The small town of Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire has for some reason been home to literary greats like George Eliot and George Orwell – but it has had little connection to fashion. But Matthew Harding and Levi Palmer, the two designers behind new British shirting label Palmer//Harding, have changed that since moving their studio here last year. Or, more specifically, into the former spare bedroom of Harding’s parents’ end-of-terrace cottage – and the international style press has come knocking at their suburban door.

Linked tenuously to London by the furthest outreaches of the Metropolitan Line, it is in this small bedroom-turned-studio that I meet the designers for the first time, dressed in their brand’s signature white shirts. Delicate pencil sketches line one wall, two sewing machines lay poised for action in the corner and shirt samples, dry-cleaner-fresh in cellophane, float above us, hung on ceiling rails. A vintage, sepia-coloured Arrow shirt is pinned over the former fireplace alongside a handwritten note from American Vogue journalist Chioma Nnandi, a treasured reminder of their first feature in her magazine. A dog-eared, no doubt inspirational copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road sits on the mantelpiece with an anthology of J W Leyendecker illustrations, full of the type of images you might find on 1920s cigarette packets.

Why do you think your label is getting noticed?
MH: I think that people were ready for something a bit simpler – simplicity is refreshing.
LP: I think a lot of smaller labels start out trying to do everything at once. Empires aren’t built that way, things have to grow organically. For us it’s not about our egos, it’s about the garment. You can’t put a style on today’s consumer so it’s great to create an item that has an aesthetic, but not a preconceived notion of how it should be worn.

But you must have an inspiration at the back of your mind when you’re designing the collection?
MH: I think that when a new label launches, the press and the stores decide on a ‘box’ that it should sit in. Early on we decided we wanted to choose that box ourselves and picked shirts. As long as that’s our ‘box’ we can do whatever the hell we want in it and let our creativity develop. We also only design clothes we would want to wear. It baffles us when we hear of other young designers who wouldn’t wear their own collections.
LP: Essentially we want to design a shirt that you can live in – that can be worn for work, relaxation or going out. If we would wear it, I think that other people will too. Not that I’m saying we’re style icons or anything!

What sets your shirts apart?
MH: At the moment you have your very traditional shirt brands, then you have your creative, up-and-coming London designers. I think we sit midway between the two. We’re still young, but perhaps more wearable than some.
LP: For us it’s about blending innovation with reality…
MH: …and it’s about using details that set us apart. Even our most basic shirt has a spiral pleat at the back that we’ve developed.

Why launch Palmer/Harding rather than working for another brand to do that?
MH: Levi and I did the same BA at St Martin’s. We had always critiqued each other’s work during the course, but the first real test of us as a design team was when we worked together on key parts of my final collection. Off the back of that we won a competition in Belgium and I did a Topshop collaboration…
LP: …also we had won a few competitions which had given us a cash injection, so when ANDAM approached us…
MH: …almost to the day this time last year…
LP: …we didn’t have a collection, but we had a concept and that gave us the motivation to go for it.

Is one of you more business minded than the other?
LP: No we’re both quite business minded. I am a bit more questioning about whether our business decisions will work in reality…
MH: …and I’m more of a fantasist. That makes Levi sound like ‘the boy’ doesn’t it?! I mean I just think we pull each other in the right direction when we’re making decisions together.

How does being partners in both business and life affect your work?
LP: We develop concepts quicker than I think other designers might do because we have a sounding board that we trust and that sounding board never leaves. We’re always talking about fashion, how the business will grow…

What’s in the pipeline?
LP:  Our next project will be for LONDON COLLECTIONS: MEN in June. We’re thinking of adding a new range which, in ‘studio speak’, we’ve called “Twisted Basics” – three or four shirts that will always be in the line permanently that will hopefully become our classics.

Are you sketchers or drapers?
MH: We tend to sketch more than we drape. I just tend to draw and draw and draw…
LP: …and I tend to draw a lot slower. Because I have a pattern cutting background, I’m mentally sewing the item together in my mind as I’m drawing it. I’m sometimes quite jealous of the way Matt works. He can do 50 sketches in the time it takes me to do 10.

Is fashion in your blood?
MH: Yes, my grandma used to sew couture gowns for the royal court back in the ‘50s. My great aunt was a seamstress too.
LP: No I’m from a country town in Texas. The nearest thing you got there was sewing potato sacks and cutting holes for the sleeves. Although when I remember helping my grandfather chop weeds out of the cotton fields for Cotton USA when I was growing up! I think there’s some romance in that.

What would be the mark of success for your brand?
MH: To be synonymous with shirts. A few journalists have started calling us “The Shirt Boys” which I hope is the beginning of this!

Story by Nick Carvell
Photography by Thomas Giddings
Styling by Toby Grimditch
Model: Arran Sly @ Models 1