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Palmer Harding, the Cult London Label Beloved by Michelle Obama, Comes Home to Dallas

El Centro and FGI Played a Pivotal Role For the Brit Brand

BY // 11.16.22

Michelle Obama’s sartorial choices are always considered, but what the former First Lady wore to her first public appearance after leaving the White House in 2017 (and laying low for several months) had a particular fervor surrounding it. Her pick: an avant-garde, blue-and-white pinstriped shirt by London label Palmer Harding. And while the Brit brand looks like a UK thoroughbred (its co-founders, Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding, even met studying fashion at Central Saint Martins), there’s a surprising amount of Dallas DNA in Palmer Harding.

That integral Dallas thread is owed entirely to Palmer, who grew up in Belton, Texas. He moved to Dallas at age 20, where the aspiring designer enrolled in a pattern cutting class at El Centro College downtown. “I had a mentor who said, ‘If you’re going to do a fashion course, it should be pattern cutting. Otherwise, you won’t really learn the grit of it,’” Palmer tells PaperCity.

During his final year at El Centro, Palmer applied to the Fashion Group International Career Day Scholarship and won the main prize: a summer trip to study fashion in Paris and London. From there, he met his partner and co-launched Palmer Harding in 2011 with just 17 white shirts, a garment that remains the brand’s bread and butter.

This Friday, Palmer and Harding will return to Dallas to receive the Career Achievement in Fashion award at FGI Dallas’ Night of Stars, an evening that raises funds for the same award that Palmer won all those years ago.

“When people ask me where I’m from, I say Texas before I say the U.S.,” Palmer says. “Dallas is a second home for both of us. So it’s really fantastic to receive this award — it represents such a journey in my life.”

Ahead of the event and a Palmer Harding trunk show at Elements on Lovers Lane, we spoke with the Texas native about the brand’s early days, staying niche, and coming home.

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Matthew Harding (left) and Levi Palmer (right).

PC: Palmer Harding is synonymous with gorgeous shirts. Where did that focus originate?

LP: When we were studying at Saint Martins, there was something called The Shirt Project for first years. Everyone kind of cobbled one shirt together, but because I had my pattern cutting degree, I showed up with a capsule collection of six shirts that I ended up selling.

Most people, when they graduated from design school and start a business, want to make it all about the zeitgeist — like “this is my world.” Matthew and I started in a recession, so we focused on something that would make monetary sense. We thought, why don’t we take this idea about shirts and run with it, because no one was doing directional shirting at the time.

That’s how we started the business… a bit of El Centro acumen, a bit of direction from Saint Martins, and pure necessity.

 

PC: El Centro College can be a bit unassuming, but it’s produced so much talent — particularly in the culinary and fashion fields.

LP: It’s a real hidden gem. I think it says something about offering excellent courses for people who don’t necessarily have all the resources to go to higher universities. It shows how much skill there is — that isn’t always utilized — in a working-class environment. I went to school with a wide array of men and women, gay and trans, from age 18 up to 65 — it really provided a breeding ground for understanding how to communicate across generations and cultures.

If all the people who don’t have the privilege to go to school were able to study something they’re passionate about, think how much more advanced and capable we’d be as a society.

 

PC: Michelle Obama wore Palmer Harper the same year the brand won the British Fashion Council/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund — that’s a lot of good press. Is it important to you that Palmer Harper remains a cult brand? 

LP: There was a moment in time between Michelle Obama in 2017 and 2019, just before the pandemic, where we were doubling our sales every season and increasing our team. After the pandemic, we felt it was better to have smaller revenue and a better quality of life, as long as our profits are the same.

We only work 40 hours a week. We never have our team work weekends. And for fashion, not to work late nights is almost unheard of, especially in the fashion capitals.

The way we’ve always worked, and I think this is why we’ve remained this niche, cult brand, is that we’ve never had fashion references in our studio. All of our references are from art or literature. We diary a lot so we’ll use our emotions. Like, OK, we’re feeling anxiety, how do we adapt that into a physical form? So it becomes this very personal thing.

 

PC: FGI played such a huge role in your fashion education. How does it feel to receive the Career Achievement in Fashion award? 

I’m super proud of it. I’m somewhat emotional about it. I know I’m going to cry. It’s interesting because in 2017, we won the British Vogue award, and that was an amazing thing, but I never shed a tear.

[The award has] brought back so many memories. Like Jan Strimple is a big supporter of ours and one of my closest friends and she always used to say, “Always remember those that brung ya.” Ever since I left Dallas, Matthew and I always make a point to contact as many schools as we can to talk with the students and to give back to the community that is actually really dear to our hearts.

Learn more about the Palmer Harding Dallas trunk show and personal appearance here

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