2017 Student Newsletters > November > From Teen Goth to Fashion Guru: Levi Palmer’s Ascension in London

From Teen Goth to Fashion Guru: Levi Palmer’s Ascension in London

This article appeared in a November 2017 issue of the student newsletter.

El Centro graduate Levi Palmer remembers the first piece of press he, his partner Matthew Harding and their designer brand business Palmer Harding received. It came from, of all publications, Vogue.

It also came while Levi and Matthew were living with Matthew’s parents in London in November 2011.

“If anything will kill your ego, it’s when Vogue calls or emails and says, ‘Hi, I’d like to come to your studio to visit.’ They arrive and they’re like, ‘Is this your studio, or,’” recalls Levi. “But it’s not. It’s your parents’ place and in the middle of the interview, your mother-in-law yells up the stairs, ‘Matthew, you forgot to wash up!’”

Levi earned his degree in menswear fashion design at Central Saint Martins.
Then came the accompanying photo shoot, which opened Levi up to a whole new world.

“When we had a press meeting with Vogue, they had a photo shoot; they had a model, and they had a buffet there with big, jumbo shrimp. Not the little ones. It wasn’t like two shrimp per person. Like, there could’ve been 12 per person,” says Levi, laughing. “And when you’re poor, you’re like, ‘Can I stick some of these in my pockets?”

Getting into Vogue is difficult to top. But, “the shirt boys,” as Levi and Matthew have come to be known, have continued to leave an indelible mark in the fashion world.

“There’s two cool moments that happen as a designer; like I would call virginity moments as a fashion designer,” says Levi. “First is when you see your name or your brand printed in the press. When your first piece of press is American Vogue, nothing else will beat it. And the second is when you see your product in a store.”

As his friend and former instructor Michael Anthony puts it, Levi has made it. It’s a long way from Texas — in more ways than one.

The Beginnings of a Career

Levi grew up in Belton — a small town of now just over 20,000 people in central Texas. His interest in fashion and his eventual desire to get to Europe developed from a fashion subculture he adopted as a teenager: goth style, which is characterized by dark makeup and dark clothing.

Before he moved to Dallas, Levi adopted a goth style that eventually led him to the fashion industry.
“Being a goth made me realize that fashion had power,” Levi Palmer says. “I used to be really afraid of people calling me out on my sexuality, so I thought if I just dress like a freak, they’ll call me a freak, which I preferred to being called [other derogatory names]. When I realized the way you present yourself has a certain power, I thought maybe [fashion] would be fun as a career.”

Levi eventually moved up to Dallas and grew out of his goth phase, thanks in part to fashion icon Grace Jones.

“I think my interests changed because I discovered Grace Jones. She’s her own person and she really inspired me a lot,” says Levi. “She influenced a lot of my time in Dallas. Sort of powerful, androgynous, woman-looking-like-a-man-acting-like-a-woman sort of thing. You still see some Grace Jones in our products.”

When he got to Dallas, Levi made friends who were in the fashion industry, and they gave him some advice: Learn pattern cutting.

In fashion, a pattern is like your template. Pieces of clothing are traced onto fabric before it gets cut out and pieced together. Fortunately for Levi, there was a great place in Dallas for him to learn pattern cutting.

“When I went to El Centro, the professors, especially Michael Anthony, gave me twice as much [work] as they normally would,” says Levi. “I think because I showed passion, they knew it wasn’t falling on deaf ears. The professors really encouraged me to play.”

Michael could spot Levi’s talent right off the bat. With some students, he says, you can just see they have it.

“Once you start talking to [students], you can kind of tell if they’ve got it,” Michael says. “Levi was my star. He did everything he was told to do but then went one, two steps beyond. Everything he did was just imaginative, creative.”

That creativity, of course, extended to Levi’s wardrobe. 

“He dressed like a fashion designer,” says Michael, laughing. “But probably a designer in New York or Paris. Not Dallas. He was a little out there with his dress, but I loved it.”

Levi designed and named a ring — The Anthony — in honor of his former El Centro College professor Michael Anthony.
Michael continued to show his confidence in Levi even after Levi graduated. He offered Levi a job as a tutor’s assistant because he knew Levi wanted to break into the industry and needed money.

As a token of his appreciation, Levi sent Michael a ring this year from Palmer Harding’s most recent collection. “The Anthony” is named after his former instructor.

Getting to Europe

Confidence is key in fashion. El Centro not only equipped Levi with the skills he needed for the fashion world, but the school also gave him the confidence he needed to apply for a competition that changed his life.

Among many other awards, Levi won Best in Show at the 2003 Fashion Group International competition. Levi had to enter four garments and present his portfolio. Then he went through an interview with the governing body, which was made up of women who with experience in the fashion industry.

“El Centro had always had a good reputation at this competition because they have very good students. When I did something well, Michael would call the governing body and say, ‘Oh, you should just come down and see what our students are doing,’” says Levi. “But you had to be skilled, you had to be driven and you also had to be able to charm people.”

Levi’s parents were both very supportive of his dream to enter the fashion industry.
One of the perks of winning was the opportunity to study for two months in London and in Paris. Levi won both trips.

“I had never heard of [a student winning both],” says Michael. “It was the best year ever because every other word was ‘El Centro.’”

After spending time in London, Levi decided to apply to Central Saint Martins, one of the world’s leading schools for arts and design. He got in, which meant going back to London for an extended stay (that ended up being a permanent move). Four years later, he earned his bachelor's degree in menswear fashion design, but getting into the school wasn’t easy. Levi’s mom was a bookkeeper, and his dad operated forklifts at a distribution center. Thus, co-signing a student loan for upwards of $120,000 was a big deal for Levi and his family.

“When you’re on a working-class salary, that’s a mortgage. That’s your house,” explains Levi, who asked his dad to cosign the student loan. “He said, ‘OK, well, you’ve shown me that you can succeed in it, so I’m going to put my faith in you, and hopefully you won’t let me down.’”

Of course, Levi hasn’t.

Gaining a Partner

Levi and partner Matthew Harding are coming off their ninth London Fashion Week show this past September. Their designer line Palmer Harding has its products in more than 80 stores now. And it all started with a chance encounter at a nightclub while both men attended Saint Martins.

Partners Levi and Matthew met while they both attended Central Saint Martins.
“Because we lived so close to each other, our relationship developed really quickly,” says Levi. “He’s very good at presentations, and I’m good at pattern cutting and that sort of stuff. So we would help each other … then after we both graduated, we saw that maybe there’s an opportunity here.”

The first couple of years working together and getting Palmer Harding off the ground were “really stressful.” The partnership presented the two a much different dynamic than while they were in school. While they were in school, Matthew could offer Levi advice, and Levi had the option to integrate the ideas into his design or not. But as business partners, working on the same projects, there was a need for consensus.

“It takes a while to understand the right balance,” says Levi. “It’s really only been maybe in the past three years that we’ve found a good, smooth working place. We are quite fortunate because we don’t argue a lot. We both have the business’ best interest in mind.”

Giving Back

Among the doors Palmer Harding has opened for Levi has been the opportunity for him to give back to students, both at El Centro and Saint Martins.

Levi guest teaches at Saint Martins every once in a while, and he’s done a few projects with El Centro since he graduated.

“I think it’s always important to give back to the educational facilities that helped to build you, and also to education in general,” he says. “And for me, it just gives me so much energy and life to see people enthusiastic about learning.”

Levi has also offered internships and other opportunities to El Centro fashion students.

“I think we’ve had one student go over [to London] and spend time with Levi,” El Centro professor Michael Anthony says. “That intern now is in Japan, and we’ve got four students who want to go intern with him in Japan.”

When he speaks to students, one of Levi’s biggest talking points is telling students to leave their ego at the door.

“Confidence and having an ego are completely different things,” he says. “I probably had a giant ego when I was at both Saint Martins and El Centro.”

Today Levi is much more humble. Levi and Matthew started their business during the recession, and in addition to living with Matthew’s parents, Levi didn’t take a salary for five years. The experience helped kill any egotistical tendencies.

Living the Dream

Someone once asked Levi who his dream customer was, and he said former First Lady Michelle Obama. Earlier this year, she wore a Palmer Harding shirt at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, it came as a shock to Matthew and Levi.

“When we saw it, it was a bit of an ‘Oh my [expletive] God’ moment,” Levi says, laughing. “It was really like a highlight of our careers.”

Palmer Harding has put on nine London Fashion Week shows.
There have been a lot of highlights for the company in just over five years of existence. In addition to being part of London Fashion Week, Matthew and Levi won the British Fashion Council/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, worth £100,000, this spring.

“Some major players in the British fashion industry have won it, and this exposure and the mentoring that come with it are what really help to lift your brand,” Levi says.

The award also got Levi and Matthew a meeting with Burberry president Christopher Bailey — a rare opportunity — one Levi says began years ago.

“You know, it’s the tiniest spark that ignites a forest fire,” says Levi. “I consider El Centro to be that spark in my journey that has led to so many great things afterward.”

Go Further

Want to see the Palmer Harding Spring 2017 collection? Visit vogue.com

Interested in a career in fashion? Explore the fashion design and fashion marketing programs at El Centro College. You can also read more about student success stories at ElCentroCollege.edu.