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How to be an English gentleman

By Weekend  |  Posted: January 21, 2013

Models at The English Gentleman at Spencer House event. Picture: George Garnier

Models at The English Gentleman at Spencer House event. Picture: George Garnier

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Dressing country gents is all in a day's work for Emma Willis who has a prestigious shop stocking bespoke luxury shirts and accessories in London's Jermyn Street.

It's not every day, though, she has a starring role in a dazzling international fashion event, providing shirts and ties for dozens of models at men's London Fashion Week.

London Collections: Men is the city's biannual showcase of British menswear brands and designers which was launched last summer. Other designers and fashion houses taking part included the likes of Alexander McQueen, Burberry and Tom Ford.

On the line-up was The English Gentleman at Spencer House, an ambitious project  involving Savile Row tailors and some of the city's best shirt makers, shoe makers and hatters, including Lock & Co, Ede & Ravenscroft, Gieves & Hawkes and Anderson & Sheppard.

It was styled by Jo Levin, creative fashion director of GQ, and took place inside Spencer House, a private 18th century palace belonging to the Spencer family, in St James' Place.

The event showcased 60 different outfits ranging from shooting and fishing, to black tie and lounge suits, which were worn by a mix of models and real men, including Emma's 20-year-old son, Kai, and his friends.

"It was great, I provided models and even my dog who greeted all the visitors," laughed Emma, who worked with the St James' fashion houses as part of the event.

"There were two men in tweeds at the door, dressed as if they were on a day out shooting with cartridge belts, and my labrador, Otter.

"She was very well behaved. She normally lives in Gloucestershire and is a country dog but she was so happy the whole time and had so many photographs taken. She loved it."

Emma, who lives near Cirencester, trained at the Slade School of Art and started her luxury shirt making business in 1987.  

She has had a shop in London for 12 years and opened a factory in Gloucester, in a grade II-listed townhouse near the cathedral, three years ago. 

Her team specialises in using traditional English shirt making techniques, using luxurious Italian and Swiss cottons, silks and linens with prices starting from £190 for a ready to wear shirt.

Among her famous customers is the Prince of Wales and she also supplies complementary shirts to injured servicemen in her Style for Soliders initiative.

"Because I spend weekends at home and spend half my time in Gloucestershire, I wanted to have the business close to home," Emma says.  "I advertised in the local newspaper and had a very big response from Gloucester. There seemed to be a real pool of talent in sewing and cutting."

Emma and her team produced around 40 shirts for The English Gentleman event including evening and shooting shirts, which were all made in her factory in Gloucester, as well as cashmere and silk ties, bow ties and pocket scarves.

"It's only the second London men's fashion week and it's fantastic to have a showcase for really fine, British-made tailoring and shirt making and to have it styled by Jo Levin too who is a specialist in the men's fashion world," Emma says. 

"It was a huge thing for the international fashion press.  I was interviewed by two Chinese newspapers who wanted to know how British people dress and what is the new fashion tradition.

"I was saying it's a mix of things, these guys can dress in black tie for an evening dinner party but you'll also see them in London walking down the street in trainers and jeans."

Guests were able to wander through seven rooms of Spencer House, including the library and dining room, which had distinct themes with outfits to match including formal military dresswear, evening suits, velvet smoking jackets, tweed and morning coats for Ascot.

As well as her son, Emma's two daughters, Hermione, 19, and Isadora, 15, also helped out behind the scenes.

"The feedback has been incredible," Emma says.  "Traditional British dressing has a huge influence all over the world in fashion."

While Emma doesn't export her goods she is "very excited" to be launching on Mr Porter, a global online retail destination for men's style, this spring and is busy putting the finishing touches to her spring/summer collection which features linen and Swiss cotton shirts and swimming trunks.

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