Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding, the brains behind womenswear label palmer//harding, are shirt experts. After meeting at Central Saint Martins in 2007, the two did what many designers wouldn’t dare: launched a brand entirely based around one garment.
In palmer//harding’s case, the white shirt, a classic piece that every woman should own.
Successfully reinventing the shirt every single season with intricate detailing and innovative silhouettes, the duo’s business savvy minds and tailoring expertise have earned them numerous sponsors, a place in the final of the prestigious ANDAM Award and a soon-to-be launched collaboration with John Lewis.
Gifted with the ability to do the things others find impossible (like only sending out three models), their brand is growing from strength to strength. We caught up with Levi to talk SS17, the state of the fashion industry and which celebrity he’d love to dress.
How did you come together to start palmer//harding?
Matthew and I met in 2007 at Central Saint Martins. He was studying womenswear, I was studying menswear. Our relationship progressed quite quickly and we ended up moving in together. We’d always critique each other’s projects and give advice so when we both graduated and got jobs that weren’t fulfilling us creatively, we started to look at the state of the fashion industry and society at that moment.
And why did you decide to focus solely on shirts?
Unlike other designers around, we thought it would be more relevant to create something focused on day-to-day life instead of a design purely for a special event. We looked at the market and noticed that no one was owning shirting and so we thought this is the time for us to try our creativity. We started with 15 white shirts in our first season and picked up the attention of American Vogue. That really launched our careers.
Now we’ve been going for over five years, our focus is still the white shirt but we now offer everything else to go alongside it. We think about the shirt first and foremost because that’s what the majority of our women wear. As we’ve matured, we’ve become more familiar with our women and a lot of them are entrepreneurs, CEOs, people in top management positions. They have to have a wardrobe that expresses their individuality but will also fit into a versatile day-to-day environment. They want an outfit where all they have to do is change a necklace or bag from one event to the next.
It’s been a really exciting year for us with the John Lewis collaboration and Fashion Trust grants we’ve been awarded. We’ve grown from strength to strength and it’s all really fired from us being able to focus on this one product.
Working as a duo is something a lot of people would find difficult. What’s the dynamic like between the pair of you? Do you have distinct roles or is it a complete collaborative effort?
We work together, we live together, we’re together 24/7. So it can get tense but we have coping methods to deal with it whether it’s going to the gym or just having alone time. In terms of business roles, Matthew is very particular with specifics so he’s good at the numbers side whereas I can focus on the more fun things like talking to press and organising the shows. But it’s 50/50 on design. We have a small team here so we’ll all look at fabrics and make choices together. I don’t really enjoy working on paper so I’ll then drape something on the stand - a new silhouette or shape - and create maybe 40 or 50 options. Then Matt will pick a few and play with proportions and detailing. So the actual design process is a big collaborative effort between our team and the two of us.
You’ve struck a good balance between wearability and creativity. A lot of young designers today focus heavily on the creative side - perhaps to their detriment. Do you have any advice for people starting out?
We started the brand with about £5000 in savings and all we could afford was a roll of poplin. You kind of just have to make it work, take the means that are given to you and keep the business lean. For the first three years, Matthew and I sewed every single sample ourselves and managed every single aspect of the business. So we know if we can’t find a seamstress or someone to help with patterns one season, we can get in there and do it ourselves. We also started very humbly. We moved from East London into Matthew’s parents’ house which felt like an ego blow because no one wants to move back home after graduating. There’s a saying that goes: “Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t so you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.”
Obviously, fashion week’s coming up very soon. Can you reveal anything about your SS17 collection?
Of course. Our last collection was really a play on layering. I know autumn/winter is very much about layering but when your brand is focused on the shirt, you have to approach it from a new perspective; you can’t have a layer that takes away from the shirt. Our brand objective is completely different from say Burberry who can put a trench coat on anything and still get their message across. So this season, we’re delving into the idea of how to do springtime layering without it feeling frumpy or try hard. AW16 was so successful for us so we’re looking at how we can infuse that same energy without the heaviness. We’re playing a lot with lightweight outerwear and developing techniques that allow you to wear two shirts at the same time or two jackets at once.
We’re also looking at the idea of wind as styling so if a gust of wind comes your way, the garment should move with it. We have one shirt in particular - the ‘super shirt’ - that we’ve used for about seven seasons now. It’s a long asymmetric shirt and it’s our bestseller. Part of its success is how it catches the wind and kind of acts as an accessory to the woman wearing it instead of simply covering her which is quite nice.
You’ve referenced artist Nathan Peter in a few past collections. Have you been inspired by anyone this season?
We like to look at contemporary artists so we developed a lot of our fabric stories off of a young American artist named Matthew King. One of his series works with a lot of graphic stripes so we started developing fabrics based on that. And that led into the work of an old artist named J.C. Leyendecker who did illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. He used to do all the illustrations for Arrow Collars in the 1920s too. His work captured the innocence and naivety of youth and we wanted that romance with this graphic nature as well.
Presentations, which you’ve always stuck to, are becoming more and more popular. What are the benefits of presenting your work in this way rather than a traditional show?
Presentations allow people who are interested in the clothes to view them in-depth. We’re not a big brand that can pay for editors to be at our shows so if editors come, it’s because they like the brand. I think people want to see something for more than 15 seconds on the runway and so this way, they can really understand the detailing of the clothes, the way it drapes, the different angles. We start our presentations with the traditional concept of a catwalk and then we have the girls come out in groups. Then we’re able to go out front and talk with people. Sometimes, if you can have a chance to meet and explain your point of view, people can commit to the brand and commit to the concept behind the collection a lot more than just with a press release. Especially when people have 500 words to write between this show and the next.
Speaking of the fast pace of fashion week, what are your thoughts on the current state of the fashion industry overall?
It’s one of those hot topics right now in fashion and has been for the past eight or nine months. The industry’s definitely moving too fast. That’s one of the other things with our brand - everyone talks about seasonless fashion and I completely understand and agree with it but for us, we think of it as multi-seasonal. You should be able to wear anything during any time of the year and a shirt kind of applies to that. In terms of how the fashion industry moves, we’ve started to hold onto imagery until the collections are ready to drop; to allow the consumer to catch up so they’re not bored by the time it hits the shelves.
Is there anyone you’d love to see wearing your designs?
I adore Cate Blanchett. I would love to see her in our shirts. She’s beautiful, seems like a smart woman and she has a little bit of age on her which I think always looks good on women. In our industry, youth is so highly emphasised and I like to see a bit of a smile line on someone every so often. There’s also some amazing women in the industry that wear our shirts and that we’re fortunate enough to call friends and mentors. This might sound a bit stalkery but every so often when we get an order on our website, we’ll Google the woman behind it. And it’s so nice to see what amazing women our customers are.
What is the future of palmer//harding?
We want to keep growing. We want to keep working on the shirts. We’re slowly looking to introduce a fourth season (pre-fall) in the next year. You know, we obviously want to become a household name but at the same time, we don’t want to get too big. We’d like to keep our team at maximum 20. We like the idea of knowing everyone that works with us. So we do want to keep growing but for us, it’s more important to maintain that family aspect than it is to chase money.