Swiss and Egyptian cotton, Irish linen, it sounds like any discerning woman’s wish-list, yet Emma Willis is not just any woman, although discerning, she most certainly is. As the only female shirt-maker in Jermyn Street, a historic and fashionable part of London, world-renowned for its high quality British craftsmanship, including bespoke gentlemen’s tailoring, Emma is one of a kind; a lone female in an extremely male-dominated world. Emma brings a subtly feminine perspective to a traditionally masculine domain, not in terms of florals and flounce, but an appreciation of detail, a commitment to the importance of flattering the male form and a relaxed warmth of shopping experience which doesn’t detract from the luxurious nature of bespoke tailoring, but removes a little of what can be a daunting experience for new and younger clients. Emma’s iconic understated, yet elegantly-dressed, double-fronted shop at No. 66, on the prestigious St James’s corner, showcases the beautiful designs, luxurious materials and traditional shirt-making techniques that constitute a classically British craft in a modern-day setting.
Shirt-making in Jermyn Street has been undertaken for over a century; it was, and still is, traditional to visit one’s tailor in Savile Row for a suit, followed by a five minute southerly walk later to visit one’s shirt-maker in Jermyn Street. A bespoke shirt, well-made, by hand, is a joy to wear. The perfect fit with tails and sleeves just the right length, details such as pocket-or-not, collar style, cuffs, buttons, button-holes, thread-count, Italian or Swiss cloth, all have to be considered and crafted with the utmost precision and dexterity to create that special custom-made shirt.
All Emma Willis shirts are hand-made in Emma’s British workshop. Local highly-skilled cutters and machinists work their magic from a stunning 18th Century townhouse in Gloucester, between the famous docks and majestic cathedral; a beautiful and historic setting to set the tone for the stunning garments, full of expertise, and heritage and yet also a contemporary relevance to befit the modern discerning gentleman. Another recent addition to Emma Willis is her ‘Style-for-Soldiers’ initiative, where Emma offers a complementary bespoke luxury shirt to servicemen and women injured in service to their country – a modern-day gesture of thanks.
Overall Emma adds a modernity to what is a classic artisanal industry; her shirts are traditionally made, yet with a modern-day look and feel, which allows bespoke shirt-making and the resultant classic styling and longevity to be still relevant and in fact actively sought-after, thankfully, in this all too obsolescent age. Here, we are lucky to hear from Emma herself, as she gives up a little of her busy day to explain what it is to be a shirt-maker…
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Emma Willis, please can you tell us about the company?
I have been in the shirt-making business since 1990, not long after completing my degree in Fine Art, and I have been specialising in men’s bespoke shirts mainly. I originally opened a workroom in London where I made all the shirts and then opened a shop on Jermyn Street in 2000, which is the home of high quality bespoke British shirts. As well as bespoke, we also provide a very high quality Ready To Wear range of shirts.
We adhere to using the highest quality cotton and silk for the ‘feel’, durability and aesthetic, which I source from Switzerland. With our men’s shirt collection I prefer to concentrate on different weaves and subtle designs for the fabrics that I use and create designs that can be worn either formally or casually.
Emma Willis has always made all of our products in England. Our factory is now housed in an elegant 18th century townhouse in the centre of Gloucester, between the historic docks and the Cathedral, known to everyone who works here as Downton Abbey!
A very important part of business for me is to be in touch as much as possible with production, which is vital in the many details of bespoke, but also applies to Ready To Wear. I appreciate the skill of our cutters and machinists and our customers enjoy the detailed information we can give them, and the time and care that goes into making our products.
What makes a bespoke shirt so special?
It’s special because the customer has had the shirt made specifically for them; they can choose the cut of the shirt, the design details are exactly how they want them to be, and as well as that, they can choose from a much wider selection of fabrics. Customers really appreciate that.
We keep a bespoke paper pattern for each customer at our factory which we can use and adjust for future orders. For our ‘Bespoke Online’ customers, we will often photograph the shirt being cut and made for them, so they can enjoy the tangibility of the process and get an insight into the care that goes into the making of their shirt.
What elements of the shirt are bespoke – is it just the fit, choice of fabric and sleeve length that are bespoke, or does the customer have the ability to choose a specific collar shape, cuff style etc?
It isn’t just about the choice of fabric or whether the customer wants the cut to be cosy or slim fit, the customer can literally choose any details they like. For instance, buttons can be spaced differently depending on whether the shirt is to be worn with an open or closed collar (we can place the buttons higher or lower depending); we can create single or double cuff, with one, two or three buttons; cuffs that are round, squared or mitred etc; some customers choose different fabrics for the lining of the collar and cuff, and some request specific threads for the buttons. Customers can request shorter tails for wearing the shirt outside the trousers, whereas others want their shirt tails to be longer if they wear their trousers low on the hip. A popular request is for the left hand cuff to be slightly wider to accommodate a large wrist watch. There are so many permutations that can be considered with a bespoke design.
Is there a particular cut or style that you are noted for?
We’re probably noted for two styles the most: the Emma Willis slim fit, double cuff, white and ice blue cotton shirts in fine Swiss cotton, using two fold 120 (the number denotes the density of cotton threads per inch), resulting in a very fine cotton fabric. These shirts have great shape and look fantastic for business as well as for casual wear, working well with jeans with an open collar. Also, the Emma Willis ivory silk evening shirt, for wearing with a black tie, is made using Italian silk woven especially for us, and is another of our popular shirts.
How important is the quality of cloth that you use and do you have any favoured choice of fabrics?
The quality of fabric is of paramount importance to me and the fineness of our cloth is essential to get the preciseness and definition of our stripes; cheaper cotton just can’t match these qualities. I have been working with the same Swiss mill for 25 years now and they share my priority for quality and service. We use predominantly Egyptian and West Indian Sea Island raw cotton, which is spun, yarn dyed, woven and finished all in the Swiss mill. We also use a lovely cashmere cotton, comprising 85% Swiss cotton, and 15% cashmere, which breathes really well, and has a slight brush cotton texture. In addition to our Swiss suppliers, I have also developed with an Italian mill a weave of silk incorporating a structure normally used in Oxford cotton to give a matte finish with a heavy drape, which is ideal for use in men’s shirts.
You set up your own factory in Gloucester a few years ago. Why is maintaining production in the UK so important to you, and do you feel people today still have an appreciation for traditional tailoring as in previous generations?
I have always made my shirts in England; it’s an inherent part of what I do. As well as designing, sales and marketing, I take great pleasure in production, and I’m proud of the British shirt-making tradition and proud to show it off through the shirts we make.
We have a great factory in Gloucester; everyone works in very good natural light with large windows in each room and fresh air. I think the aesthetics of a working environment is very important and the building reflects the tradition and aesthetics of what we are making.
When I first started making shirts, British shirt-making was appreciated internationally, but by the early ‘90s the trend for shirts drifted towards Italian shirt-makers. Now, the trend has moved very much back to England, particularly London, which is largely driven by the renewed interest in and popularity of Savile Row, Jermyn Street and St James’s area as a whole.
I feel that since the credit crunch, people have reassessed how they value things and they are more discerning in how they spend their money rather than simply buying things in a faddish way without giving their purchase a second thought. The quality of the fabric is the key to getting value for money in fashion, particularly in shirts. The aesthetics are important, in the way the shirts are cut and made (as poor workmanship could result in buttons could coming off and hems falling down), but the quality of the fabric is key. Shirts made from high quality fabrics could last 5-6 years, even 10 years, whereas those made from cheaper fabrics may only last a year before the fabric starts to wear and loses its colour. It’s not just longevity either; it’s about the ‘feel’ of the fabric, and the best quality cottons get softer-and-softer with age and more pleasure can be derived the older the cottons are.
Aside from men’s shirts, what other items of clothing do you make at your factory?
Aside from men’s shirts, we also make women’s shirts, knitted walking socks on a Victorian sock loom in merino wool using vibrant colours, boxer shorts, dressing gowns, pyjamas, handkerchiefs and night shirts.
For someone considering buying a bespoke shirt, could you briefly guide us through the process for purchasing an Emma Willis bespoke shirt?
We actually provide a bespoke shirt service from our shop, as well as bespoke online.
Taking the shop option first, the first step is for the customer to arrange an appointment for initial measurements to be taken at our shop. We will measure them for the specific fit they are looking for, whether that is full or slim fit, as well as collar size and sleeve length.
We will then discuss the lifestyle of the customer and find out what their intentions are for the shirt, such as whether they will wear it for work, travel, smart casual etc, so we can work out what weight of cotton will be suitable for their needs.
Specific design details will then be determined, such as collar style, shape of cuff, inclusion of pocket etc.
Once the fabric has been chosen – a minimum of three shirts need to be ordered for the bespoke service – we will make up one shirt first, which the customer can try on, usually about 4 weeks after their first fitting. A second fitting isn’t normally required, but sometimes it can be necessary for the customer to come back again to get the fit exactly right.
When we know the fit is right, we will complete their order, and the customer can either pick the shirts up at our shop or we can send them directly to their home address.
Our ‘Bespoke Online’ service covers all the same steps, with the exception of the initial measurement, which we can’t do for obvious reasons. However, the online service is very effective, and the customer can select collar size, sleeve and tail length, and a whole variety of design details online. The overwhelming majority of our customers are experienced enough in purchasing shirts to know what their body size is, so if they know that a 15 ½ inch collar is slightly too tight, but a 16 inch collar too loose, then they can order a quarter size through our service to give the best fit. Our bespoke online service has an online size chart which also helps in this regard. It’s a very effective and risk free service given the huge variety of choices, and has been hugely successful; in the five years since we’ve been running it, we’ve only ever had three returns, which we’re very proud of.
How important is it for shirt-makers to have a presence on Jermyn Street?
For a high quality bespoke shirt-maker, it’s still very important as Jermyn Street is synonymous with bespoke shirts. Whilst there are some great shirt-makers around the world, such as Rome, Florence and Paris, it’s unusual to have an area like Jermyn Street specialising in so many shirt-makers, and it has become almost a pilgrimage place for people to find their perfect shirt. In years gone by, the entire street was once renowned for its bespoke and British-made shirts, but now it’s only really the St James’s end; the Haymarket end is more Ready To Wear, and not necessarily made in England, and there tends to be more mass-produced brands there. For shirt-makers like Emma Willis it’s extremely important to be on the St James’s end as it indicates the highest quality.
Is there a typical Emma Willis customer and if so, how would you describe them?
I’d say our customers tend to be 40-45 years old, male and businessmen generally. We have many British customers but also a large international clientele. Our customers tend to be people seeking quality and subtle chic dressing, but above all those seeking quality and British-made.
How and why did you become involved with the ‘Style for Soldiers’ charity?
I heard a programme on Radio 4 in 2007 whereby the presenter was interviewing young injured servicemen and women in a military rehabilitation hospital in Surrey and I was very moved hearing stories of how life-changing their injuries were and how, in many cases, they had lost their jobs in the forces at such a young age. I was determined to try and do something to help and I realised I could combine my abilities to make bespoke shirts with the possibility of making a beautiful shirt as a gift for them, which I’ve been doing since 2008, the time of the height of the casualties; so far I’ve made over 1,000 shirts.
I have also designed a walking stick as an orthopaedic walking aid, which is hand-carved from black ebony wood, with buffalo horn handle, with a silver band engraved with the soldier’s initials and regiment on it. We started that three years ago, and so far we have made about 500 of them.
Do you have any general advice or tips for someone considering purchasing a shirt?
This is quite subjective, but these are some of the key considerations I’d recommend:
- Choose a fit which allows enough room for the shirt to be comfortable, but not too full resulting in lots of excess fabric getting in the way.
- If wearing the shirt with a tie, a slightly cut-away collar works best.
- If an open collar style is preferred, then the less cut-away the collar is results in it sitting better open. A collar band depth of 1 ½ to 1 ¾ inches also helps the open collar stand up better.
- Make sure sleeves are the right length, showing ½ inch of sleeve when a jacket is worn.
- Check tails are long enough, so they don’t come out when you move or stretch. There is nothing worse!
- Buy fewer shirts, but invest in the best quality you can afford. They will last longer, look better and give you more pleasure.
- If I had to choose a collection of only three shirts, the key colours I would go for are white, plain blue and maybe a blue and white stripe. You can always add colour and design with the tie.
- For weddings, I would suggest a white or pastel colour, pale pink ideally, for the groom as well as male guests.
- For a black tie function, a clean and simple look is best. Choose a piqué, or Marcella, style shirt, rather than pleated, on the front. Use a cut-away collar to provide space for the bow tie.
- For younger customers concerned about price, most shops have different fits of shirts now, including our own, so you don’t have to go for the bespoke option. Once you’ve tried a few shirts, you’ll get to know what style to buy.
Finally, what future plans do you have; for instance, opening new stores, collaborations, a larger range?
We don’t have any plans for a new shop, and intend keeping just the one on Jermyn Street. A lot of our customers really like the fact we are only in one location, and I believe that the bigger a person’s life the smaller he likes his shops.
We are constantly developing new collections; we’re bringing out a new women’s shirt collection this autumn, as well as a new knitwear collection. With the women’s collection, we are also bringing out a new limited edition of silk blouses.
We will also be developing our website and ecommerce business, making it more exciting with a greater range of products, and making it as user-friendly as possible for our customers.
Thanks to Emma Willis for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. All images © Emma Willis Bespoke Shirts.