504 Gateway Time-out
Emma Willis MBE
By Yasmin Jones-Henry
What is Fashion For?
In the first ever article on @WorkinFashion.me Functionality vs The Aesthetic (Nov 2016) I asked this very question. It’s a valid question, one that I felt the industry in its current state, had failed to provide a comprehensive answer. Growing up, reading the mainstream fashion glossies, religiously, I was always left underwhelmed at their myopic determination to celebrate the end product with little or no focus on the process or the hands that produced the item of clothing they insisted you must buy.
Not only did I build @workinfashion.me to create a forum for people to explore what is fashion for, I also wanted to express why fashion matters. Yes, it has been well documented that fashion is a form of self advertisement. But did you know it can also be a powerful vehicle for social mobility, empowerment and creative expression?
As a journalist, the topics I love to write about the most revolve around economics (the study of what people create – they call it GDP but it’s less complicated than that) and fashion (a visual manifestation of creativity and productivity). I have always looked out for entrepreneurs, designers, brands and public figures who appreciate the importance of putting people – as opposed to profit – at the cornerstone of their businesses.
I first stumbled across Emma Willis MBE and her shirt making enterprise via Style For Soldiers, a charity founded by Emma in response to the numerous casualties incurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 she began visiting patients at the Military Rehabilitation Hospital every 2 months, measuring them for a bespoke shirt as a gift of thanks for their bravery and sacrifice. As injured servicemen and women faced unwanted medical discharge from the military Emma realised the need for smart, well fitting clothing to wear for interviews and formal occasions to help with confidence and morale as dressing properly was such a fundamental part of military life and a new uniform was needed.
The narrative of using fashion, to give ex-servicemen and women hope, via a new wardrobe, made me smile. It also made me curious to investigate further. Who is this woman? What’s the story behind these shirts?
“I didn’t come from a fashion background” Emma explains. “I actually started out selling shirts door to door after dropping out of an English course at UCL. I began selling shirts in Soho, then in the city, where I stumbled across the idea of selling to city workers before markets opened… and that is how it began really!” Like so many entrepreneurs I have interviewed, the path is seldom linear or without obstacles.
What I find energising from our conversation, is her passion. As she intimated during our initial conversation – it is not the clothes, it’s everything else that comes with building a business that seems to be the source of her motivation. The people, the affection with which she describes her staff, her sewing school in Gloucester and her mission to get more young people back into jobs that require a real craft – seems to be an all consuming project. The shirts are merely the vehicle to implementing positive social change.
At a time when the international textiles industry was busy outsourcing, searching for the cheapest, darkest supply chains, Emma decided to take a different path. Founded in 1999, Emma Willis, London (located in Jermyn Street) is a shirt maker like no other.
With her bespoke shirt factory and sewing school based in Gloucester, Emma sought to establish her own supply chain that was both transparent and ethical. The predominantly female team of artisans are trained onsite.
With investment in the next generation also a high priority, Emma Willis has created a safe space for young people, graduates and refugees to learn the trade, while offering scholarships to those who wish to learn the craft of sewing. With a basic starting annual salary that competes with entry level London office jobs, Emma is also determined to prove that UK textiles manufacturing, contrary to popular perception, can offer a career path that is free from exploitation.
Her passion for young people and her devotion to helping others are some of the definitive characteristics of the Emma Willis brand. As an entrepreneur, she is also an ambassador for women in business. “My career didn’t really start till after motherhood” Emma explains. “The best thing about running my own business, is it allows me to combine all of the things I love. I get to do what I want, with the philosophy I want”.
‘Art in the Aftermath’
Style for Soldiers ‘Art in the Aftermath’ is an exhibition of painting, poetry and film by medically discharged servicemen using the creative process to help heal and manage physical and psychological injury incurred serving their country in Afghanistan and recent violent conflict. November 6th -17th, La Galleria Pall Mall,
For Further information visit www.EmmaWillis.com
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