NICK HAMMOND visits a legendary store in Mayfair to receive some sage sartorial sang froid…
THE thing about sartorial elegance is you can’t quite put your finger on what makes it.
It’s all very well to have gurus and personal shoppers who’ll remind you not to combine spots and stripes or that slim-cut jeans are not, ahem, quite the thing for a gentleman of your age, Sir.
But while the best ones make themselves undeniably useful, the fact remains that style – and more pertinently, personal style – is something altogether more intangible. You know when you look good dressed in something you like; but you might not altogether know why.
Which is why the cool, quiet, serenity of the Emma Willis shop in Jermyn Street is something of a balm to the befuddled male mind.
Emma is an institution in Mayfair, which doesn’t sound flattering to an elegant lady such as herself, but is meant to be. She set up shop here decades ago when strident young fellows in pin stripes and braces were ruling the roost. And she taught them – one imagines subtly, and with charm, eventually making them think they’d come up with the ideas themselves – some sartorial elegance.
She’s been working the same magic ever since, moving fluidly and apparently without effort from the brash city boys to pony-tailed entrepreneurs, assuaging all and finding time to please old boys and young upstarts alike along the way.
Emma makes magnificent shirts. What’s more, she makes them in England. And that in itself is something remarkable in an age of Eastern sweatshops and bargain-hungry shoppers.
“I wanted to demonstrate the talent that was still here, even though less and less people were making use of it at the time,” she tells me over coffee in another of Jermyn Street’s legendary premises, Franco’s, just opposite.
“And we’ve got a team of seamstresses now – based in the Cotswolds – who make the most beautiful bespoke shirts.”
Yes. Bespoke. You can buy off the peg shirts here, and beautiful they are too, but the crème de la crème is an Emma Willis bespoke. I should know.
The process starts with a dignified meet with Emma or one of her assistants in the shop. Your general likes and dislikes are garnered, and from the host of cloths, styles, collars and cuffs available, you can select the shirt of your dreams. If you’re a monogrammed double cuff, mother of pearl button type of chap, you can fill your boots. I try to be a little more understated, so after debate, I settle for a classic cut ice blue shirt with single cuffs. I’m relieved and not a little vain to be told I can carry off a slimmer cut.
Once all your crucial measurements are taken, all the information is whizzed to the shirt-making maestros in the Cotswolds. All you need to do now is retire to dream of shirts to come.
The very finest cotton is still grown on the fertile plains of Egypt and yarn dyed and woven in exacting cotton houses in Switzerland. And once it’s finished, the deft fingers of artisan shirt makers in the UK then create the most perfect shirt you’ll ever own.
This takes a little time. But a few weeks later, on a troublesome Thursday morning, I receive an email to quicken the pulse.
“I would like to inform you that your Emma Willis order has arrived in the shop.”
This involves little more than a try on of the garment, which fits, as one would expect, like a glove. Only the collar’s a little tight, and I hate a tight collar, it gives me a neck rash and makes me sweat and oh dear, I may have ballsed up the measurement process by not being clear enough…
“No problem,” says Emma cheerily. “We’ll adjust it.”
Adjust it? An already made collar? But…what?
Apparently, in the world of bespoke shirts, this sort of thing is de rigeur. The shirt is sent home again with appropriate instructions and a short while later it’s back, pristine, wrapped in tissue, housed in a covetable Emma Willis bag and before long, is swaying gently in the crook of my elbow as I make two full passes of Jermyn Street (one up, one down, both sides of the street) to make sure my purchase is noted.
And what, I hear you cry, of the shirt itself?
Well, Dear Reader, it’s a work of art. Cool and crisp as the iceberg it emulates, it fits beautifully and a looks sharper than the pointy end of a narwhal horn. I treasure it.
As well as being a legend in gentlemen’s attire, Emma Willis is an MBE and founder of www.styleforsoldiers.com, a charity which provides beautifully tailored clothes and accessories for British soldiers injured while serving Queen and Country. Complex trauma and neuro patients are given the time, advice and materials necessary to create their own bespoke garments – despite many of them having lost limbs. The charity is supported by Marks & Spencer, the London Sock Company, Lock & Co Hatters and Russell & Bromley.