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Debonair visits the British brand’s factory to see how its celebrity-endorsed wares are handmade
When children’s author Beatrix Potter was penning her book The Tailor of Gloucester in 1901, she could have had no notion that, a century later, the former Roman city would play host to one of the world’s finest shirtmakers.
Having started her business in 1987, British businesswoman and expert handmade shirtmaker Emma Willis laid down bricks-and-mortar roots with a London shop in the luxury menswear-centric Jermyn Street in 1999. She then set up the company’s factory in Gloucester 11 years later. In 2014, she received an MBE for entrepreneurship in the New Year's Honours List.
Since then, A-list names from the worlds of royalty and showbiz have been lining up to form an impressive clientele list. International statesmen from opposite sides of the Atlantic, Prince Charles and Barack Obama, have been seen in Emma Wills shirts. There can’t be many companies that can boast dressing James Bond (Daniel Craig), Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Doctor Who (Matt Smith and David Tennant). Primetime TV presenter Dermot O’Leary, Game of Thrones actor Charles Dance and muscular model David Gandy are also prominent Emma Wills wearers. And it’s all the more impressive when you learn they are all actual customers – Emma Willis has a strict anti-freebie policy.
The fairer sex isn’t forgotten, either: having recently added womenswear, Emma Willis has dressed Angelina Jolie, Julianne Moore and the founder’s own daughter, Hermione Corfield — a rising movie star who was filming in the UAE at the start of 2019 for Pierce Brosnan-led crime caper The Misfits.
The building in Gloucester in which Emma Willis handmakes (and hand-packages) its wares is even older than Potter’s aforementioned book. Bearland House (pictured above left) is a grand 18th-century townhouse that was once a sheriff’s office, with natural light streaming in through the period-style windows.
Nowadays, it is host to the creation of about 8,000 shirts per year, or about 30 per working day. A range of additional garments includes ties, socks and pyjamas. Its boxer shorts up the company’s green credentials by using off-cuts from shirts — not that you would ever guess of such origins from the faultless quality — and they also create bags for spare buttons from the leftover fabric.
Every shirt is handmade here, from the ready-to-wear range through to the bespoke offerings that represent the lion’s share of Emma Willis’ business.
Debonair is given a personal tour of the factory — although the word “factory” conjures images of faceless industrial units, while this is a comparatively homely work premises, set in Bearland House’s idiosyncratic nooks and crannies.
The majority of the company’s 20 or so staff are based here, with a mix of experienced employees and graduates of a Conde Nast scholarship.
The shirtmaking process begins in one of two downstairs rooms at the factory, where hundreds of thousands of dirhams’ worth of fabric rolls are hand-cut to either ready-to-wear or bespoke size. Then it’s upstairs to a small warren of rooms where the friendly team of machinists specialise in specific tasks: there’s single-needle sewing of elements such as collars and cuffs, and nifty hand-operated machines that mint the cross-stitched buttonholes and subsequently add the mother-of-pearl buttons, which are meticulously spaced by hand measurement.
The attention to detail is notable: patterns are matched at the seams, collar points are perfected and every piece of stitching is individually inspected by eye and trimmed of minute pieces of excess thread.
The final stage sees the shirts folded, pressed and packed by hand, then sent out into the world to the burgeoning customer base. As well as all of those celeb clients, that includes high-net-worth types who often spend tens of thousands of dirhams per order. You can’t imagine any of them are disappointed.
Emma Willis tells us more about her eponymous brand
How important was it to you to focus on handmade techniques?
I noticed early on how much customers took pleasure in fine stitching and hand embroidery and felt that somehow that they could sense the care, time and attention that went into the making of their shirts. As far as pattern-making and cutting, which we unusually continue to do all by hand, I find the human eye can still judge better than a computer the best measurements for a bespoke shirt. As I feel the hand cutting is felt somehow by the customer, we also cut all our ready-to-wear by hand.
The brand has an emphasis on sustainability — is that an important part of the business to you?
Very important to all areas of my life and the young people I work with. We are all painfully aware of the damage that we have done already to our planet, so we use as little packaging as possible, our fabrics come from no further away than Switzerland and Italy, we recycle our waste and all our fabric is used up in button bags, boxer shorts or given to a local charity.
Your celebrity client list is as long as it is impressive — who have been your favourites to work with?
David Gandy, Charles Dance, Dermot O’ Leary and HRH The Prince of Wales, as they all also are great supporters of our charity Style for Soldiers [which provides bespoke clothes and accessories to injured military personnel].
How did Prince Charles become aware of Emma Willis? Do you ever get starstruck meeting any clients?
I was invited to Clarence House to measure HRH The Prince of Wales by one of his dressers about six years ago, and despite being without any doubt at all completely starstruck was put completely at my ease by His Royal Highness light-heartedly discussing our factory in the county in which he lives, shirtmaking methods and Style for Soldiers. David Gandy, Charles Dance and Dermot O’Leary are complete gentlemen — brilliant at creating a relaxed, merry atmosphere to also put the starstruck at ease!
Not even the most famous celebrity clients are given freebies — does the fact they’re all genuine customers make it even more of a flattering endorsement?
It really does. And I have so much positive feedback from them about how much they love our shirts and this is so encouraging for us all, especially our skilled shirtmaking team.
Have you dressed your daughter Hermione Corfield for the red carpet? And do you hope to see her in Emma Willis pieces on magazine front covers in the future?
Mione is doing so well and kindly dons an Emma Willis shirt in daughterly support whenever she can! She and her sister Isadora both model for our women’s collections. Mione has been featured in many magazines including Vogue, but you have given me the idea to aim for a front cover wearing Emma Willis by the end of the year!
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