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 His Majesty the King, 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 His Majesty the King, back to his car in Gloucester. The sun was shining, I was feeling happy and — again — there it was for rent!
“Today, we are happily 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!”