Christie Brinkley wears our White Oxford Cotton shirt for the cover of FN

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For the first in our 10 Year Anniversary film series, The Rake looks at the rise of Emma Willis, one of Jermyn Street’s finest bespoke shirtmakers.

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In an 18th century townhouse, nestled in the heart of Gloucester, hangs a series of black-framed photographs, all with a common theme: Emma Willis, shaking hands with a plethora of high-profile people. The moments are symbolic of the successes Emma has enjoyed as one of the UK’s most prestigious shirtmakers, as well as someone who’s used that acclaim to give back.

It was high profile customers that helped Emma’s business initially grow. Having worked for other menswear companies, she launched her own label in 1989, focusing on bespoke shirts made in England from the finest materials. Personally travelling to homes or places of work, she built up strong relationships with customers, who’d then refer her to their equally high profile friends, quickly developing a client book bursting with reputable names.

It wasn’t until 2000 that Emma opened her store on Jermyn St, where she immediately stood out in an area dominated by male-led brands. She used this as an advantage, adding a delicate flair to menswear, which has become the brand’s signature. “I don’t tend to like the really bold, masculine look at the very traditional end of British shirtmaking,” says Emma, from the cosy basement of her flagship store. “So it’s probably a softer look, slightly less formal. Even if it’s a linen shirt or a brushed cotton shirt, you still make it with equal care. One, it can still be bespoke, and two, you can make it with as much care and trouble as you would with your formal business shirt. So I think that combination is quite characteristic of us too.”

Of course, another value Emma holds in high regard is material, which is sourced from Italy, Switzerland and Ireland. “I’ve used the same mill in Switzerland for 25 years – they’re absolutely superb. It’s called Alumo, and most of our shirts are made from their cottons which are woven using the highest quality Egyptian Giza 45 or West Indian Sea Island raw cotton. And then for the more creative and casual fabric like linen, I would go to Italy, and Irish linens are beautiful too.”

‘What men really want for Christmas, from barbershop shaves to bespoke suiting.’ – The Telegraph

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Custom made shirts from £290, Emma Willis

As the item that every man probably wears most, a shirt is also an informed place to start in the world of bespoke. Excellent British brands such as Drake’s and Emma Willis offer custom-made shirting services. Italian shirtmaking brand Apposta also runs a subscription service online whereby your shirt can be crafted to your specific measurements and specifications – round collar or pointed etc – and delivered to you as a one-off gift or every month.

The New York Times

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For the Man on Your Holiday List: Shopping London’s Jermyn Street

EMMA WILLIS, No. 66, shirts handmade in Gloucester, England, from around 210 to 420 pounds ($269 to $539).

“I don’t personally own any yet, but she makes some of the best shirts around and I use her when I’m doing some styling for a lot of my clients.”

The Financial Times – How to Spend It by Nick Foulkes

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‘Exemplar Employer’ award

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Emma Willis has been awarded the ‘Exemplar Employer’ award in recognition of the support given for the GEM project, helping to build a better community and business environment in Gloucestershire.

Emma Willis won a Champion of Women Award last Friday, in the ‘Style and Spirit’ cateogry

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Emma was honoured to win a Champion of Women Award last Friday, in the ‘Style and Spirit’ category, at a ceremony in London for over 500 women in business and philanthropy.  The awards raised over £100,000 for Maggies Cancer care centres.

The ten year anniversary of the charity Style for Soldiers set up by shirt maker Emma Willis. The charity donates shirts and suits for injured soldiers. Emma visited Headley Court for the last time before the facility moves to the Midlands.

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Emma Preparing Button Bags In The Gloucester Workrooms

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Frederick Heffer’s charming write up of his work experience at our Gloucester workrooms.

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The hive of industry within Bearland House is hardly noticeable for those passing souls on the pavement outside. Some may stop and observe timidly the 18C. design but this is merely to flatter the house with their knowing appraisal of its timeless beauty. Indeed, such a handsome house is in little need of such fatigued admiration. Set back from the road, bands of gleaming white cut across the aged brick, a flag pole stands from the centre of the roof and newly painted railings shine in the foreground. Looking back now, after a week inside this house I find it’s subtle charms and distinguished presence noticed on my first sunny Gloucester morning entirely appropriate to the inner workings of the factory. The Emma Willis shirt making process seemed every bit as sincere, sophisticated and beautiful as the appearance of the factory leads one to believe- at least this is according to me, an untrustworthy source, eager to be enchanted by the romantic ordeal of putting a shirt together.

I had arrived in Gloucester on the 5th of August and on Monday walked through unfamiliar streets to arrive at the factory door. I pressed the buzzer and soon the great slab of stained wood was heaved inwards to reveal a smiling face. Soon bustled into the cutting room and then given a speedy whizz from room to room, up and down across the rolling carpets. Everything seemed wonderfully comprehensible, it was only wise and sensible to place the cutting room on the ground floor and the sowing ladies on the next. It is not that I understood what was going on but rather that I was pleasantly surprised to see the honest process being carried out by people rather than overbearing machines. I carried on upstairs next to meet Helen, chief embroiderer, working studiously over a floral cuff. After this brief tour I was down in the cutting room once more and occupied myself by getting in the way and watching intently. This was where I met Sam and Lizandra who initiated the shirt making process and myself into the factory. I was immediately reminded of Anderson’s film Phantom Thread seeing the industrially sized scissors cleanly slicing through the fabric, it was hugely satisfying to see the swathe of cotton from Switzerland being handled with such reverence and experience. Great scrolls of linen and cotton lay beneath the table awaiting their fate patiently. The remnants of these rolls were crammed into boxes surrounding the table, they were the unneeded material that was cut from the shirts. There was a plethora of texture and colour within these boxes and merely going through them was pleasurable in itself. I was drawn to the linen above all and picked out a square for a handkerchief. After this had been cut I scurried upstairs where Helen delivered an embroidery masterclass. I was astounded at the time and skill hand embroidery takes. This was to be the first, and heavily recurrent, misgiving of the whole process. One thinks a single shirt or boxer short is quick work but throughout the week I discovered the layers of attention and craft that go into any single Emma Willis shirt. This means it take a considerable time. Even my linen handkerchief with hand rolled hems took me near 3 hours, but of course this is adding in 10 minutes or so whenever rethreading the needle had to take place. It was a gratifying experience disfiguring these squares of white linen by branding them with my coarse initials as one becomes noticeably better through practise as with all things.

I was prodigiously excited when asked to cut a shirt intended for me. I chose a large Soho collar and ice blue cotton. The patterns were placed reverently onto the fabric and I drew carefully round them. Then I employed a device similar to a pizza cutter and, guided patiently by Sam through every stumble, managed to have cut a full shirt. It was upstairs next where I pranced from one lady to the next to watch each blade of cool cotton be tied to its partner. Once again I was amazed at the elegance that each shirt acquires under the steady hand of Kath, Steph or Georgina.

It was on the following day that the shirt was completed. Helen had graciously detailed my initials into the collar with a burnt umber thread that looked ravishing on the ice blue beneath. The shirt was then buttoned using a hand marking system and machine that violently cut and tied down the buttons. It was packing time next and gradually this wonderfully foreign shirt turned into something more familiar. Something that could be seen in a Jermyn Street window. After this I felt humbled and stunned, looking down onto the shirt it became something far greater than another, equally beautiful piece of clothing. This was because I saw In each thread the lady that put it there, I imagined the pencil marked button hole beneath the stitching now and was amazed. It was the embroidery above all that shook me however, it seemed to be personal on so many levels.

On Friday I spent the morning cutting boxers from the varying patterns and having received my own pair earlier on in the week I was extra careful to cut them well. It was a proud feeling to think that soon these pieces will be in the shop as boxers, a lucky person will cherish them for as long as they last. It is not only a fearless loyalty to Emma Willis shirts that manifested itself within me during that week but also a love of fabric and for the people that dance with it daily in Gloucester. It was a fabulous week and I cannot thank everyone enough for making it so memorable.

By Frederick Heffer

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