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Couturier to the Heavens and Above, continued

On a recent Thursday, 24 hours before the debut of the first set of many ornate festive vestments for St. Mary's, Mr. Boylan was, as any designer might be on the eve of an important runway show, exhausted and ever so slightly wired. He has carved a studio for himself out of the parlor of the turn-of-the-century apartment in Park Slope he shares with his partner, Roger Hockett, the pastry chef for Mangia, and their adopted 18-month-old twins, Nora and Luke. His life, his new blended family and his elastic home business are all very 21st century.

So is his tiny work space, with its ingenious work platform and desk, its computerized sewing machine, its Nina Simone soundtrack and a sign, ''Failure is not an option.'' His work, however, is pure fifth century: your eyes pop at the rich purples, golds, greens and reds glistening high on a garment rack, a Byzantine mosaic in Brooklyn.

If clothing is a language, vesture is an archaic form. Its basic parts -- a long white robe (the alb), a capelike tunic (the chasuble) and embroidered scarf (the stole) -- are Greco-Roman, everyday wear for everyone up to at least the sixth century. The uniform has not changed much since then; it remains a vivid, stylized reminder of Christianity's beginnings in the dwindling Roman Empire. Close your eyes and picture mosaics from Ravenna and you have the pattern book for all liturgical vesture.

''It shows you that the church has been here through time,'' said the Rev. Stephen Gerth, the rector of St. Mary's. ''Vesture is a way in which I am reminded that I am part of something much greater than myself and that I am a servant of the assembly. And, sometimes, I hide in vestments.''

Designing within these historical confines requires finding the artistry in restraint. ''There is all the world of difference between one pinstripe and another,'' Cecil Beaton wrote a long time ago, referring to men's tailoring, another prescribed uniform. ''The narrower the confines of a medium, the more poetic it is.''

Like any real couturier, Mr. Boylan's designs grow from the fabric, by draping. (He is not a sketcher.) And such fabric. A parishioner, Christopher Hyland, an interior designer with his own high-end fabric house in the Decoration & Design Building on Third Avenue, donated the fabric and labor costs. Mr. Hyland's donation includes a red and gold silk and linen damask with a highly stylized palm pattern that Mr. Boylan has fashioned into glittering chasubles trimmed and lined with gold silk. He is canny enough to leave the fabric undecorated.

''I remember so vividly the moment when I walked into church and was so moved by the vestments, the incense and the liturgy, when I felt I was 'home,' '' Mr. Boylan said. ''And the idea that my work might speak to someone in the same way is just very big.''

Originally printed in The
New York Times,
December 9, 2001,

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