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The Shirt Off Your Back: Richard Hopton Meets Shirtmaker Emma Willis

Shirtmaker extraordinaire Emma Willis talks shirts, style and soldiers with Richard Hopton...

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From selling her shirts door-to-door to her own shop on the exclusive Jermyn Street, Emma Willis recounts her success to Richard Hopton. Apparently, it’s the exclusive cotton she uses that has international royals coming back for more…

Emma Willis Shirtmaker

Emma Willis

Emma Willis: A Household Name

Emma Willis is shirtmaker to the great and the good. She numbers princes, dukes, titans of Hollywood and masters of the universe among her clients. The shirts are sold in her shop on Jermyn Street but are made in a stately Georgian house in Gloucester. Emma is proud of the ‘Made in England’ label, which is given added authenticity by the refined circumstances in which the shirts are produced and sold.

Emma started her business in the late 1980s. Having attended the Slade, she sold shirts door-to-door to earn her keep while she established herself as a portrait painter and singer-songwriter. She then set up her own company and started selling her bespoke shirts in City offices. It proved to be a winning formula. In one morning visit to stockbroker Kitcat & Aitken, Emma sold more than a hundred shirts before the market opened.

In 1999 Emma decided that ‘she and the business needed to put some roots down’ but finding her shop ‘was like fate’. The premises on Jermyn Street were the perfect location, a stone’s throw from the clubs and hotels of St James’s, and Emma designed it as a ‘relaxed English drawing room’, with an oak staircase, stone floors and an eye-catching chandelier.

Emma Willis Shirts

Emma Willis shirts are made from the finest Swiss cotton

Eleven years later, Emma moved the factory to Bearland House in the centre of Gloucester, and now all Emma’s shirts are designed, cut, stitched and finished there.

Emma has branched out to make other garments: pyjamas, dressing gowns, socks, ties, and boxer shorts but shirts remain the core business, constituting 90 per cent of turnover. The key to the quality of Emma’s shirts is the Swiss cotton she uses. The suppliers have, says Emma, ‘really helped me and are a fundamental part of the business’. For her clients, the quality of the cotton is as important as the cut of the shirt and the high standard of the finish, she says.

Style for Soldiers

Emma is also well known for Style for Soldiers, the charity she established in 2008, to provide shirts for badly wounded servicemen. Shocked by a Radio 4 report on Headley Court, the Army’s rehabilitation centre in Surrey, she wanted to help. She has visited the centre every two months since then, measuring, making and giving away around 1,500 shirts to wounded soldiers. ‘I am dedicated to it for the rest of my life,’ she says.

Her charity and her business have a symbiotic relationship. The charity has, Emma admits, raised the profile of the business and encourages people to buy her shirts but, likewise, the charity might never have got off the ground had it not been for the financial backing and contacts acquired through the business.

Emma’s shirts may be worn by the Prince of Wales and coveted by the likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Craig, but her feet are firmly on the ground and her business remains a family affair.

Emma Willis ShirtUnbuttoning the answers

Who has influenced you most professionally? 

My financial backer Bill Tyne and husband Richard have had the most influence on me professionally, Bill supporting me with patient, kind, unquestioning trust and Richard advising me 24/7!

If you were not running your business what would you be doing?

Running my charity.

Double cuff or single cuff?

Double cuff.

What is the most enjoyable book you’ve read recently?

Little Angels by Phra Peter Pannapadipo.

Where do you most like going on holiday?

France, Italy and the Far East.

Emma Willis shirts can be purchased online or from her Jermyn Street store.

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