Spear’s steps into the world of bespoke shirting with the help of Jermyn Street’s Emma Willis
At the St James’s end of Jermyn Street opposite Franco’s, in premises that resemble an old-fashioned chemist’s, is Emma Willis, bespoke shirtmaker and Jermyn Street mainstay since 1999, whose customers today include the Prince of Wales.
‘I’d gone to art school and UCL but ended up not completing either of those,’ recalls Willis. ‘I had a few part-time jobs, one of which was selling clothes; that’s what got me into fashion.’ In 1989 she turned her hand to designing and making shirts. It took off. ‘I’m still making for some of the people that I was all those years ago,’ she tells Spear’s.
After marrying one of her first customers, Willis was soon operating out of her kitchen with three children under the age of four. ‘I was finding it difficult to run my business without a shop, but I didn’t have the courage to take on the overheads,’ she recalls.
Faced with the decision of stopping the business or investing in a shop, she headed to the only place that made sense: Jermyn Street. With the backing of one of her American customers and a friend’s shop design expertise, she went about creating her space.
‘I wanted it to reflect bespoke throughout,’ she says. The oak staircase, handmade cabinets and antique furniture do the job – and the dashes of colour, fireplace and fabrics give it a chic, homely air. After the shop came the factory in 2010, located in a glorious 18th century Gloucestershire townhouse.
‘We make beautiful clothes, so I like everyone to work in as beautiful surroundings as possible,’ says Willis. So what happens when a customer arrives in need of the bespoke treatment?
‘The first thing is to ask what they want their shirts for, so whether it is business or casual. Then we take measurements – collar, waist, chest, hips, front yokes, back yokes, sleeve, cuff, biceps, forearm, tail length.’ She rattles this off at light speed, before adding: ‘We discuss the style of the shirt – a raised front, a flat front, a fly front, different collar styles. And then fit of the shirt: easy fit, average fit or slim fit.’
Willis buys fabric from a mill on the Swiss-German border, which manufactures in small batches to ensure the quality. ‘They have natural ways of preventing creasing,’ she says, ‘and an abundance of natural water for washing the cotton, which is important for the finishing process.’
Once the measurements have been taken, she makes a sample shirt that is tried on for adjustments. When she is satisfied, the rest of the order can be created.
‘For us, it is all about taking meticulous care. Beautiful stitching, buttons being sewn on perfectly, no loose threads,’ says Willis. She is keen to preserve the finest traditions of British shirtmaking in her designs, and notes: ‘Italy and France are known for beautiful clothes making, but it is a different style. The archetypal British shirt is stronger and more structured.’
Another important aspect is the charitable initiatives linked with the business. Willis has set up a sewing school in Gloucester, which, with the backing of Condé Nast, awards scholarships to seamstresses. She has also founded Style for Soldiers, a charity that gives shirts to injured ex-service personnel. The charity also sponsors soldiers who turn to the arts for psychological rehabilitation.
All this, of course, has come to a halt as the pandemic sweeps the globe. The premises on Jermyn Street, to the founder’s dismay, are now closed for the first time in 21 years.
But she is pulling out all the stops to support employees: ‘We’ve done the maths and we can operate for six or seven months continuing to pay everyone.’ The saving grace, says Willis, is the fidelity of fashion-conscious HNWs: ‘You get huge loyalty in bespoke. We’ll pick up where we left off.’
Four more shirt brands to look out for
Eton Shirts was founded in Sweden in 1928 by David and Annie Pettersson and offers shirts custom made to fit and size, with a choice of collar, cuffs, length, and monograms.
Turnbull & Asser is the shirt daddy, with a Royal Warrant to the Prince of Wales. It has more than 1,000 fabrics, 25 collar and cuff options, 20 monogram styles and many collar linings.
The brand’s new Pink Bespoke service, at a workshop in Vauxhall, offers 24 measurements, more than 400 fabrics, seven collars, three cuffs and three pocket options.
Founded in 1901, H&K still constructs a paper pattern by hand. It offers a service with 19 basic measurements, more than 1,150 fabrics and an array of collars and cuffs.
Original photography by David Harrison
This piece first appeared in issue 74 of Spear’s, available now. Click here to buy a copy and subscribe