SPACE Brand Phelan Weaves Motion and Femininity at New York Fashion Week

I learned a new word backstage before the Phelan show: diegetic. It’s a filmmaking term that, when applied to the audio realm, describes a “sound whose source is visible on the screen or whose source is implied to be present by the action of the film.”

In other words, a union of sound and vision.

We were invited to join Brooklyn-based designer Amanda Phelan and crew during rehearsal for her show, which was set to include a dance ensemble. As she described how the performance and sound accompaniment would underscore the actual collection for spring ’17, her partner, music designer Mike Dragovic, dropped the word on me as a way of explaining how the dancers and his soundtrack would double and juxtapose to suggest a sort of real and extra-real or hyperreal experience.

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Designer Amanda Phelan and choreographer Shannon Gillen watch dancers rehearse before the Phelan show on Thursday night.
All images by Carmen Daneshmandi

It takes a brave emerging designer to show an important collection inside a heady, mesmerizing theater concept. Most would fear the distraction and avoid the possibility of the audience focusing on anything other than the clothing. But as she’s shared with us in past seasons, Amanda is committed to forgoing a traditional runway in favor of performative presentations.

Phelan’s trademark is intricate, textural knits, and as we saw backstage, the next season consists of conceptual jacquards and printed silk that’s literally painterly. Amanda told us the collection builds off the idea of the nightgown—that icon of feminine wardrobes—and is further informed by traditionally female crafts like basket weaving and knitting.

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The pieces also come together because of three key women: the artist Caitlin MacBride, whose paintings of folded fabric inspired the color palette and became the silk textiles; SPACE jewelry designer Wing Yau of WWAKE, whose team handcrafted extraordinary one-of-a-kind folded and crumpled metal accessories; and longtime collaborator choreographer Shannon Gillen of Vim Vigor Dance Company.

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And then there were the models, of course, and the dancers. It was a show about, for and by women—and the real and more-than-real experiences in their world. The work and craft and strength of women is a subject that’s very important to Amanda, and her layers of expression are both nuanced and straightforward.

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After combing through the pieces with Amanda, we stayed with the models backstage until they were dressed in their first looks for the show, and then we slipped out into the theater to watch it all come together.

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As the audience filed into a concrete-floor event space in the Chelsea neighborhood, seated dancers in nightgown-like dresses dyed to match their specific skin tones took up the middle of the floor while a cacophony of chairs lined the room. The effect was that of an attic—but an industrial one. Or a literary one. The backroom of an old library, say, or union headquarters at a factory.

When the soundscape began, the dancers’ movements were both swift and smooth and sudden and jerky. We heard the women’s breaths, their movements, the slap of their skin and the scrape and creak of their chairs. We felt them working and being and transferring energy. 

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And then in walked the models. Styled by Dazed magazine’s Robbie Spencer, they wore silhouettes both structured and loose—all accented by conceptual and really cool details: thick, staple-like metal pieces at the shoulder of a black dress with diagonal pleats coming apart at the hemline. Long knitted straps that wave like minimal fringe at the waist. Grommets, threaded with a knitted strap, dotting the bottom of a jacket.

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Will the wearer have an awareness of Amanda’s themes and sense the meaning and webs of thought that make up the individual pieces? In the ineffable way that the most heartfelt concepts actually do find their way to the most open and accepting minds, yes. But if all the wearer experiences is the quiet swish, swish of artful silk and the enveloping structure of highly technological knits made by someone who understands the movement of the human body, that’s a victory too.

Explore: current-season Phelan | current-season WWAKE | all SPACE

YOU ARE HERE: keep up with all our Fashion Week coverage, and shop curated collections of our favorite designers, on our Fashion Week hub.

—Laura Cassidy

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