Hormazd Narielwalla

Hormazd Narielwalla wears an elegant polka-dot necktie which might have caused Jeeves to raise an eyebrow, and a bright white kurta under a Burberry Macintosh. His outfit perfectly corresponds to the crisp white and fawn tones of his new book, Dead Man’s Patterns. I wonder if other book artists dress in ways which reflect their printing and binding styles. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a well-worn metaphor for personality, but it is given a new slant in the opening pages of this book: “We only ever see the cover, never the book; the skin, never the man; the suit, never the pattern. We are denied intimacy.”

Intimacy is only permitted to the bespoke tailors, who know every irregularity of their clients’ bodies and design outfits accordingly. The world of tailoring is secretive. Measurements are kept close and patterns preserved long after a client’s death. In Dead Man’s Patterns Narielwalla unwraps some of the mysteries of the trade. During an apprenticeship with Dege & Skinner in Savile Row he worked with the fastidious master cloth-cutter Robert Whittaker. Despite his fragile relationship with this exacting tutor, the book contains reverential photographs of Whittaker at work. Narielwalla describes the seductive sound of scissors moving evenly and surely through cottons and silks. He has a fetishistic delight in cloth and the art of its control. His attention to pleat and seam remind me of Alison Watt’s paintings of fabric, with their large-scale images of tiny folds and ambiguous shadows.

Narielwalla talks of his amazement at discovering the dead man’s patterns of the title. The patterns, folded up with “dead for ten years” chalked on, remain on the shelf long after the bodies they delineate are ashes. It took an artist’s insistence to allow these to be displayed publicly: “Hidden beneath the bespoke menswear, there is a secret… Everyone sees the suit, yet few are privy to that private dialogue which assesses, measures, and catalogues the subtle details which make up one single man.”

Dead Man’s Patterns is shrouded in original tissue paper tailor’s templates, which rustle as they are unfolded. The book itself is weighty, case-bound in ordinary brown wrapping paper, suggesting a long-awaited parcel. It is printed offset on a variety of inoffensive contemporary machine-made papers. These, and the white stock paper of the final section, provide a neutral background for Narielwalla’s digitally manipulated drawings and photographs. The subtle tans and sepias in which the book is printed, and occasional interleaved pages of trace paper, recall past media and resonate strongly with the brown paper patterns which are enclosed with each copy of this book. These large pieces of paper are marked only by the tailor’s pencil notes: numbers and dates recorded in a codified and fascinating script, perforated by pin-pricks and cross-hatched by contours describing the absent body.

These fragments of paper are a poignant memento of the knowledge one man had of another’s body. The book charts the end of the relationship between a man and his tailor – not only for the individual, whose patterns now lie dormant, but also marking a change in the status of bespoke clothes as a craft form. Now, the timeless ‘classic’ is frequently replaced with a more fickle ‘fashion’ item. The rare and recherché nature of the subject itself drew Narielwalla’s attention to consider tailoring, formerly considered a craft, as ‘Art’, and artisans, as ‘artists’. Yet this is not a nostalgic or naïve work.

The latter part of the book documents the artist’s creation of a shirt influenced by the dead man’s patterns, the lines of the original fitting tacked on the front of the new shirt in silk thread. Narielwalla talks about his own experience of being measured by Dege & Skinner and seeing his ‘imperfect’ (his words) body recorded in the occult language of the trade. He believes that “shapes created by and for a body long-since dead can give new dimensions, new perspectives for the body of someone alive.” Narielwalla’s designs use the existing patterns in new ways – an abstract paper template fitted against a model’s chest, bodice or shoulder. Pockets become epaulettes, arm panels become the two sides of a waistcoat. The final pages of the book form a paper catwalk in which digitally drawn models parade outfits of Narielwalla’s creation. It is said that fashion is cyclical, and always repeats itself, but this recycling of a means of production rather than the style itself is very unusual. As well as being venerated for their past usefulness, the dead man’s patterns have taken on a life of their own.