Emma Willis creates custom shirts — and quite a stir — on Jermyn Street.
As the first and only female shirtmaker on Jermyn Street, Emma Willis will merrily defend her right to design the most sacrosanct of items in a guy's wardrobe: the bespoke shirt. "As a woman, you really know what you want a man to look like," says the comely 43-year-old Brit in her lightly starched accent. "You're not being led by fashion or what should be done — you're just looking at how that man is going to look his most attractive." Willis would know: She grew up on a Hertfordshire estate surrounded by her father and his hunting buddies, and has been custom-making shirts for two decades — "literally years of just measuring men from dawn to dusk."
It's not just a technical understanding of the male form — and its many flaws—that makes Willis so appealing. For starters, she sews her shirts from luxurious Swiss and Italian cottons, which boast a superior weave, vibrant dye, and soft finish. Then there are the details — beyond the standard choose-your-own-cuffs-and-collars — that make each shirt greater than the sum of its parts: subtle French seams, hand-finished gussets, cross-stitched buttons, split-back yokes, precision-trimmed collar points, and hand-embroidered monograms. (If a trip to London isn't on the agenda, Willis brings her wares to New York every April and October; prices range from $310 to $440.)
While Willis also offers a range of cashmerellos, tweeds, and twills, the trophy of her collection is a bold riff on the typical tuxedo shirt, made of ivory oxford silk with a rounded pique bib front. "It's really unusual," she says, recalling her quest for a heavy but breathable matte silk. "I went to an Italian mill and they set up a special loom for me." Exclusivity is a Willis trademark: She tracks down obscure factories in the Lake Como region and commissions one-off batches, "so that when a man buys a shirt, there will be only fifteen shirts in the world made in that fabric."
Visitors to Willis's store will find an English drawing-room interior—lorded over by a painting of D.H. Lawrence — and a bevy of lithe young "salesbirds," who inevitably attract the occasional Euro-exhibitionist. "A Frenchman came in this morning," says Willis. "He was worried about his shirt being transparent, and I said, 'Why are you worried — have you got a very hairy chest?' He was a big show-off, so he just lifted up his shirt and said," in a thick Pepé Le Pew accent, "'Do I, Emma?'"—HUDSON MORGAN
Emma Willis, 66 Jermyn Street, London, SW1Y 6NY England (011 44 20 7930 9980) www.emmawillis.com.