair for design and is currently creative director of Private White V.C., a clothing label that makes garments in its own factory in Manchester using only the finest local fabrics, trims and linings. An adventurous soul, in his spare time Nick can be found hurtling across the Welsh hills at high speed on a dirt bike, often with one of his daughters in tow. He found some time during men’s fashion week to speak to me about his illustrious career in fashion design, his love of British manufacturing, the Private White V.C. philosophy, his passion for motor bikes and his latest collection.
Have you always wanted to work in design?
I was brought up surrounded by design but it was always manufacturing led design because my parents manufactured their stuff in a factory in Wales. Obviously, they had to make nice stuff otherwise it wouldn’t sell so I learnt to design things in order to sell them. I wanted to leave school as soon as possible so I could start working with my parents.
Where did you learn your trade?
I started “on the Row”, as they say, for a tailor called Tommy Nutter. Tommy isn’t around anymore but his cutter Edward Sexton is. It was an amazing experience; Nutter was making the suits for The Beatles, The Stones, and Elton John and I was getting to meet all these guys. I was only a trotter, the general dogsbody, but it was a really interesting time.
How has starting out on Savile Row influenced your design style?
It has had a huge impact on my design style because I have stayed with British manufacturing ever since. I am kind of obsessed with it, more so now than ever before. When I think about the one thing that has been constant in my life, it has been making things in Great Britain, whether that is bespoke suits in Savile Row, frocks in Wales or outerwear in Manchester. I inherited that from my mother and father. My father had the factories and business expertise and my mother decided what we made. It was very much a family business.
How did you end up at Private White V.C.?
I was running my own business but found it very difficult because I am a creative person, not a businessman. My mother was a creative person but she was married to a very good businessman. I am married to a very creative person so there is no one in our immediate family to run the business; it is not necessarily a difficult thing to do, it is just something that does not really interest me. Dunhill eventually coaxed me out of my own business; I was there for three years when Private White V.C. came along and asked me if I wanted to be part of a new brand that had its own factory in Manchester. It pretty much ticked all the boxes. It was a risk and still is but I am no stranger to danger. At the time, 40 people were working in the factory and now we have 120 people, so we have created a lot of jobs. I am older now so not just about getting the whizz bang out of designing stuff, I am also interested in the job creation thing as well.
How would you summarise the Private White V.C. philosophy?
We call it sheep to shop. We start with our own wool; my wife is a farmer in Wales so I actually make the wool myself. Then we weave it through our own mills in Britain, make it in our own factory in Britain and finally sell it in our own shop in Britain. I don’t think there is anyone else in the world that does that, we are truly unique. Everyone knows how things should be done but no one is actually doing it; we are putting our money where our mouth is and doing it the proper way. We are also 100% transparent, there are a number of brands that have jumped on the made in Britain band wagon but they do not have their own factory so are not doing it properly.
How often do you visit the factory in Manchester?
I go to Manchester once a week. It is great up there, London is the place where people talk about making stuff but Manchester is where it actually gets done. It is a really industrial city. I am always challenging the factory to make higher quality stuff and reassuring them that it is okay to cut into the finest cashmere and charge £2,000 for a coat. At first, they thought it was immoral to do that and would say you can buy a car for £2,000. I would always reply, sure, you can buy an old banger in Manchester for £2,000 but we have a shop in Mayfair, it will cost you £2,000 just to put petrol in the fricking thing. There have been a lot of growing pains; we have transformed a factory that made stuff for people into an international brand with retailing involved, and that has been a hell of a steep learning curve.
Who is the Private White V.C. customer?
It is me basically, I design for myself. Although I am a bloke, I have to be non-gender specific in order to be future proof so my daughters have pushed me into androgyny. I am not allowed to mention the “m” word, menswear, so now I am just doing clothes for anyone.
How would you describe your design style?
I am very old fashioned, I trained at Central Saint Martins and we learnt old fashioned techniques like drawing fashion sketches. At the factory in Manchester, if I am explaining something, I will knock up a sketch and everyone will gather around and say “oh look, Ashley is doing it again.” The old-fashioned way seems to work for me, it is the only way I know, I have only just got good at doing it, and I can’t be bothered to retrain myself.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
To be honest, I am a people watcher, so I get inspiration from people. People are constantly changing and evolving and I am just a conduit for that basically. I am someone that has my eyes and ears open a lot in whichever market I happen to be in around the world. I then feed that all back to Manchester and we react to it.
What was the inspiration for the latest collection?
When I had my own label, it was more of a personal collection. But at Private White V.C. I try to keep it really simple because our stuff is expensive and we do not want anything that will go out of style or become dated. I want to make things that people can hand down from one generation to the next. So, the latest collection is paired down to be brutally simple and minimalistic; I have tried to strip all the fashion out of it because I don’t do fashion. If people want to do fashion they can style it in a fashionable way. I am basically giving people a blank canvas, a really high quality blank canvas that they can dress up or dress down. I have used the best fibres and made them in the best factory, not cut any corners whatsoever. It is what I haven’t done that counts.
What is your favourite item in the latest collection?
I am obsessed with coats at the moment; we are coat makers at the end of the day and I think coats are such a lovely thing to wear. I am doing my summer 2018 collection at the moment and I have coats in it.
Is there a design of yours that you are particularly proud of?
Yes, the Yardi Cardi is my signature jacket. It is a short leather motorcycle jacket and I was the first person to sell it in the early 90s for people to wear on the street. I am still making it in suede and cashmere wool. It has been around for a long time and everyone else has raided it. But that doesn’t bother me, I am constantly moving on, and if people don’t copy you, you need to be worried in this business.
Which fashion designer has inspired you the most?
I really like Rei Kawakubo (Founder of Comme des Garçons); when I started my own label, she really understood my ethos and introduced me to Japan. I like the trouble she takes to get certain fabrics made. She starts with a fibre and ends up with a product, I have been quite inspired by that.
Are the Japanese generally more discerning than other countries when it comes to how their clothing is made?
In the 90s I was surfing on the crest of a wave in Japan, people were really discerning. But I think it has changed a bit now, they don’t care so much. It became so fashionable to buy high provenance clothing that it has now become unfashionable, they are too cool for themselves.
How would you describe your personal style?
I do not really concentrate much on dressing myself, I just have a uniform, because I put all my creative energy into others and do not waste it on myself. There is no danger of me making the best dressed list in GQ although I have nominated someone who has gone into the list. Obviously, I wear lovely clothes but do not spend ages laying them on the bed before I put them on. Although, having said that, I have Pitti Uomo in Italy next week and I am going to have to think about packing for that one because you get the full eye lash to toe nail all day long. We all get a bit queeny at Pitti so I need to concentrate. We have to try to not be too pea cockish because you get marked down for that, you just need to be really sleek and elegant.
Do you think people are becoming more interested in where their clothes come from?
People have a greater self-awareness now, their relationship with themselves is getting stronger so their relationship with their clothes is getting stronger too. Your clothes are a very personal thing, how you feel on the inside is reflected on the outside. People’s relationship with their clothes, with their food and with themselves are becoming much more important to them.
Is British made clothing generally higher quality than elsewhere in the world?
Not necessarily. When I was at Dunhill, we used to get stuff made in Portuguese factories and the quality was very good. China are also very good at making certain things but there is a need for British made products. It is more a psychological thing than a practical thing. Rolls Royce wanted to make their cars in China but people do not want to buy a Rolls Royce that has been made in China, they want a Rolls Royce that has been made in Britain. It is the same with our product; a British brand selling British clothes is not going to work if the clothes are made in Portugal.
Where does your passion for motor bikes stem from?
I was brought up on a farm in Wales and we always used dirt bikes to get around. Eventually I got into racing, it is my way of keeping fit. When you have a dirt bike that you ride across hills it is like skiing. We charge across the hills, stop in a bar to have a drink, charge across a few hills again, slap each other on the back and go home; it is just like motorised skiing basically. I do it on an international basis too; the ultimate race I did was the Dakar Rally but now I am more chilled and a recreational biker. I have two bikes on my farm, one is an old farming bike my brother gave me and the other is an old Triumph that I have had for forty years. I also have a couple of brand new race bikes that I share with my daughter. She is twenty but she did her first race when she was 18 and won it so the bug bit her quite heavily.
Would you say you are an adventurous spirit?
I love adventure, I love danger, I love being in a hostile environment and moving at high speed but not trashing myself. I can go quite calm when the shit hits the fan because I am a Capricorn, basically I do not give a damn at the end of the day.
What do you enjoy about living in the countryside?
My mother was Welsh and had a factory there which employed 7,500 people. She wanted to bring us up as Welsh farm kids and I have done the same with mine. It makes for very grounded people, it is a nice tradition.
Is it a difficult time to be establishing a menswear brand?
It is a really challenging, risky, dangerous time, that’s why I like it. If it was easy any old fool could pull it off. It boils down to ethos; at the end of the day we are not selling something people need, it is something they want so there has got to be some passion there. You could have the most beautiful product in amazing colours and completely on trend but if people do not share your passion they are not going to buy it. The most important aspect behind any brand is the emotion behind it.