Patterns of History

Regalia, acetate collage on inkjet print, 27.5 x 27.5 in., 2010

On Savile Row, the pattern cutter’s art has always been an invisible one. Essential but undazzling, it produces the humble brown-paper blueprints that are translated into the luxury of a bespoke suit. For one Londoner, a cache of decades-old patterns in a tailor’s storage room—forgotten puzzle pieces that recorded the measurements of a generation of gentlemen—became the basis of his own art. The collages of Hormazd Narielwalla have given a new life to those paper fragments of lapels, sleeves, waistcoats, and trousers that were once destined for the shredder. They also pay handsome tribute to the stylish but unknown men who wore the suits. Narielwalla uses the patterns’ penciled markings and measurements as part of his works’ visual texture, shaping pieces from the paper’s curving, stylized forms that range from the whimsical (portraits of a mustachioed Edwardian-style dandy he dubs Oscar Hodgepodge) to the richly evocative (opulent details from Raj-era military regalia set against a desert of brown paper) to the sculptural (Memento Mori, a collection of skulls displayed in clear boxes like vaguely sinister but oddly beautiful jewels).

Oscar Hodgepodge, series 8, digital pattern collage inkjet print, 31.4 x 23.6 in., 2010

Steps on Savile Row

Whether assembling a Union Jack from collar patterns or setting pattern scraps in an abstract study of negative space, the 33-year-old artist’s collages find tangible and emotional connections to the glories of male tailoring— and, in many of his works, to the nearly-vanished British world that gave birth to the Row. In 2007, Narielwalla was researching military tailoring at the archives at London’s National Army Museum for his master’s degree, when “the curator suggested I call a military specialist tailor in Savile Row. I suppose when I did and set up an appointment with the managing director [at Dege & Skinner], William Skinner, it was the first time I walked down the Row.” After learning about the fate of the patterns of deceased customers in that meeting, “I seduced the firm to associate with me to produce my first book, Dead Man’s Patterns, an artist’s book.”

“After finishing my degree, I was appointed to work for the firm in 2008. Thus began my attraction to military tailoring and bespoke suit-making in general. The practices, the craft, the training, the process, and of course the beautiful tailoring patterns inspired me. They have become the underpinning of my art’s practice.” Narielwalla started out as an assistant to Dege & Skinner’s master shirt maker (“I had the most unglamorous position in the firm”), but the back-of-the-shop milieu was exactly where he wanted to be. After nine months, “I bravely decided to put in a proposal to write the tailoring memoirs of Michael Skinner, the firm’s chairman and master tailor. It was accepted, and I began my artist-in-residence position, writing Michael’s biography with him.” London’s Benefactum Publishers released The Savile Row Cutter in July 2011.

Patterns Emerge

Narielwalla continued to develop his own art during his time at Dege & Skinner, and the forgotten patterns provided ample source material. “I thought if I were to make art, then they would be immortalized. I’m attracted to their textures, shapes, markings, notes, measurements, staples, and in general the tailor’s imprint. They are incredibly stylized, dramatic, and beautiful drawings in their own right, and [I saw they] had potential to become works of art.” The patterns are tellingly intimate (they reflect the measurements of a very specific person’s body) and yet without character. “I have to remove names, Polaroids, or any other forms of identification of the customer off the pattern before I begin,” says Narielwalla. “Sometimes I leave glimpses of the identification to suggest that they did belong to individual people. Although I prefer that they are anonymous, because I can then use my imagination to tell all kinds of stories.” Those tales can take their inspiration from real persons (Klaus Nomi gets a cool pattern portrait), imaginary English eccentrics (the splendid Oscar), or even African myth. In a series sparked by Anansi, the spider-man god who stole stories from the sun, the artist set pattern pieces against rows of silhouetted figures, producing the effect of warriors behind tribal shields.

Personal Histories

Sometimes those stories have a more personal connection for the Indian-born Narielwalla. “My [current] PhD research explores military uniforms from the British Raj by looking at the actual garments archived in the National Army Museum, combined with British military tailoring pattern drafts from books dating back to the 1800s. The proposition is that the garment, along with its pattern, can narrate the uniform’s dress history.” “But as an artist, I am also suggesting that the patterns are beautiful drawings in their own right that inspire me. So the intention is to make abstract art in response to them as objects. I’m afraid I’m not interested in their political history. Although it does come through, as English officers wore kurtas and pagris [traditional loose Indian shirts and turbans, respectively] as part of their dress uniform.”

Military dress history “was a good choice for me to get in touch with my own roots—and the project is moving into new territories that question not only my being an Indian artist in London but my sexuality, fetishism, and many more veiled threads in what makes me who I am.” One of Narielwalla’s recent projects incorporates an Indian subtext into an abstract work. He digitally printed brown pattern scraps and colorful pieces of acetate with images from the television adaptation of the romantic Raj epic, The Far Pavilions. He describes the large-scale, highly textured assemblage as “a three-dimensional love garden made out of military tailoring patterns referencing American painter Jackson Pollock.”

“I feel very comfortable working in abstract form,” he says, as “patterns are mere abstracted shapes of the human body. My research has also shown that some of the illustrations in 16th- and 17th-century tailoring lays [pattern books] look like sketches from the studio of Matisse. What amazes me is that they preceded abstraction as a practice, and nobody really looked at them as drawings in their own right.”

Dancing (and Designing) Dandies

Although he’s branched out by using bright-yellow lingerie and swimwear pattern pieces to create collages with an overtly feminine feel in their bird-like shapes, it’s the men in Narielwalla’s visual world who sport the most distinctive plumage. Dandies—resplendent maharajas, dancing soldiers, London party boys, and others—abound in his collages.

“I see dandyism as a phenomenon in which men completely explore their characters through clothing and lifestyle choices. I see [the dandy] as a very proud gentleman, like a peacock. He’s someone who is tasteful, considered, pays attention to detail, isn’t afraid of color and knows how to use it. I see a true dandy as a leader rather than a follower, and above all, someone who possesses timeless style.” It seemed natural that the London fashion world would take note of Narielwalla’s work, and Sir Paul Smith gave him his first show at his No. 9 gallery, a Mayfair art and design branch of Smith’s retail empire.

Timothy Everest and Richard James are also among the designers, curators, and writers in whom he’s found support. “Each one responds differently and relates to different aspects of my practice,” he notes. “I would like to collaborate with fashion designers…simply because it would increase my personal library of pattern shapes.” Is the artist equally artistic when it comes to his own wardrobe? “Everything comes second to my practice, including my personal style—but I have to say there’s nothing more pleasurable then wearing a bespoke suit. In fact, I was lucky to have one made by the master tailor himself.” After his collaboration on Michael Skinner’s autobiography, he “was gifted with a double-breasted navy pin-striped suit cut for me. I love wearing my suit! I have also been fortunate to have some bespoke shirts, with a slight twist, cut by [the firm’s] master cutter Robert Whittaker. I aim to return to Dege & Skinner as a customer because their cut is timeless and a luxury worth investing in.”

“Sadly, I’m not an every-day dandy. However, I become one on an important day like a private view of a solo show, or giving a lecture. I have some element of performance when I’m standing [in a gallery] or talking about my work,” and being well dressed adds to the confidence.

Remains From the Remnants

At its heart, Hormazd Narielwalla’s art is quite literally about remnants of history: of fashion, of a near-obsolete era of tailoring, of a generation of Englishmen. His works mix a clean-edged modern spirit and wit with an underlying affection for those beautifully turned-out, anonymous ghosts who haunt Savile Row. For Hormazd Narielwalla, the bespoke past—both in full and in pieces—still has much to contribute to the present. “Tailoring patterns,” he says, “represent a world in which quality and ethics play vital roles. Especially [now], when those two virtues seldom exist in a mass-produced world.” The simple scraps to which he’s given an eloquent new purpose also provide him with a goal: “I suppose I would like to think that my art, like a Savile Row suit, would be distinguished as a timeless creation—something never out of style!

See more of Hormazd Narielwalla’s work at narielwalla.com and on Riseart.

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