Fondly known as 'The Shirt Boys', Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding have made "exquisitely crafted shirts that bridge the line between wardrobe essential and modern statement" their thing, much to the fashion industry’s delight. Establishing palmer//harding in 2012, as Matthew recalls: "We bought our cotton poplin and off we went...".
Central Saint Martins graduates, the design duo has been at the centre of the shirting trend that’s been hot both on and off the runways of late, with their covetable collections appealing to the everywoman who wants an adaptable, easy, but always stylish look. We caught up with the pair in their East London studio to talk trends, techniques and working together...
Matthew Harding: We decided to focus on shirting for a number of reasons. One, there were a lot of designers coming out of Central Saint Martins who were focusing on evening and cocktail dresses. We felt a bit of a disconnect, though – we didn’t know any of those women. We knew women who needed more versatility in their wardrobe.
Two, no one was really doing it. A lot of designers just want to be known for their aesthetic, which is quite difficult, it’s intangible – sometimes, not always, it can trap a designer. We wanted to be easy to define and shirting was something that had a wide range to us. One of the projects that you do in the first year at Central Saint Martins is a shirt project, largely because it’s a garment that tests your construction skills and creativity. We were in different years but my shirt project was one of my favourites, it was the first thing I’d ever properly made. I cobbled together this rubbish shirt but I was really proud of it. Levi had a pattern-cutting background so he turned up with six amazing shirts that students and teachers ordered from him!
Lastly, we were super poor, so we bought our cotton poplin and off we went...
Levi Palmer: I think it’s this brand called palmer//harding...
MH: Why shirting in particular? I think it’s down to people seeing it in a new light – it’s not necessarily something to only wear under a suit, it doesn’t have to be super formal. I think we and other designers are proving that it can be a versatile garment that can be fashion-forward; that it can be more casual in the daytime but you can also wear it with a different skirt or whatever in the evening and dress it up. I think people want that versatility and that easiness from a garment. With shirts, you also know what you have in your wardrobe that works with it – it’s not something you really have to think that hard about.
"We wanted to be easy to define and shirting was something that had a wide range to us."Matthew Harding
LP: For me, I think there’s certain elements of the construction that are required in a shirt, and you can take certain elements away but once too many of those elements are gone... I mean, these are just the restrictions that we give ourselves. So for instance, we don’t necessarily have to have a collar or a collar stand, but if we are missing a collar or a collar stand then we need to make sure we have a shirtsleeve and a cuff, because those count as identifiers.
MH: I think it’s the blurring of the lines that has made us popular though. We always used to have those conversations about keeping the identifying elements in but now not so much, because...
LP: I think it’s kind of engrained in us.
LP: Well, for Matthew and I, the way we design is twofold. I don’t work with pencil a lot, I don’t draw things on paper – I can communicate, but not as evocatively as Matthew can. When Matthew sketches something it’s a lot more realistic, you know the way it’s actually going to look. I tend to work on a stand, so I like to think I’m a bit more sculptural when I approach things. Often a collection will come from discussing certain moods, the buzzwords that we are trying to evoke.
MH: I think the inspiration, a lot of the time, comes from art – we’re both interested in sculpture. But also, quite often, there’s a feeling – this hazy feeling – somewhere through the smoke you can see this feeling. So the beginning process tends to be trying to identify some buzzwords for what that feeling is. What does it speak to us? How do we connect with it? We find images that represent the feeling so that it becomes clearer and clearer the more visuals we get.
MH: I most enjoy the more conceptual part of it at the beginning. It’s that frustrating bit when you have a pinhole, and you can kind of see your idea through this pinhole and you have this feeling of what it is – and then you see that hole become wider. Then you get to the show and the music is there, and the music is right, the clothes are there and the clothes are right, and you look back at that journey – it’s seeing what that pinhole becomes.
LP: The last few weeks before the collection is presented is always quite a fun time because you are still discovering things. You have an idea of what you may see from sketches, and then you realise your team has finished those patterns, you see a sample, and then you suddenly wake up and you have the collection finished and you're like: ‘Woah, where has this come from?’ – it’s quite exciting.
MH: No, not really. There is no one ultimate woman because, at the end of the day, we dress women who are 16 through to 60, size 6 to 16, to students, architects, business owners...
Of course, there are people who we love to dress; like when Michelle Obama wore one of our pieces, that was amazing, not just because she’s a beautiful woman but also because of what she stands for. There are lots of women who are inspiring on different levels, but I’d say that’s what it’s about for us.