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We catch up with the designer behind the London-based label known for its handmade bespoke and readymade luxury shirts
Eduan R. Maggo
Where does the name come from? Emma Willis is my maiden name. I was always told I had a pleasingly symmetrical name with the two Ms and the two Ls! When I was planning to start the business at the end of the 1980s, my friend Leslie Bricusse, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning musical theatre writer known for Stop the World — I Want to Get Off among others, said I should have a pink and white striped horse-drawn carriage with my name on to deliver the shirts around London. He loved my name as a brand name and encouraged me.
How would you describe your brand’s aesthetic? Our aesthetic is simple, quiet elegance, with all the emphasis being on cut, quality of make and the finest fabric.
What inspires the brand? Beautiful fabrics inspire me — cottons, linens and cotton cashmere in every shade of blue and weave of white. I love the perfect white shirt, and our wonderful Swiss Mill creates endless different weaves and weights to offer to our customers and put in our ready-to-wear collection. The feel of cotton is paramount and I often buy by touch.
What goes into creating the perfect shirt? Accurate cutting, beautiful small, neat stitching, real mother of pearl iridescent white buttons and the best-quality two-fold cotton, which is prewashed and finished using the best techniques so there is no shrinkage. That way your perfect shirt has a long, loved life.
What informs your choice of cut, material, print, colour etc? I’ve leant about the cut of a shirt from 28 years of experience in the bespoke shirt-making business, and working closely with my own pattern makers and cutters over the years to create the right body shape for different builds of men and with different lifestyles. As I mentioned, I really love plain blue or white shirts, or maybe simple, elegant blue and white stripes and checks, and I am lead by the texture, weight and weave rather than bold prints etc. I choose many, many different shades of blue for our cotton business shirts, summer linen shirts and winter cotton cashmere shirts.
Do you have a flagship product, and what makes it stand out? Our ivory silk pique bib-fronted black tie evening shirt for studs or buttons is unique and no one else has ever made this most subtle and elegant evening shirt. The Oxford-weave ivory un-dyed silk and matching pique silk for the bib, cuffs and collar are woven exclusively for Emma Willis by an Italian mill that developed this special weave with me.
What do you think will be the next big revolution in your segment? Mixing old-world, high-quality craftsmanship with the technology of ecommerce. We are already seeing signs of how important the authenticity of a brand is now to the discerning customer in the luxury market. I think responsible, transparent manufacturing will be ever more important to the customer who can afford the best and wants to enjoy the full pleasurable experience of buying luxury. The internet allows brands proud of their production to share this exciting process with their customers, and I know from experience how much this is appreciated and enjoyed.
What about the Middle East market appeals to you? I have many customers in the Middle East, mainly from the UAE, and they care greatly about quality of make and beautiful cottons. Many of our cottons are very light and cool to wear and we do a collection for djellabas too. I visited Dubai recently and was so impressed with the shopping malls and hope to find the right outlet in the city in the future.
How has the rise of ecommerce influenced your company and strategy? My major investment this year is in our website, upgrading all the functions to match the quality of our product and with the quality of online service, which is all about ease and speed of the transaction. Having sold direct to my customers since I started my business in 1990, I enjoy trying to give the customer buying online the nearest experience possible to buying bespoke or ready-to-wear shirts at our shop. We were the first UK shirt-makers to launch Bespoke Online, using my years of experience in bespoke to give the online customer as many options as possible, while avoiding details that would not work without a physical measure and fitting. This has worked very well, with hardly any returns since we launched several years ago. The ability to show our skilled seamstresses and cutters working in our attractive 18th Century English townhouse is greatly appreciated and inspires me to pour energy into our online business, the great worldwide shop.
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