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The Business Magazine May 2024
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Shirtmaker Emma Willis – the only female shirtmaker on Jermyn Street, and factory in Gloucester

The Business Magazine article image for: Shirtmaker Emma Willis – the only female shirtmaker on Jermyn Street, and factory in Gloucester

Interview by Nicky Godding, Editor, The Business Magazine

During the Covid pandemic in 2020, doctors on the intensive care unit at Gloucester Royal Hospital received the most beautifully-made scrubs out of material that, in normal times, would be adorning the likes of King Charles, Colin Firth – even Barak Obama.

It must have made the most desperate of times just a bit more bearable for those in the centre of the pandemic maelstrom.

So, it’s not surprising that four years’ later, many of those scrubs (made from pure cotton of the highest thread count), are still being worn as pyjamas by some of the medical staff lucky enough to have used them.

The woman behind the donation was Emma Willis, shirtmaker to the gentry and to the stars – and still the only female shirtmaker on London’s historic Jermyn Street.

“When Covid closed everything down, like everyone else we wondered what we could do,” said Emma. “A local surgeon gave me a set of his scrubs and my wonderful seamstresses at our Gloucester factory volunteered to make PPE.”

All told, Emma’s team made around a thousand sets of scrubs. She covered the initial cost herself, but such was demand she had to fund raise. Clothing company Reiss, who Emma worked with on suits for injured service personnel, (of which more later) donated a thousand metres of fabric and then a long-standing customer (let’s name drop a bit here – Benedict Cumberbatch), called Emma and asked if he could help. “I told him that we were around £12,000 short and he said: “Count it done.”

From singing to selling in the City of London

What attracts such loyalty and support from Emma’s suppliers, customers and staff?

Simply the beauty, tailoring and simplicity of her bespoke and ready-to-wear shirts, dressing gowns, pyjamas and – more recently T-shirts.

Emma Willis has been in the tailoring business since moving to London to study at the prestigious Slade School of Art.

“Unfortunately, I spent more time singing in a band than studying so they booted me out, quite rightly, and gave my place to someone more deserving.”

She sold clothing door-to-door to pay the rent. But it was a hard slog, so she switched tack and through friends, began making appointments in the City. “One day I went to see a bank and sold 100 shirts before the markets opened.”

Sitting on the bus on the way home realised she’d earned enough to spend the rest of the week singing.

As it turned out, her singing was in less demand than her shirts, and by 1989 she was designing and making her own men’s luxury shirts, nightwear and boxer shorts from a workroom in the capital.

A decade later she opened her own shop on Jermyn Street. And around 10 years after that, she bought a building in the centre of Gloucester and opened her own shirt-making factory.

A beautiful building helps make beautiful shirts

“I always wanted my own factory, but I didn’t want an industrial unit on the outskirts of a city. Then I found Bearlands, the elegant 18th century townhouse overlooking Gloucester cathedral where we are now based. The big windows let in lots of natural light, and I’m sure one of the reasons we attract very talented young people is because of this beautiful house. It’s not like a factory at all.”

However, one of the biggest issues Emma faced when setting up her factory was finding talented seamstresses. In 2015, she met Jonathan Newhouse chairman of Vogue publisher Condé Nast and with his support launched a five-year sewing scholarship, awarded annually to a young person in Gloucestershire for whom studying for a degree in fashion wasn’t an option.

“It was really successful,” said Emma. “Four out of the five students are still with us.”

One of the apprentices, Aysha Randera, has set up the Emma Willis Sewing Studio at registered charity The Friendship Café, a cafe and community space in Gloucester.

Emma also began working with the University of Gloucestershire which has run degrees in fashion for many years. “I spoke to the Vice Chancellor and persuaded him to include sewing in the curriculum. One of their senior lecturers learned how to make a shirt with us and now I think our local university has more sewing machines than the London College of Fashion.”

Emma is doing more than most to bring clothing manufacturing back to Britain. While she knows it will never be mass production, she trains and employs the best seamstresses, cutters and craftspeople.

And she puts great store on a happy working environment. “That is so important. A job should be as interesting as possible, everyone should be valued – and not just for their speed.”

Wherever you are in the world, your measurements stay in Gloucester

Emma Willis customers are based all over the world. They choose the design, cut and the fabric and the team at Bearlands keeps a paper pattern for each individual customer.

The business now turns over more than £2.5 million annually and employs around 30 members of staff in Gloucester and at the Jermyn Street store.

Emma, who was awarded an MBE for entrepreneurship in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List, splits her time between both sites. “I love selling, but equally it’s about maintaining a close relationship with our seamstresses and cutters.”

And the business has flourished as Emma welcomes younger customers who appreciate bespoke shirts as much as her longer-standing clients. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve added polo shirts and T-shirts to our collection, we do more ‘smart casual’ now.”

She sources her polo and T-shirt material from a Swiss mill she has been working with for more than 20 years, which also spins, dyes, weaves and finishes the raw Egyptian cotton used to make an Emma Willis shirt. Other cotton suppliers are based in Italy, and her white cotton comes from the USA.

The company also sells ties made in Sussex and knits woollen socks in Gloucester.

Success has taken years of hard graft, but Emma enjoys it as much as ever.

“I have a wonderful team at Bearlands, who now handle some of the management. And I enjoy selling and the employment side.”

Really? Many bosses I know run a mile from the HR side of their business.

“There are times when it’s challenging,” she concedes. “But get through that and there can be a great friendship and loyalty on both sides.”

Emma leaves the making to her team because she’s most useful in the shop with customers.

“We’re in constant communication between Gloucester and London – sizes, fittings, measurements are all discussed in detail. Every shirt is made with the utmost care, from the linings to the buttons – our customers appreciate that.”

Investing in an Emma Willis shirt isn’t cheap – it’s not meant to be. And like the country coatmaker Barbour, which offers regular servicing of its eponymous jackets, customers can send their shirts back to Emma’s Gloucester factory to be re-collared and cuffed.

Style for soldiers – a passion project

But there’s an important side of Emma’s work I haven’t yet mentioned, her Style for Soldiers charity.

In 2008, after listening to a BBC report on the young, severely injured service men and women returning from Afghanistan, she founded Style for Soldiers as a registered charity.

It supports those injured by making them bespoke shirts to help them with interviews, or simply to lift their morale. For 10 years she visited the UK Forces military rehabilitation hospital (first at Headley Court in Surrey, now Stanford Hall in the Midlands), measuring the patients to make bespoke shirts and walking sticks.

The charity has now matured and concentrates on supporting injured service personnel and their partners and children through events.

“We have a dinner in the spring, a summer reunion in Gloucestershire, a family day at Woburn Safari Park and a Christmas Party in London - that's the biggest reunion for injured service personnel because there isn't anything else like this happening across the services.”

Emma Willis is a force of nature. From shirt-making to her charity work, she doesn’t ease up. This interview was conducted on her birthday – imagine agreeing to talk to a journalist on the one day of the year when you could be doing something, anything, rather than that. I just hope she enjoyed dinner with the family that evening.

Stephen Emerson is the Managing Editor of The Business Magazine and is responsible for the publication's print publications and online properties including the newly launched Biz News websites in Hampshire and Dorset.

Stephen has been a journalist for 20 years and has worked at local, regional and national publications and led a team which made The Scotsman website one of the fastest growing news sites in the UK with over eight million monthly users.

He has a keen interest in technology, property and corporate finance and telling the stories of the people behind the successful firms in these sectors.

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