Why Grandmas are the new fashion models in 2020

Jean Simms, grandmother of designer Matthew Harding, models a shirt and skirt by her grandson's label Palmer//Harding - Brendan Freeman
Jean Simms, grandmother of designer Matthew Harding, models a shirt and skirt by her grandson’s label Palmer//Harding – Brendan Freeman

This year has presented designers with challenges the likes of which they’ve never faced before. It’s also been a year when many of us have grown closer to our families, locking down together or speaking more than ever as the world slowed down and the news became scarier. 

The result? Grandmas – and mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, cousins and friends – are turning models for many of the designers presenting new collections, giving a personal, heartfelt feel to offerings which have been created at a time like no other.

Palmer// Harding, the label which specialises in modern shirting founded by Matthew Harding and Levi Palmer, brought the trend to London Fashion Week. In their digital presentation, the designers chose to photograph the women closest to them wearing pieces from their winter collection, with a few updates thrown in -a decision which reflects the slower pace and recalibration in seasons which many labels have embraced in the past six months. 

The designers shot cinefilm-style videos of their relatives, showing short yet intimate vignettes of their life. Jean Simms, Harding’s grandmother, speaks of her appreciation for the flowers and gin sent by her granddaughter Gemma during lockdown, her bright pink manicure popping out against her elegant striped navy shirt and skirt. ‘My Grandma is a kind, glamorous woman with a wicked sense of humour,’ says Harding. ‘She always leaves the house looking impeccable and is known throughout the town as she is such a friendly person’.

Jean Simms wearing Palmer//Harding - Brendan Freeman
Jean Simms wearing Palmer//Harding – Brendan Freeman

Suzanne, Harding’s mother, surveys her gorgeous riverside garden in Rickmansworth as she talks about her love for beautiful, flowing clothes and being with nature. ‘I’m very close with my mum – she does the bookkeeping for the business and so I talk to her every day. She is a strong, determined woman who has a hunger for knowledge and is at the same time, incredibly kind,’  Harding tells The Telegraph. She showcases a chunky grey knit in one shot, and a sculptural shirt styled with bold gold jewellery in another.  

Suzanne Harding, Matthew Harding's mother, wears Palmer//Harding in her garden - Brendan Freeman
Suzanne Harding, Matthew Harding’s mother, wears Palmer//Harding in her garden – Brendan Freeman

All generations of the Harding family appear in the project. His sister Gemma, whom Matthew describes as a ‘rebel at heart’, wears a nipped-waist brown striped shirt and speaks of the challenges of working and homeschooling in lockdown while her five year-old daughter Georgia, in a crisp white Palmer//Harding creation, discusses her ambition to be an explorer and her passion for catching frogs. ‘She is the most adorable, wonderful child I know,’ says her uncle.

Georgia and Gemma Marshall, Harding's sister and niece - Brendan Freeman
Georgia and Gemma Marshall, Harding’s sister and niece – Brendan Freeman

Palmer’s friends and family are also included and were photographed in the US via Zoom by Brendan Freeman. Nancy Palmer, Levi’s mother, poses in an artfully draped shirt and leather skirt and expresses her wish for everything to return to normality so that she can experience ‘the joys of being alive’.

Nancy Palmer, mother of Levi Palmer, wearing Palmer// Harding - Brendan Freeman, via Zoom
Nancy Palmer, mother of Levi Palmer, wearing Palmer// Harding – Brendan Freeman, via Zoom

‘My Mom raised me in a loving environment and always encouraged my creativity as a means of escapism,’ explains Palmer, ‘whether that be escapism from the financial hardships we grew up in or a way for me to explore various aspects of my personality.  She’s always searched for ways to better herself (she was the first person in her family to earn a Universi
ty degree) and pushed me to continue my education and pursue my dreams.’

Palmer's cousin Ever Mainard in LA - Brendan Freeman, via Zoom
Palmer’s cousin Ever Mainard in LA – Brendan Freeman, via Zoom

His cousin Ever Mainard larks around in front of a clown sign in Los Angeles, modelling another example of white shirting from the label. ‘She has an ambition that parallels mine and has grown into such an accomplished comedian and loving woman and I feel joy, with a touch of familial competitiveness, with every success she gains,’ reflects Palmer. ‘Also as the other gay in the family it’s nice to have someone who understands my experiences and whom I can fully open up to.’

Jan Strimple, Palmer's 'fashion fairy godmother', wears a Palmer//Harding shirt dress - Brendan Freeman, via Zoom
Jan Strimple, Palmer’s ‘fashion fairy godmother’, wears a Palmer//Harding shirt dress – Brendan Freeman, via Zoom

It’s not just ‘blood’ family who Palmer// Harding enlisted. Model and fashion producer Jan Strimple, Palmer’s ‘fashion fairy godmother’, languidly drapes herself over bull sculptures while wearing striking maxi shirtdresses – ‘Jan really brought me into the world of fashion and high society and taught me about fantasy, glamour and real customers and also set an example of how to behave while being fabulous… she says there are good divas and bad divas and we should strive to be the better of the two,’ says Palmer.

Jasmin Rodriguez Thronesbery - Brendan Freeman, via Zoom
Jasmin Rodriguez Thronesbery – Brendan Freeman, via Zoom

Finally, Palmer’s high school best friend Jasmin Rodriguez Thronesbery pairs a beautifully cut shirt dress with her bright purple hair. He pays tribute to her, saying that, ‘she saved me by being my protector, confidant and partner in crime throughout some of the most challenging years of my life when I came out as a young teen in a small Texas town.’

 Palmer// Harding are not the only designers to deploy their relatives as models of late. French designer Jacquemus swapped his usual army of twenty-something supermodels for his fabulous grandmother Liline earlier this summer, showing her dressed up in fuschia suits and exuberant beaded earrings while they were locked down together in the South of France, a move which delighted his 2.8million Instagram followers. 

Earlier this month, New York-based designer Joseph Altuzarra created a series entitled Family Portrait, showing his mother, grandmother, cousin and baby daughter dressed in designs from his autumn collection, which was inspired by his grandparents’ journey from Shanghai to America in the 1940s.

His grandmother, Jeanette Wei, would surely have been the envy of her Texan retirement community dressed up in feather-adorned sandals and a bold splashy floral shirt dress while in London, his mother Karen elevated a cable knit sweater and skirt with a raspberry feather clutch bag. Baby Emma, meanwhile, had a custom floral dress created especially by her father. 

‘The entire Covid experience has made us and everyone reflect on the people they love and how they can strengthen those relationships further,’ says Levi Palmer. ‘Having our family as models felt right because it was a shared experience we could all find joy and excitement in during these traumatic times and it was an opportunity to share with them a bit of the glitz and glamour that the fashion industry brings to us regularly.’ 

For the rest of us, the chance to see a personal side to designers whose work usually appears on slick, stylised catwalks is a joy, too.   

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