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The Drapers Interview: British shirtmaker Emma Willis

Jermyn Street shirtmaker Emma Willis is at the top of her game and is now passing that knowledge on to the next generation of talent

Emma willis

Emma willis

I want to make sewing glamorous again. Those who sew are the really skilled ones and are the future of our industry. Let’s shine a light on them

Nestled on London’s Jermyn Street, luxury British shirtmaker Emma Willis’s eponymous store is one of the key destinations for discerning gents on the renowned menswear row.

Impeccably groomed and equally charming, a combination of drive, passion for men’s shirts, and a black book bursting at the seams with her many happy and often high-profile customers over the years has led Willis to the very forefront of luxury British men’s fashion. She received an MBE in the 2014 New Year’s Honours list for her services to entrepreneurship.

When we meet at her 650 sq ft Jermyn Street store – a beautiful two-floor shop designed to look like a grand yet comfortable English drawing room – Willis is keen to talk business.

Emma Willis produces 7,000 shirts a year, with ready-to-wear retailing at £200 to £280, while bespoke runs from £300 to £450, both representing 60% and 40% of sales, respectively. Swiss mill Alumo is a major shirting supplier, alongside companies from Italy and Ireland, and everything is made in-house at the 4,300 sq ft factory she leases in Gloucester, called Bearland House.

Managing director Willis is coy on profit figures but turnover for the year to February 29 was expected to grow from £1.3m to £1.5m year on year, so the business is in a strong financial position for further growth. She also declines to reveal the exact percentage ownership split between her and American backer and chairman Bill Tyne, but does disclose that she became majority shareholder last year.

Willis is intent on growing production for her store, website, and wholesale customers, that include Savile Row tailor Huntsman, luxury men’s etailer Mr Porter and department store Fenwick of Bond Street. She is also busy championing British manufacturing and last year secured £50,000 in sponsorship from Vogue publisher Condé Nast to launch the Emma Willis Sewing School, with the funding equally spread over five years.

Having been vocal about the decline in teaching of sewing in schools and fashion colleges, Willis was invited last year to Downing Street to speak with Daniel Korski, a special adviser to prime minister David Cameron, about her idea for a sewing school.

“I said, ’If you want to grow the British clothes making industry, you have got to make it attractive again.’” She then received a call from Condé Nast International chairman and chief executive Jonathan Newhouse, who had been at Downing Street the following day expressing an interest in supporting UK manufacturing and had been told to contact Willis to see if there was a synergy.

“I went to see Mr Newhouse and he grilled me on my plan, which I had to follow up in writing, and he replied that he would like to help,” she recounts. “You need around eight machinists to every cutter, for example, so it is so important we support these skills.”

Jenny Holloway, founder and chief executive of not-for-profit organisation Fashion Enter and the London-based skills training academy Fashion Technology Academy, agrees: “Garment manufacturing today needs a skilled workforce and this is also why we also run the apprenticeship programme,” she says, with her academy producing at the high street-end of the market for retailers such as Marks & Spencer, and New Look.

The Emma Willis Sewing School is housed on the top floor of Bearland House and teaches free two-evening classes of six students a week on a Monday or a Wednesday. Willis spent the first £10,000 on buying Brother industrial sewing machines from local company J&B Sewing Machines, which she describes as “the best”, and all of the equipment needed. Graduates get a certificate, which also carries the Condé Nast branding. “I wanted glamour and nothing can be more glamorous than Condé Nast.”

Chloe phelps emma willis

Chloe phelps emma willis

Chloe Phelps has become the first graduate of the Emma Willis Sewing School

Chloe Phelps became the first graduate on February 8, having undertaken a year-long paid apprenticeship, and will now be fully employed.

This year Willis will award the second £10,000 as a scholarship to the top-performing graduate from the sewing classes and offer the a job.

Willis believes setting up her own production in Gloucester in 2010, first in smaller premises before moving to Bearland House in 2013, as one of her best moves.

“Fortunately it coincided with a returning appreciation for Made in Britain, and the launch of London Collections: Men in 2012, which has helped to shine a light onto small businesses like mine on Jermyn Street or Savile Row that don’t have big advertising budgets.”

The press meant the brand was suddenly being requested by stylists and soon became a favourite of celebrities such as TV presenter Dermot O’Leary and actor Colin Firth.

Willis’s success is hardly surprising. Growing up in north Hertfordshire she was obsessed with fashion and credits her parents, social worker and author mother Audrey and land agent and chartered surveyor father Michael, for encouraging her and her sister Joanna and brother Hugh to always “believe in ourselves”.

She went on to read English at UCL in 1982, before deciding to switch to the Slade School of Fine Art, ultimately dropping out after a year to sing in a band called Dilemma. She began working in the fashion industry in 1985 after spotting an advertisement in the London Evening Standard for a sales job at door-to-door menswear business Workshop Clothing, before moving to Hamlet Shirts in Piccadilly the same year, establishing its direct selling business Legge & Pritchard. She set up her own business, Emma Willis Handmade Shirts in 1987 from her apartment in Fulham, where she still lives.

Initial customers included future backer Tyne, along with her now husband Richard Corfield, and Lord Ramsay – now the Earl of Dalhousie – who is still a customer.

“I would always ask my customers if they had friends who were interested,” recalls Willis. “I always remember one list I was given by a lovely older man in the City and on it was the Duke of Beaufort, the Duke of Devonshire, the Duke of Wellington – just a list of dukes and their home numbers. So I rang them and they were all incredibly nice.” Although, she laughs: “You had to learn all of the terms, like when to call someone ‘sir’ or ‘your grace’. But I found that fun.”

Willis had her first taste of running a shirt making factory from 1990 to 1995, which she set up in New Cross, southeast London, with friend and fellow shirtmaker Stephen Lachter. However, she decided to give her share of the factory away when it became too much with the birth of her first two children, son Kai in 1992 and daughter Hermione in 1993 – although it continued to make her shirts. Her younger daughter, Isadora, was born in 1997. Regularly travelling to see clients in New York and Paris, in addition to London, became too much and she contemplated giving her business away. However, she says, “I just thought ‘if I step out of the business I will never get back in. I have to put roots down. I have got to have a shop’.”

She came to Jermyn Street, and as chance would have it, there was an advertisement in the window of what is now her store.

“Jermyn Street is the only place I would have wanted to do it, but stores rarely came up for rent. I thought this is fate. I have to do it.”

Unable to gain funding from the bank, Tyne stepped forward to invest the full £300,000 she needed. “He is a complete gentleman, and even put in another £50,000 at one point, because the early years really were tough.”

For the first five years she also sold women’s, accounting for 50% of the business, but decided to drop it in 2005 and focus on men’s.

“I realised I was at the epicentre of menswear on Jermyn Street and it was probably even putting some men off.” It paid off – the day she took womenswear out of her windows the shop was busier than ever.

Time-honoured craft

Shirtmaking is a craft that can take years to perfect. A high-quality shirt usually consists of between 15 and 25 pieces, and the manufacturing process typically involves measuring, pattern-making, cutting, sewing, finishing and pressing. Unhappy with falling standards at the factory she was then using, Willis advertised for a team in the local papers around Gloucester in 2009. The rest is history.

Emma Willis Bearland house

Emma Willis Bearland house

Emma Willis’ staff affectionately call her factory Bearland House “Downton”, after the popular BBC drama series

Willis now controls her entire production at Bearland House, an imposing 18th century house the staff have affectionately nicknamed “Downton”. She has 26 employees:
24 in pattern-making, cutting, sewing and embroidery, and two in management. The factory also produces ties and socks, with two staff using a hand-operated sock loom.

“The last three years have been fantastic,” she says. “The Italians used to dominate, but there is now a demand for Made in Britain again.”

Currently the store represents 50% of sales, with the website providing 30% and the wholesale channel the remaining 20%. Having employed eight fashion graduates last year and with hopes to employ more this year, Willis is intent on growing skills and her business.

She is currently in talks on a wholesale project with London department store Fortnum & Mason, and debuted the “Emma Willis for Huntsman” shirt range for autumn 15 for the Savile Row tailor.

“[Huntsman owner] Pierre Lagrange wanted to start having his shirts made in England, which is a great indication of all things British coming back, and said he would love us to make his shirts.”

In addition to this she has been selling ready-to-wear in Fenwick since 2015 and even earlier on Mr Porter for both the UK and US markets since 2011. The latter came about through Mr Porter fashion director and longtime Emma Willis fan Toby Bateman, having previously bought the range for Selfridges.

“When he moved to Mr Porter, he asked me two questions. ‘One, can you do my wedding shirt? And two, when we are set up, I would love to feature you on Mr Porter’,” she laughs, recalling the exchange.

Emma willis group shot

Emma willis group shot

Emma Willis’ Style for Soldiers charity has now become the largest gathering of injured ex-servicemen fromIraq and Afghanistan

If all this were not enough, Willis also started her Style for Soldiers charity, whereby she provides bespoke shirts for injured servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan. Since launching in 2009, she now has both Huntsman and Marks & Spencer on board providing suits, along with a raft of other sponsors. Male supermodel David Gandy is the charity’s ambassador.

Now one of London’s most recognisable faces in menswear, she is confident about the future: “I want to grow the wholesale, grow the production and keep this little gem of a shop here, that’s my plan.”

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