“Why wear tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt when you can be the Great Gatsby and work from home in an elegant dressing gown?”
mma Willis MBE’s eponymous shop in Jermyn Street has been a beacon for quality shirts and ties for more than 20 years. Like other outfitters on the renowned menswear street, and nearby Savile Row, the business has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, as three-quarters of the working population now sign-in to work from home. International visitors, a significant customer base for Emma Willis, have also all but dried up.
And yet, while the previous 12 months have been disastrous for some traditional shirtmakers – Pink has reportedly been put up for sale by parent group LVMH – Willis says that her business is “weathering the storm”, partly due to the relationships she’s built with customers, some of whom have been with her since she started out in London in 1989.
“Usually sales from our shop account for 70 per cent of our revenue,” says Willis, whose company employs 23 people, most of whom work at her factory, which is located in an 18th Century townhouse in Gloucester. “Our Jermyn Street window displays are definitely important for our business, which usually benefits from year-round international footfall. Having to shut our doors was against all instincts and I wasn’t sure how we would cope.”
In response, Willis set up an office in her Gloucester HQ and switched-up her business model. “With the shop being shut, we have changed to making to order, which means everything is bespoke. We may well continue with this model when we can operate normally again.”
Unlike other clothes companies, Willis benefits from manufacturing her own products, giving her control over quantities and scheduling. Willis’ machinists have learned to make self-piped pyjamas, luxurious boxer shorts and smart face masks during the pandemic. There are also fabulous dressing gowns crafted in vibrant linens from Italy for city slickers who are no longer having to head to the capital.
“Many of these customers tell us they want to still feel smart while being more casual and comfortable; after all, why wear tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt when you can be the Great Gatsby working from home in an elegant dressing gown? Hand-embroidered monograms have been very popular, particularly at Christmas, and nightwear sales have increased by 80 per cent.”
Last year, Willis also launched the charitable initiative ‘Style for Surgeons’. Staff that aren’t making shirts and nightwear have been producing scrubs in the softest cottons for medical staff at several intensive care wards in hospitals around the UK. Some 850 of these garments were made in 2020 with the support of many of Willis' customers.
“We started raising funds to cover the cost of the Swiss cotton used for the scrubs and one day I had a call from Benedict Cumberbatch, for whom we make shirts and nightwear, saying was he filming in New Zealand and had read about our initiative. He was keen to support the NHS at home and gave an amazing £11,000.”
It’s not the first time that Willis has used her business to support those who serve. In 2008, she launched ‘Style for Soldiers’, a charity that created bespoke shirts for those who had suffered life-changing injuries during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea came to Willis after she was inspired by a radio programme reporting on the rehabilitation work at the military hospital at Headley Court in Epsom.
“They were interviewing severely-injured and very young service personnel and I was deeply moved by what I heard,” Willis explains. “It occurred to me that I could make shirts to fit anybody, whatever the injury, and I approached the hospital to arrange to measure people and make them a shirt as a gift of gratitude for their courage and sacrifice.
“I had not imagined that giving a shirt would make very much difference when they faced such mountainous personal challenges, but over the months and years of my visits I was happy to realise that well-fitting, smart clothing could help raise self-esteem and confidence, which is vital for going out into the world again and facing job interviews and new social lives.”
Style for Soldiers is now supported by high-profile patrons including Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. The actor Charles Dance OBE is an ambassador, so too is model David Gandy. The charity’s objectives have attracted significant backing from fashion brands Burberry, Mr Porter, Reiss, Lock Hats and Russell & Bromley, along with Marks & Spencer, which has donated more than 850 suits.
Of course, it’s not just Willis who’s been donating her time and resources during the pandemic. Restaurants and cafes surrounding her Jermyn Street store have been cooking for NHS workers and the homeless. When restrictions were lifted after the first lockdown, Willis says it was as though Londoners were returning the favour.
“After the first lockdown people came to visit us as quickly as they possibly could: you could feel the enjoyment of coming out and doing something sociable. People were loving going out to lunch and dinner again and we were very busy during the weeks that we were allowed to open. It really did feel like Londoners were rallying round us and other local businesses.”
The temporary shutting of the Jermyn Street shop has allowed Willis to spend more time at home near Cirencester with her husband Richard Corfield, whom she met through her business when she was 21. The couple have three grown children: Hermoine, an actor; Isadora, who is studying psychology in Glasgow; and Kai, who works in asset management. Willis’ parents live in a village nearby.
While she’s enjoyed spending more time with her loved ones, Willis has missed her shop and its customers. “I love London and being on the shop floor where I meet so many different people from all over the world, with all their different lives, careers and stories. Those two little rooms in St James have enriched my life so much. I never get blasé about coming to London. I always look forward to catching the train and travelling towards the stimulation and excitement of the extraordinary city.”
Willis is confident there will always be a demand for quality shirts, both formal and casual, and she’s even considering opening an additional shop catering specifically for women, who currently buy her products through Matches Fashion and Net-A-Porter.
“There’s a definite new appreciation and demand for well-made and long-lasting clothing, the opposite of fast, disposable fashion,” she says. “I think people are more and more responsible and aware of the provenance of the clothes they are buying, both for the sake of our planet and the pleasure of wearing good things.”
Once lockdown restrictions are lifted you can see the sort of exquisite fabrics and quality clothes Willis has built her name on by heading to 66 Jermyn Street. She’ll be very happy to see you.