Emma Willis is a force to be reckoned with. From humble beginnings in a small workroom in New Cross, the bold British businesswoman has grown her eponymous brand beyond recognition.
In 1999, Willis opened a bespoke boutique on Jermyn Street, the home of homespun shirtmaking. By 2014, she had established an elegant townhouse factory in the centre of Gloucester. And, most recently, she has conquered the digital marketplace — selling the brand’s ready-to-wear offerings on Mr Porter, Matches Fashion and Gentleman’s Journal. Willis' MBE has the industry all sewn — or should that be buttoned? — up.
But, with a worldwide reputation secured and a solid client list including HRH The Prince Wales, David Gandy and Benedict Cumberbatch, what’s next for the shirtmaker? We caught up with Willis to discuss the virtues of owning a bespoke shirt, the importance of sustainability and the extent of her far-reaching charity work.
On the importance of a presence on Jermyn Street…
“I would only have opened in Jermyn Street. I had my own bespoke shirtmaking business for ten years before I dared to open the shop, selling to a very discerning clientele such as the Duke of Beaufort, the Duke of Devonshire, the Duke of Wellington — so I knew I had to be in the heart of serious bespoke shirt country.”
“The week I decided to open a shop, I visited Jermyn Street and there was No.66. It was at the best end of the street, had the perfect proportions and would be the first shirt shop seen if you were walking from St James’s. And it was to let. I knew I had to do it.”
On how to grow a British brand successfully…
“When we grew and needed more space, we moved our smaller Gloucester workrooms to Bearland House. I first saw it when I was walking Major Pete Flynn, the then-Equerry to HRH the Prince of Wales, back to his car in Gloucester. The sun was shining, I was feeling happy and — again — there it was for rent.
“Today, we are growing at a steady pace — and our training of young people at Bearland House is very successful. The more shirts we sell — our wholesale business is growing extremely fast — the more people I can employ and train. It’s a job that creatives love.”
On the significance of sustainability in modern business…
“Like most people, I now want to do whatever I can — within practicality — to protect our planet. I try to use as little energy, and create as little pollution as possible, and making our shirts close to home helps with this.
“In some parts of the world, the cotton industry is decimating the environment and polluting water sources. So, again, we buy closer to home — sourcing our thousands of metres of cotton every year from a superb, small Swiss mill where they use the local mountain water for the thirsty finishing process and minimal chemicals.
“Our shirts also last for years and can be worn until they literally fall apart — so they are far from disposable. And all of our cotton remnants are used to make boxer shorts and small button bags to minimise waste.”
On the value of giving back to charities…
“Style for Soldiers is the most meaningful thing I do. The charity has been mainly supported by Emma Willis customers and people I meet in the Jermyn Street shop — which sees such an interesting flow of people. The charity started as I wanted to create bespoke shirts for young servicemen returning with terrible life-changing injuries from Afghanistan; a token of my gratitude for their courage and sacrifice.
“Over time, it grew into providing suits, shoes and regimental walking sticks for their new and unpredictable civilian lives and careers. My contacts in the men’s fashion world — from Burberry and Lock & Co to Mulberry and The London Sock Company — have allowed us to provide all these smart items of clothing to these most deserving of young men. And our ambassadors have seen, directly through meeting the soldiers, what power this dressing has in both their physical and psychological rehabilitation.”
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