Emma Willis MBE trained at the Slade School of Art in London before starting her shirtmaking business in 1989, visiting customers in London and when recession hit the UK, New York and Paris to measure and take orders for bespoke shirts.
Her shirts were made in a small highly skilled shirt making workroom in South East London she found, with one cutter and five seamstresses, which she and another shirt maker took over when the little factory was having trouble achieving enough orders to keep it going. This introduced Emma to the craftsmanship of traditional Jermyn Street shirt making and the skill and passion of the cutters and seamstresses keeping it alive.
In 1999 she opened the Jermyn Street shop, thrilled to come across the perfect sized shop in the perfect bespoke small section of Jermyn Street. Emma designed the shop with friend Penelope Chilvers and employed traditional, skilled artisans from Wiltshire to build a shop with rounded shop front, bespoke cabinetry for shirt shelves, oak staircase, stone floors and bought antique furniture and fine art for the interiors. She felt that the beauty and craftsmanship of bespoke shirts must be reflected in the fabric of the shop and wanted to create a welcoming, elegant, essentially English drawing room look, with fresh flowers and music.
Twenty years later the shop is thriving and has become an integral part of bespoke Jermyn Street, attracting customers from all over the world with a growing, loyal clientele who know they can trust the make, fabric and service and enjoy the friendly but traditional environment of the small shop.
All the shirts, nightwear and boxer shorts are hand cut and sewn in the larger factory Emma started in 2010 in Gloucester, housed in an 18th century townhouse for a spacious, homely, light filled working environment where so much hand cutting, sewing, sock weaving and embroidery needs strong, natural light.
Emma’s philosophy is to adhere to traditional shirtmaking techniques using the most luxurious cottons, linens, silks, brushed cotton and cashmere cottons and to share the advanced and precious sewing skills with the younger generation they now train and employ, to keep the shirt making craftsmanship which is so appreciated across the world.
Made in England
Emma’s passion for high quality British manufacturing, making the most of the commercial and economic value of the Made in Great Britain label and creating employment drive her business. Her aim is to continue to grow the Gloucester factory whilst maintaining all the traditional methods of shirt making and hand cutting, employing and training local, young people, to become a world famous British name known for quality, service, reliability, honesty and compassionate employment.
Emma also works with GEM and GARAS in Gloucester to help support vulnerable people through employment and employs two highly skilled Syrian refugees. She was awarded an Exemplary Employer award by GEM in 2018.
Emma was awarded an MBE in Her Majesty The Queen’s New Years Honours list for entrepreneurship, is a Deputy Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, is an honorary fellow of Gloucester University for her active role supporting their Fashion Degree students and received a Points of Light Award this year from the Prime Minister for ‘outstanding volunteers who are making a real difference in their communities.’
Charity Style for Soldiers
In 2008, deeply moved by a documentary interviewing young injured servicemen rehabilitating at the Military Hospital Headley Court, Emma decided to use her shirt making as thanks for their service and great sacrifice and began visiting every two months for ten years, measuring the injured servicemen and women for free bespoke shirts. This developed into Style for Soldiers, a charity providing complimentary smart clothing, bespoke regimental walling sticks and reunion parties, the Christmas party at the HAC being the largest reunion for injured service personnel in the country, attended by the patients she met at Headley Court over the years, over 700 in total, and their partners or wives, all dressed in their Emma Willis shirts and suits given to the charity by M&S and shoes donated by Russell and Bromley. HRH the Prince of Wales was the guest of honour at the 2016 Christmas Reunion party and spoke of the importance of wearing smart, well fitting clothing provided by Style for Soldiers, helping with confidence for interview, new jobs and lives, after life changing injuries serving the country.
Conde Nast International Scholarship
She met Condé Nast’s chairman Jonathan Newhouse in 2015 to discuss how they could promote sewing in the fashion colleges and fashion business as this is the vital skill needed to keep our clothes industry alive and Emma expressed the need to shine the light on seamstresses not just cutters in the fashion world. Together they set up the Conde Nast Emma Willis Sewing Scholarship, sponsored by Conde Nast, awarding a five year, £10,000 per annum earning and learning place at Emma’s factory, given to a deserving young local person not able to go to university or facing some sort of life challenge.
This has been highly successful and Emma’s head seamstress and supervisor Kath Muir, who has over 30 years of bespoke sewing experience, teaches new arrivals, even with no sewing experience at all, with inestimable skill, wisdom and patience, creating talented employees who become a valuable part of the sewing team and company.
Emma Willis Sewing School
As a DL of Gloucestershire Emma was introduced to the Muslim community in Gloucester at a Queen’s Voluntary Awards ceremony and was inspired to set up complimentary sewing classes in Gloucester, a multi cultural city which has historically welcomed refugees from all over the world including recent from Syria and Afghanistan. Emma met a local lady Aysha Randera who was extremely well connected in the area and together they set up sewing classes in the Emma Willis factory, the company giving free sewing training by Kath Muir. The new, larger venue for the classes will be on in the Gloucester Friendship Cafe soon.
Emma, her husband Richard and local friends have raised over £200,000 for the Friendship Cafe and City Farm, meeting places with many activities as well as the sewing for people seeking company from any religion or cultural background in the heart of Gloucester and Emma Willis Ltd recently donated a much needed £50,000 4x4 vehicle for transport which they kindly advertise on the van, 'Donated by Emma Willis Ltd' and organised a ceremony of thanks.