Michelle, Hillary, Theresa… My woman of 2016 is Emma Willis. Not because she makes the most beautiful shirts, although she does, but because she’s given hundreds of them away to people whose lives they have helped changed. That sounds melodramatic, doesn’t it?
When Willis, who, by the way, would never be so pompous as to describe herself as a humanitarian or philanthropist (unlike so many Americans), began donating bespoke shirts to injured military personnel in 2009, no one, least of all her, predicted the degree to which a made-to-measure, lovingly crafted piece of clothing could boost the self-esteem of someone whose life had been upended.
Even in the charity world, she couldn’t drum up interest. She approached the big charities, who couldn’t see the point of making posh shirts for people who’d been blown up. So she approached military top brass about setting up her own charity and was advised not to bother: the military-charity market was overcrowded. Willis doesn’t let a little thing like 20 point-blank refusals get in her way – another reason she’s my WOTY – and set up Style For Soldiers.
Before long she’d managed to work her way into Headley Court, the hard-to-infiltrate MoD rehabilitation centre in Surrey where just about every wounded soldier ends up. The first evening she arrived in 2009 at 5pm, just when they were finishing supper. “I got out my book of swatches and tape measure and waited nervously while they eyed me up warily.” That night she measured around 40 personnel – she was there until 10pm – and sailed into her first awkward encounter. “How do you ask a young person whether they want a shirt with one sleeve or two?”
She still visits every two months. Post-Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers are being treated for historic injuries. Even in peacetime, there are accidents on maneuvres. So far, Willis has given away some 1,500 shirts. “Soldiers are drilled to take huge pride in their uniform,” she says. “They’re unfailingly smart and they love dressing up.” Even when their only pair of cufflinks came out of a cracker. “These are young people – sometimes 17 – who’ve lost a limb, sometimes several. They’re dealing with that.
Their confidence is at rock bottom but they’re the least self-pitying people you can meet.” The hundreds of eloquent and moving letters she has received from grateful soldiers recounting how their Willis shirt helped them chat up someone in the pub, triumph in a job interview or make it to the altar is a testimonial to the power of clothing - one woman who had sustained life threatening injuries told Willis her shirt had made her feel sexy rather than disabled. Often, they ask how much these free shirts – which are made in Willis’s absurdly beautiful Georgian factory in Gloucester – would cost to buy in her Jermyn Street shop.
“When I tell them £350, they fall about laughing. That’s the price of a car for a lot of them. The younger ones often haven’t worn a shirt before – they’re in sweatshirts or uniform. But they love the fact that they’re getting the best of the best, in Swiss cottons that don’t irritate their skins and fit them perfectly. Because of the physio and training they do post-injury, soldiers are often not standard issue size.” It isn’t only soldiers who write to her, but mothers, sisters, partners. Traumatic injuries don’t limit themselves to one victim. Wounds are deep and infectious. “The biggest challenge is making a new life outside the military.” She has organised interview mentoring and encouraged entrepreneurial start-ups.
Bryony Weston, 25, whose husband Matt Weston lost three limbs, has set up a fashion label selling soft leather minis and luxurious rabbit-fur trimmed gloves (she only uses byproduct fur), which are now stocked in Willis’s shop. She’s also coaxed Mr Porter, Jimmy Choo, Russell & Bromley, James Locke and Alice Made This (who sorted out the cufflinks situation) into getting involved. M&S has donated 500 suits so far. Huntsman has given 15 of its bespoke suits, which cost around £5,000 each.
Petrol blue mittens, £150, North Polar Bear
In a year when the PM came under fire for spending “too much” on her leather trousers, it’s worth remembering that certain luxuries, such as a made-to-measure suit which, unlike an off-the-peg one, won’t rub in all the wrong places or get worn away by prosthetic joints, can be transformative.
I’m not surprised that Willis MBE, finally persuaded the Prince of Wales to attend her annual Style For Soldiers Christmas party last Wednesday. Or that the girl who started her career selling “ropey” tweed skirts and men’s shirts from the back of her car (“no one bought anything until I started wearing very short dresses and cold calling”) has ended up selling 8,000 shirts a year from one of the most successful shops on Jermyn Street. She was told not to do that, too.