A Cut Above the Competition

16th June 2017

Former Rickmansworth School pupil Matthew Harding, now 32, is one half of the ‘shirt boys’ partnership palmer//harding. Having started their business from just one room in Matthew’s childhood home, in April they were joint winners of this year’s British Fashion Council/Vogue Fashion Fund, in recognition of their signature women’s shirts. Kathy Walton met Matthew and partner Levi Palmer in their new London studio.

Pity the poor interns on their way to an interview with one of British fashion’s most imaginative young duos, searching in vain for a trendy-looking atelier and finding instead a humble house in the centre of Rickmansworth.

“You could always spot them,” says Matthew of the young hopefuls frantically looking at their smartphones in confusion. “There would be this asymmetric, fashion-forward young person going past the house, all directional and artsy with their A3 portfolio, looking completely lost.”

As anyone who has spotted the Union Jack flying from the Harding household on the Uxbridge Road will agree, a modest Victorian end-of-terrace hardly seems the most auspicious place to create a cutting-edge fashion label. No wonder bewildered looking applicants often walked straight past – and here Mathew’s partner of ten years, Texas-born Levi Palmer, 35, has some sympathy.

“Rickmansworth’s not exactly Dallas,” observes Levi, before having a little moan about our weather – and our architecture. “You only get blue sky here between 8am and 10.30am and you get these tiny gaps when you put furniture in a corner because you English can’t use a plumb line, so there are no right angles,” he jokes, before adding, rather quickly, “but I overlook these things because you’ve got a wonderful culture.”

Funny to think that Matthew was all set to read psychology at university, until his art teacher, Mr Gillie, convinced him to do something he would ‘enjoy doing every day.’

The advice paid off; Palmer and Harding met while studying at Central St Martin’s, bonded over a love of chic tailoring and have been an item ever since. After graduating, they took over the first floor of Matthew’s childhood home in Rickmansworth – “My parents were amazing, still are,” chips in Matthew – using his old bedroom as their studio.

“We had sewing-machines in the window…” “…and often we’d get a knock on the door from a woman asking if we could mend the strap on her dress,” they recall, one seamlessly picking up the thread of the other’s sentence.
A year ago, the pair moved from Rickmansworth to a light, airy studio on London’s Mile End Road that seems positively tailor-made for them and from where they are currently preparing for a pre-collection in June.

They show four collections a year, helped part-time by Matthew’s mother, Suzanne, who does their accounts, and his father, Paul, who works for them full time as shipping and logistics manager. “Insanity is hereditary; you get it from your kids,” he deadpans when asked what it’s like working for his son.

Perhaps to prove his theory about madness, Paul remembers how for one palmer//harding show in London he had to string branches from the ceiling and cover the floor with 1.5 tonnes of black rubber chippings – and then sweep them all up afterwards.

“I even had to find the trees when Three Rivers [District Council] said no to cutting – but it’s all in a day’s work,” he shrugs. Only last month, their usually reliable delivery firm ‘mislaid’ £3,000 worth of shirts in France: after many frantic calls from Paul, the consigment was eventually found in a warehouse in Orléans – and, thankfully, arrived on time.

The notoriously discerning French are certainly snapping up palmer//harding shirts, as are American and Japanese women, in gratifyingly large numbers. The boys make their shirts in sizes 6 to 16, and have been known to make modifications to suit individual buyers. Recently, they added a wider sleeve to their Sequel shirt in response to a plea from a size 20 American lady.

There is definitely something about the shape of their garments and the generosity of the fabric that catches both the breeze and the imagination, creating a feeling that Levi describes as “bringing a certain drama to daily life” and which Matthew calls “the poetry of the motion… [shirts that] have a life of their own and complement the wearer.”

Both men stress that they want people “to see the woman first, then the clothes” and that the typical palmer//harding customer could be anyone aged between 18 and 80. “Optima woman is already wearing our shirts,” they insist.

So too is Prime Minister Theresa May – who attended London Fashion Week in February in a shirt made by palmer//harding for John Lewis’s Modern Rarity line.

“We had no idea she would be wearing one of our pieces,” says Matthew. “She outshone everyone at the show with her casual elegance – you can’t fault her for her daring.”

Michelle Obama is also a fan (four shirts) – which begs the question: does Melania Trump have any such plans? “Hope not!” quips Levi. “But Kate [Middleton] should wear our shirts.”

Other luminaries who have definitely cottoned on to palmer//harding’s talent and are very likely to be sporting their creations in the near future include the outgoing Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman and Cefinn fashion label founder Samantha Cameron (yes, that Samantha Cameron), both of whom were judges for the British Fashion Council/Vogue Fashion Fund, worth six figures to palmer//harding.

The pair say that the prize could not have come at a better time. An early collection of very expensive men’s shirts sold rather slowly, and two years ago the business nearly fell apart at the seams, requiring many stress-busting visits to the Bodycoach gym on Rickmansworth High Street and inspirational strolls around the Aquadrome, although their change in fortunes has left them relaxed enough to share entertaining anecdotes about near-catastrophes that have beset them. The first disaster, which very nearly proved fatal, took place in Rickmansworth when a photo-shoot organised by Levi coincided with Matthew’s grandmother’s 80th birthday. It was a very long day, with models in the living-room behind closed curtains. When Matthew came back from the party at 10pm, he noticed a terrible smell, only to discover that a 25 metre rubber extension lead wound on a spool had been hidden away and was overheating. “We were ten minutes away from a house fire!”

And they both admit that they still die a thousand deaths at the memory of a second incident early on in their career, when they were finalists at the prestigious Andam fashion award in Paris, with judges from Yves Saint Laurent and luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. Unable to afford models, Matthew played a video of his graduation collection and put their range of jersey tops on hangers, showing off the gathered sleeves with heavy bangles – and in the process, knocked a judge’s glass of water all over her Blackberry. Cue one very shirty fashionista.

“Then, in a Monty Pythonesque moment, I tripped over the video cable as we were leaving the room,” recalls Matthew. “And Levi forgot his bag and had to knock on the door to retrieve it.”

Whatever challenges life has thrown their way, their recent success has shown beyond doubt that this endearingly self-deprecating couple are a cut above the competition. Despite, or perhaps because of, these earlier faux pas, business is definitely on the up for palmer//harding, with wholesale orders having risen by a staggering 1000 per cent over the past year alone. One journalist has even credited them with ‘reinventing the humble shirt,’ an accolade which will no doubt propel future fashion historians down the Met line, in the footsteps of those interns.

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