There’s something about a dark, crisp winter afternoon that bolsters the cosy charm of London’s noted accessories strip. On the day of ESSENCE Lifestyle’s visit, viewed from across the street, Emma Willis’s emporium at Jermyn Street’s western extremity – the end renowned for bespoke shirt-making – appears to have a beacon-like glow within, shrouding the multi-hued dabs of Egyptian and West Indian Sea Island cotton lining the walls.
For this writer, it’s the most enticing retail establishment in London: and there’s more to its draw than cosy luminescence and shelter from today’s biting gusts outside. The flagstone floors of 66 Jermyn Street are hallowed ground to those among us with a passion for meticulously crafted shirts. All the hallmarks of excellence will be found on every garment that leaves this premises: from single needle stitching to mother of pearl buttons, via exemplary pattern matching at the seams.
Raw material is key to luxury products of any nature: just as Steinway pianos would not have their rich, warm timbre were it not for the close-grained Sitka spruce used to make the soundboards, the drape, comfort and durability of a shirt is dictated entirely by the material from which it is made. Hence, the aforementioned fabrics are dyed, woven and finished by Switzerland’s most dedicated and wily artisans before being passed on to Emma and her dedicated artisans.
The breath-taking quality that exudes from every warp, weft and stitch found within these walls can be attributed to Emma’s long-standing love affair with a garment whose origins that can be traced back to the 4th Century. “The design of a good shirt has developed to be comfortable but functional,” Emma says when we settle down in the bustling wine bar opposite her boutique for a winter warmer and a chat. “This is thanks to factors such as split-back yokes with the cotton cut on the diagonal for easy shoulder movement, collar linings also on the cross to lie flat on the curve. When someone buys one of our shirts they know they will be able to wear it for years, and it will only get softer. I find a beautifully made man’s shirt in fine cotton a very wholesome product, in its simple elegance.”
Emma’s vocational narrative begins shortly after her leaving art school. “I was about 19, singing in a band and drawing portraits, but had to find a way of making a living,” she explains. “So I started working for a company that was selling clothes door-to-door in Soho, and they had some quite nice men’s shirts. I had friends starting work in the city, so I decided to try and sell to them by making appointments, which also avoided the annoying humiliation of knocking on doors.” Spotting a gap in the market, Emma began bringing affordable Jermyn Street style shirts to the offices of those late-80s city slickers who had been desk-tethered by the onset of electronic trading.
Various factors conspired to make Emma’s venture flourish – her borderline obsessive attitude towards quality; her attention to detail; her congenial character, instinctive understanding of how to flatter the male form and her knack for blending ancient artisanal values with contemporary styling – and before long, to cope with demand, she leased an 18th century Gloucester townhouse to convert into an elegant factory and took her venture to the next level.
Since becoming the first woman to open a shirt shop in Jermyn Street 15 years ago, Emma has expanded her repertoire and now provides a range of men’s accessories – ties, cufflinks, silk and brushed cotton pyjamas, dressing gowns, handkerchiefs, socks – and has shown a consistent knack for moving with the times. “The demographic of our visitors changed very quickly and noticeably when the hedge fund scene sprung up here,” she says. “Suddenly there were younger, much less conventional men in St. James’s, with the money to buy beautiful bespoke clothing, and a lot of them the taste to do that too – but they want a more contemporary fit. There’s a growing passion for craft and heritage amongst young people. I see it in really young men who aren’t even necessarily working yet – there’s a huge interest in quality, tailoring and bespoke.”
Of course, seasoned sartorialists with the means to fulfil every passing stylistic whim relish top-grade craftsmanship more than most, and it’s unsurprising that Emma’s clientele list dazzles (Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Craig and HRH The Prince of Wales are regularly spotted in her designs, while President Obama’s imposing, don’t-filibuster-with-me demeanour was elevated to all new levels when he opted to pair his navy wool suit with an Emma Willis white slim-fit piece in Swiss poplin and organic pique with a cutaway collar).
Meanwhile, Emma’s bespoke online offering is fraught with agonising choice but exceptionally simple to use, with drop-down menus offering nine types of collar (Savile, Albany and Button Down among them), several types of cuff (Squared, Rounded, Cocktail or Mitred) and so on and so forth. Her off-the-shelf offerings, meanwhile, are genuinely unique in that they offer the same quality hallmarks that you’ll only find with bespoke elsewhere. “Most shirt manufacturers only make with details such as single-needle stitched seams in bespoke,” Emma explains. “They’re smaller, neater seams, sewn once, turned and sewn down again, which therefore take twice as long to do as twin needle stitching. Our ready-to-wear shirts are also pattern matched at the seam, like the bespoke.“
A conversation with Emma reveals regular flashes of benevolence – her decision to waive her made-to-measure programme’s three-shirts-minimum clause for bridegrooms, for example. Her altruistic yen has really come fruition, though, with her charitable initiative which provides beautiful formal clothing for injured ex-servicemen. “Style For Soldiers began when I heard a program on radio four interviewing injured servicemen inside the defence medical rehabilitation unit at Headley Court in Surrey,” she explains. “It moved me so much. They were so young and their lives had been so severely affected by the enormity of their injuries – dedicated servicemen whose careers were ended at 18 or 19 years old. I’ve been visiting about every eight weeks since 2008 and have discovered other needs apart from shirts and ties – so now we provide elegant bespoke walking sticks, made in black ebony with a buffalo horn handle, and a silver band with their initials and regiments engraved on it – they don’t look like a medical aid at all.”
Since conceiving the programme seven years ago, Emma’s passion for the project has proved infectious, with Marks & Spencer now supplying suits and shoes for many of the more than 600 servicemen Emma has met at the hospital. Savile Tow tailor Huntsman (of the movie Kingsman: the Secret Service fame) has also given 10 bespoke suits and their end of season ready-to-wear collections; The London Sock Company give their socks as well as proceeds from their recently launched Limited Edition Collection designed by David Gandy; Lock & Co make bespoke hats; Mappin & Webb have designed, and are making, 100 commemorative cufflinks; Mr Porter has supported the Style For Soldiers Christmas events financially; and this issue’s cover star David Gandy is the charity’s Ambassador. “David is a very genuine person and extremely generous with his time,” says Emma. “The servicemen and women and their families love talking to him at our parties as it’s apparent to them how much he enjoys their company, and cares. We’re very lucky to have him as our ambassador.”
For Emma the project is about more – much more – than simply providing luxury items to those who have been injured in the line of duty. “It began as a gift of a bespoke shirt which I could easily do, as a token of gratitude for their courage and sacrifice – but as they have to find new careers I realised they need a new and different uniform, and a smart suit, shirt, tie and shoes is crucial for confidence in interviews and new jobs. So that’s what I’m working on now and into the future. You’ve got to feel right in what you’re wearing to feel confident.”
As for the future of this extraordinary enterprise – a genuine jewel in the crown of the British capital’s menswear scene – Emma employed eight additional talented fashion graduates in her Gloucester headquarters last year, as cutters, pattern makers and designers who help her create the new season’s shirt collections, and the firm’s commercial impetus continues to snowball (discerning American consumers can buy her wares now, thanks to their availability on Mr Porter across The Pond). Huntsman stock her Emma Willis for Huntsman shirts (as will their New York outlet opening in February), and she also makes and designs a collection for Fenwick of Bond Street (Fortnum & Mason will soon be added to the list).
St James’s folklore has it that a postcard addressed simply to “the kind lady on Jermyn Street who makes shirts for toffs” once arrived through her letterbox without even the slightest delay: such is Emma’s glowing status in this neighbourhood and, increasingly, beyond. She was awarded an MBE in last year’s Queen’s Honours List for her services to business. Her reputation will surely never dwindle, as long as the revival of craft, heritage and excellence continues to ride the crest of the menswear zeitgeist.
Words by: Nick Scott