Emma Willis - Purposeful Activity

Emma Willis is a force of nature. 

From Bearland House, Gloucester, Emma and her intensely talented team, cut and sew the finest of cotton into buttoned and cuffed creations enjoyed around the world.

From her Jermyn Street store she presents a vision of business which is the future. 

Lithe, nimble, respectful, committed to service and being as sustainable as possible. To giving back. To viewing business not only as a means to enrich the wallet but to fortify the soul and community.

Understanding that businesses need time and care to grow strong, short term economic solutions will never work long term.

An investment in staff and training will always pay off.

It’s a return to the past which is ahead of the game.

It does help if the product is half decent, and thankfully it’s more than that. 

These are beautiful English shirts, cut and made to be worn and worn well.

No gimmicks, no abstract of the moment soon to be dated shapes or fabrics, these are not the shirts of those who have given up, considered the mid engine sports car and gone flowery. 

Nor are they the shirts of those who try too hard, those who ride the suburban trains hard and see the flounce of a pocket square as a badge of surrey estate agent’d honour. 

Shirts that make the man, that man, and then stolen by whoever you share life with…

I wear mine with tailoring, with jeans, with shorts. Easy to wear, it’s quite simple, you unbutton, take your left arm and place inside left sleeve and repeat on the right and then button.

The shirts of someone who knows how men want to dress, not what focus groups or trend forecasters suggest, rather someone with an eye, a lot of taste and an understanding of what works. 

And it’s not just men, most of the chicest women I know, the really very best dressed ones, mix their Bottega and ‘old’ Céline with Emma’s shirts, sometimes stolen from husbands or lovers, often bought from Jermyn Street and now those online retailers whose packaging people keep.  

Speaking of which, a certain someone notified me by text whilst I was writing that apparently, a new navy Bengal stripe poplin is missing from their wardrobe…

Which is why I find myself sinking slowly into embrace of feather filled sofa downstairs at No.66 Jermyn Street, to speak with Emma, for this our latest people post, because Emma Willis as a brand is one I cannot help but want to shout about and Emma as a human, is inspirational.

Because don’t forget in that most masculine of places, Jermyn Street, London’s clubland to the south and Savile Row to the north, Emma came and changed bespoke and ready to wear forever, the softer, more elegant stance we now see from all on Jermyn Street is due to Emma.

That sofa, in fact the entire shop is a little slice of the west country in SW1A, I can almost feel Severn our famous local black Labrador slowly attempting to inch up in the hope I wont notice until she’s sat there snoring away and twitching dreamily. 

This I imagine is what people want when they come to London for a shopping experience, the curved exterior, glass and wood harmoniously playing, painting’s dotted about which hint of Emma’s past at the Slade, worldly works of deep yet restrained texture and colour, a nod to the shirts,  the hand blocked wallpaper and the vegetable dyed carpets which speak of paisley dressing gowns, all sat on stone floors, rolls of fabric placed against tables and walls, begging to be looked at and imagined in shirts, shirts stacked in cabinets for those who either know what they want or well know they’re going to leave with something. Because this isn’t a walk in, browse, hello/goodbye kind of a place, I mean I don’t feel like you can’t do that, the welcome is always embracing, it’s just that, well that every time I’ve been in, I have yet to see anyone leave without buying or placing an order for something, shirts, boxer shorts, pyjamas et ectera. 

It isn’t fusty though, more a place in the image of it’s keeper, elegant and refined. Artistic and interesting. Oh and interested. Always interested.

Because I’m convinced that the most successful people, aren’t just a mix of actual talent and hard work - although both are vital - but also of curiosity. 

A willingness to view the world slightly differently, to go with what feels right personally rather than what conventional opinion tells us to do. 

Oh and they care. The fashion industry for all it’s glitz and glamour, can be a bit funny, ego often masks a lack of ability. 

But, I’ve found those that take an interest, are those worth supporting, those who quietly care about what they do, concentrating on doing the best they can.

Occasionally I get asked to speak with large organisations about Corporate Social Responsibility, about the move towards sustainability and how the fashion industry actually works. 

I often find that people think that in order to get a head, you don’t need to get a hat, just a killer mentality. That’s a mistake, if you put goodness in, eventually you will get it back. 

Emma Willis the perfect example of this. 

Anyway, so back to the sofa, I’m early, the weather is threatening to be foul, so sat coffee in hand, reading my book.

Emma charming and graceful as ever, joins me, apologising for being late – she isn’t -  having just finished a Style for Soldiers meeting around the corner.

We chat about the world, life, work and the industry, and how we’d save all three, I check the time and 90 minutes have whizzed by, if we had the power to put into action everything we suggested, well, this would be a better world. But instead, retreat upstairs and I take some photos, whilst attempting/failing not to touch every shirt, the texture making me imagine every scenario in which I needed each shirt, and how my life wouldn’t continue without them. 

It’s bloody clever. Appeal to the senses, create the customer. Then the customer wears something which like all good things improves with wear and then they need more, another fix. Imagining how much slimmer, taller and sexier they will be with each purchase. 

It’s also the best of those three things, because it’s all so unassuming, quietly liberating and invigorating by being quietly great. 

And then with that I have to go, overspent my time, and I can feel the bank managers’ left arm twitches coming on, as I leave, a chat about afternoon and weekend plans, mine involve whatever this website is, Emma’s involve Style for Soldiers. 

Style for Soldiers is Emma’s charity. Like many, I knew about it, had seen it in the press and heard about it from people, but it wasn’t until about 3 or 4 years ago I was in the store and well, I’d been having one of those weeks, as I was about to leave two guys entered, Emma introduced us and we started to chat, 5 minutes turned into ten and then into 25, it is probably one of the funniest as well as moving conversation’s I have ever had. 

They had popped in to say thank you, and to show Emma some photos, both men had been badly injured whilst on active service in Afghanistan, and frankly both of them sorted my bad mood out, their positivity and zest for life was intense.

Style for Soldiers has a simple aim to help build the confidence of those who have given their all for our nation. 

By providing clothes, in some respects to replace a uniform, you help provide a sense of normality and stability and the feeling that someone is in your corner. 

But that’s only a small part of it, S4S organises networking events, art exhibitions, work placements and more.

It’s an extraordinary thing, and the website, in particular the soldier’s letters are well worth seeking out. Because they speak of hope.

Confidence is a recurring topic on this site, many of the people featured, I describe as being quietly confident in their work. This isn’t ego, just being able to separate the day to day anxieties of life from their work and to allow that work to sing. 

Confidence is hard won and easily lost. The problem is when you have it, you can’t work out how you could ever lose it, and when you don’t, wow, I’ll never get it again.

Confidence is also often the small things, cumulative little victories become grand strides forward.

So when people come along and actively try to help build confidence, it needs to be celebrated. Because confidence enables us to strengthen our stake in society, which in turn creates a better environment for us all.

Whenever I speak about business with Emma, she repeats the same ideal, that a business at it’s heart has to make money to survive, but that then enables it to grow and employ more and more people, creating important skilful jobs which then help the wider community prosper. 

You could argue this is sensible economic theory meets strong social conscience. I just think it’s the right way of doing things. Empowering people, benefits us all. 

It’s not just Style for Soldiers, there is Condé Nast’s excellent international scholarship which awards a 5 year earning and learning place at Bearland House, a given to someone local who is unable to attend university or faces significant life challenges, here overseen by Kath Muir - head seamstress and supervisor - new arrivals often with no sewing skills are taught life long lessons and become invaluable members of the Emma Willis team.

In addition this there’s the Emma Willis sewing school situated in the Gloucester Friendship Cafe, which helps newcomers to Gloucester learn new skills, meet new people and build bonds for people of all backgrounds. In these divisive and frankly toxic times, surely we need more of this? 

The funny thing is, I know this because I know the company and I know Emma, and yes these are all extraordinary acts but like most things, it’s not shouted about, it’s just what they do. 

It’s the same with sustainability, the buzzword of the now, the cause of the moment and rightfully so, something which has been part of the Emma Willis story since the brand launched, because it’s the right and best way to do things, because good things last not only as physical objects but leave positive shadows upon society and those who made them. 

Fergus Henderson in his new book, speaks of the road to the plate, for animals and vegetables, and belief that love is transferred between participants at each stage of process, a love which ends up eventually in the consumer.

He of course is entirely right. You can taste, and feel the care and attention that has gone into something made with love and from loved items. Passion breeds passion, it is wonderfully contagious.

I feel that sense when I wear certain things, from Edward Green Dover’s or Anderson & Sheppard coat’s, through to items engage with daily, John Julian crockery or Michael Ruh glassware, and particularly in my Emma Willis shirts, each time I wear them, I am reminded of being in Gloucester watching them being made, or standing in Jermyn Street drinking it all in, feeling an individual rather than a spreadsheet target. 

It’s not just the way they are made, or the fact that the people making them are well treated, it’s also what they are made from, we all now know that the fashion industry is a horrific polluter, water intensive production usually takes place in areas of great shortage. Using the best cotton from Alumo, a mill with plentiful clean water, who makes in the most sustainable way not only guarantees a longer lasting product but one which causes the least harm. This tallies with Emma’s since day one belief in cutting packaging wastage, from reusing and recycling plastic and cardboard, and simply doing everything possible to cut carbon footprint.

Businesses are now seen as global entities, sometimes countries in all but name, but, what the businesses we engage with should be is visions of the society we would like to live in. The society I want to live in is artistic, and filled with beauty, tolerant and progressive, understanding of tradition and how we can use it, sometimes by sticking to it, other times by breaking it. A place open to new ideas, ever curious about where we are headed but protective of those who help it thrive.

I see all of this in Emma and her team. People posts are meant to be singular, but it’s hard to separate Emma from her team and the business from Emma. Because each seems enthral to the other, the elegance which oozes through every aspect comes from her undoubtedly, as does the sense of kindness and care. 

But I get a sense that the business as it has grown has had a profound impact upon Emma, when I was in the factory, everyone spoke with such warmth, my lasting memory though was the way that Emma’s eyes lit up when explaining what each person was doing, where they came from and what they hoped to achieve. 

And that’s what I think about when I do up the shirts.


Why do you do what you do?

I love being able to offer employment in the creative field where young people can earn, learn and work with like minded people as well as keeping British craftsmanship alive and flourishing in this generation. In a small business we can all share the stresses and successes and my contribution is to provide as much work through sales as possible which I still greatly enjoy with in retail at our shop and dealing with our supportive wholesale customers Mr Porter, Net a Porter and Matchesfashion. Our charity Style for Soldiers also drives me on as there is so much to be done to support our many seriously injured servicemen and women from the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq Through clothes, reunions and contacts we are able to help and it is an honour and a pleasure as our servicemen and women lay down their lives for our security. 

Where’s home?

I live in Gloucestershire and Fulham.

What do you collect?

Books, new friends and flowers to pick wherever I can for the house!

Any heroes?

Sir John Timpson CBE and his son James.

Favourite dish?

Coffee, fresh orange juice and a croissant.

Hidden Gem?

One beautiful clip on paste earring I have which my beloved maternal gran mother gave me when she was alive and I lost the other on a late night out in my twenties somewhere in Notting Hill Gate, and Gloucester Cathedral.

What’s underrated?

Art and drama in schools for mental health and well being for children and young people.

What’s next?

Growing my factory and planning our future eco/ ultra environmentally sustainable 

 Four items which sum up the UK…

Bowler hats

Wellington boots

Tea pots

Tweed jackets

Original Article: https://www.purposeful-activity.com/posts/2019/10/17/emma-willis