In the Studio with Phelan

Lenny looks into the mind and process of the designer Amanda Phelan.

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Last February, on what was probably one of the coldest days of the year, I found myself actually leaving my house and venturing out into single-digit weather, which as a general rule I do not believe people should ever have to deal with. I was on my way to the Phelan fashion show, a new knitwear line that a friend had said I would really like. Amanda Phelan, the designer behind the label, had previously worked at Alexander Wang and was now showing her second-ever collection in a little theater in the East Village.

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Fashion shows have a standard procedure: about twenty or so minutes after the scheduled time, the lights dim, the music comes on, and models stoically walk back and forth for fifteen minutes, and then it's over. What I witnessed at Phelan was a group of dancers performing an incredible modern choreography — that maybe had a little parkour thrown in — as they ran up and down ramps on the stage. The music was cool and creepy, and I immediately sat up a little straighter. I didn't even want to take pictures because I didn't want to miss a thing. Then the models came out — a beautiful, diverse group of girls that looked like nomads in chunky and pleated knits that sometimes resembled armor, all paired with sneakers. It was love at first sight. I knew I had to meet the woman behind it all.

Cut to a few months later, and Amanda and I are in the factory in New York City's Garment District that produces her knitwear. She is about to show me her process — the sketches, the machines that make the knits, the hands that actually finish it all off — and I am in nerd heaven. We brought along a video camera to document the magic — head to our site to check it all out. After the tour, I sat down with the designer and talked about why a sense of community is so important when you are starting your own business and why her rooftop is her favorite place to be.

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Laia Garcia: How did your interest in knitwear develop?

Amanda Phelan: I was studying painting at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), but after seeing a thesis show in the textile department, I became infatuated with that kind of work, so I switched my major. I was very enamored by this new way of making and thinking about work, and it was a pretty effortless transition.

At RISD they have this very Bauhaus approach to teaching. You literally start in the textile department spinning yarn on a wheel from wool carded fiber. I think knitting retains this aura of being an old technique, and it also retains an aura of being in the female domain. I find that quite inspiring for my work too. I think I'm attracted to "contemporary wear" because it has kind of created this interesting bridge between old-world arts and crafts and new-world technology.

LG: You were working for established designers, and then you ventured out to start your own label — why was being autonomous important to you?

AP: I've always known I wanted to start my own project. I also think in many ways this company began as a project to fill a void. After I worked for other designers, I wasn't really finding a very process-driven conscious design environment. I challenged myself to build this atmosphere that was directly inspired by a respect for the creative process. Also, there are certain skill sets and interests that I couldn't really nurture working in a company other than my own. I wanted to learn more about cinematography and continue to direct videos and help compose music for the shows [which she does with her partner]. Building this brand allows me to bring all of these artistic impulses to one place in a very controlled way. The climate of the industry is so different now. Everything is really changing, and it's kind of an exciting time to create in this way that can merge into many disciplinary mediums and interests.

LG: What's been the hardest part about running your own business?

AP: Life balance. I'm a perfectionist. It's difficult for me to believe that every small detail does not contribute to my success. There are many details that are very important, but in fact they don't all matter. This is a hard belief for me to actually practice. I have four employees now, so I am learning how to best manage multiple roles — the operational piece of starting a venture, the financial tasks that are involved on a weekly basis, designing the collections — while maintaining other relationships in my life. I think that balance has been the greatest challenge for me.

LG: Some of your production is done here in New York. Is that important to you?

AP: Yeah, we have a really amazing balance of where we're producing. We're developing and producing all over — New York, Italy, China, Uruguay, Peru — but I very intentionally made sure we started the company in the United States.

I think some of the most critical parts or early stages of any brand are the interpersonal ones. I knew that if I had time to develop these relationships and these processes here, it would give me a format of what to do overseas, when you're not face-to-face on a daily basis. Most of our process, and in effect our clothes, is a result of close communication.

The work requires that I maintain a close relationship with the technician, because together we're kind of pushing these boundaries of what the machinery can do and exploring new territory of what's possible. I also have a really high respect for the people that make our clothing, for those who deeply understand that every process, from the development stage to production stage, has a thought behind it and a spirit behind it. People forget, in such a technology-driven age, that there are still hands behind every step in making this work. Cultivating this perspective for the extended team has been really important to me. I think that respect to the hands behind the work and the creative process is part of our team culture.

It's also about cultivating a mind-set where the more alert you are while making the work, typically the more open you are to challenging old ideas. The result is something more interesting and typically something new.

LG: How do you relax?

AP: When I'm not in the studio making work, I try to spend time gardening. My partner and I grow and maintain a large rooftop garden, which is probably bigger than our actual apartment. Each summer, we drive to Lancaster and we buy plants — you can't really compare them to New York plants in any way, it's not $60 for a cactus that dies a week later. The Amish farms are really beautiful there. I love New York, but it's really hard to find stillness when it's such constant movement, especially in this industry. It's always remained a challenge for me. The act itself of growing plants is very meditative. It requires you to be still. It's my horticultural therapy.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny.

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