It’s In the Bag for Bryant Phelan

Bryant Phelan is the mind, heart and hands behind OFaolain Leather. His one-of-a-kind luxury goods have caught the attention of ELLE magazine, New York Fashion Week and many others, taking note of the duality of his designs — modern, yet classic; glamorous, yet natural; strong, yet graceful.

We sat down with the Little Rock-based designer to talk inspiration, process and using your platform.

You first discovered leatherwork as a teen when your mother brought home a leather Venetian masquerade mask. What drew you to it?

The shape was so whimsical, the colors were vibrant and the leather had a pearlescent finish that just made the mask gleam. Mostly though, it was because it was leather, not plaster. I had never seen leather used in that way before. For me, leather was my dad’s church shoes, a trunk in the attic or the chair in the study. I never thought something so practical could be used to make something so beautiful.

Are those the same qualities that keep you coming back to leather now?

Absolutely. Whimsicality and fantasy are constant inspirations for me, as are bold color combinations and pattern mixing. I think one reason I still have such a love for these qualities is that I never gave up my childish imagination and enthusiasm about it, or about art and creativity in general. People let go of imagination and trade it for the idea that being rational is in direct conflict with being imaginative, when they aren’t truly mutually exclusive.

What has changed about your relationship with the craft since then?

I used to very much think of this as a hobby, something I loved to do. I never in my wildest dreams (though it was my dream) thought I would be a designer. I just didn’t think I was very stylish and thought my weird designs were too different for anyone to actually like. As it turns out, that is what has set me apart, and I’ve realized that many people wanted a more colorful and fun approach to fashion.

I used to think you had to be very haughty to work in fashion and that intimidated me because I am a very friendly person. My tongue-in-cheek approach to design and relationships in the industry served me well and I learned that authenticity was paramount.

Fear of failure crippled me for years from following my path, but in 2017 I had fallen too deeply in love with what I had been calling a hobby and I decided to leave my epidemiology doctorate program at UAMS and pursue fashion as a career. I have never been happier and it has allowed my business and my individuality to flourish. Now I look at what I do with true diligence and take great joy in growing and nurturing it as an art and business.

From launching your brand in 2014 to showing at New York Fashion Week, you’ve had some huge moments in your career. What has been the most surreal or exciting moment so far?

I would actually say that Thea Foundation highlighting me as a department artist was the most surreal. I have been told by many artists, friends and otherwise, that what I do isn’t art because it isn’t a formal medium like paint or sculpture. To me, being recognized as an artist by a foundation that I love so much just meant the world to me and gave me the boost I needed to get recentered at the time in my life. I believe that any application of expression and imagination is art and Thea validated that in a big way for me.

Describe the typical OFaolain customer. What are they looking for in a product?

The thing I love about my customers is that they come from all walks of life, all ages and have any personality you can imagine. I think the reason for this diversity is that they are looking for a piece of themselves in the clothing and accessories they wear.

Personality is a driving force in my design. I want people to see a part of themselves in what I make, and because of that my clients tend to gravitate to very particular pieces. I often get feedback like, “I just knew when I saw it, it was just ‘me.'”

Fashion should be for everyone but many brands just speak one language. What you wear is the first thing people notice about you before you even speak. It’s how you say “hello” to the world. My clients are all one thing, personable. They have personal style and are happy to greet you as their authentic self whether it’s “helloooooo” or “HELLO.” I would also say that they are largely unafraid to break fashion “rules” and, interestingly enough, are typically art collectors.

What does it mean to you to see your designs on the shelves of a high-end boutique like Barbara/Jean in your home state?

There are no words. When my mom would come to Little Rock to go to Barbara/Jean I would always come with her. I have been in love with that store my whole life. When I was 13 or 14 I had made friends with a watchmaker in Malvern. He gave me a bunch of old watch parts and I used them to make jewelry. One day when my mom asked if I wanted to go to Little Rock with her, I asked her if I could bring my jewelry to try to sell to Barbara/Jean. I’m sure that was an interesting predicament I put her in, but she always has my back.

She called and they said it was fine and to bring it by. You should have seen this jewelry. It was cool in concept, but not something you’d see at Barbara/Jean, ever. They were all so incredibly kind to me and Connie Stark told me to keep at it and to come back in 10 years, or something like that. It was a very kind sentiment and it encouraged me to hone my skills because I thought that meant I had a chance.

I hadn’t really been back to the store in my adulthood until I got the call to come in and discuss a possible trunk show. Well, when I come in and start my way through the store, there’s Connie, looking as fabulous as ever. She immediately remembered me and there I was, back in the store 10-plus years later with something else to show, and this time I had a polished product that I was proud to present.

I can’t speak highly enough of their entire staff or to the loveliness of their store. They truly care about each individual customer and are always thinking of ways to better the experience. It really is a family affair and I am truly grateful to show my accessories there and for their constant love and support.

Credit: Jason Masters

Along with artistic pursuits, you also have master’s degrees in biostatistics and epidemiology. You’ve pointed to these interests as inspirations that inform your design and help set you apart from fellow designers. How so?

On a purely visual note, so many microscope specimens are incredibly beautiful. I highly encourage anyone to look up what some bacteria and viruses look like. Society is a typical inspiration for artists, and because of the heavily social aspect of what I did as an epidemiologist, I was able to have a rare angle with which to view society that other artists did not. That opens up an entire new perspective for inspiration by itself.

On the more practical side, the amount of conceptual thinking that an epidemiologist does in a day is almost unparalleled and is a brilliant headspace for a designer like me to grow. When you think about concepts like social determinants of health or why people make the decisions they do and what the outcomes are, you can take from it many applications for advertisement.

Many designers have to limit what expression they are able to create because of a lack in mathematical backgrounds. Biostatistics, in and of itself, can help me with my business analytics, but the mathematical background helps me in my pattern-making process. If I didn’t have that skill I would not be able to create much of my work.

You often say “personality” is at the heart of the OFaolain brand. How does that manifest in the design process and also in the finished product?

There are many facets of our personality that change over time and then there are those that are perennial. These are traits we become known for, and we dress to represent those pieces of ourselves, whether consciously or not.

I try to think of people I know or characters I have read about when I’m designing, about the qualities that make them so memorable. Though we are all unique, there are many people who identify similarly, so I’m designing for many people by being thoughtful with a single concrete reference.

There aren’t many unique options in the accessories market. Most people have the same bags in the same colors. I do not believe in the slightest that these accessories are representing them as well as their clothing may. The difference is that bags will last for much longer.

I believe the product of my approach is a range of accessories that represent an honest interpretation of us as individuals. You’d be surprised at how much a holographic lizard print cross-body will go with what’s already in your closet.

When many people hear “artist,” they first think painting, drawing, sculpture. What would you say to someone interested in pursuing less mainstream artforms?

You have a whole universe to develop. You aren’t under the weight of previous Picassos and you aren’t in a world saturated with quotes telling you what greatness you should aspire to. You get to decide.

Since discovering leatherwork as a kid, you’ve made it a point to pay it forward by working with student arts institutions like Thea Foundation. Why is it important to you to pour into a local organization like that?

I have had the utmost joy and honor to take part in local events for Arkansas youth with great people like Connie Fails for Curbside Couture through the Clinton Foundation and with Paul Leopoulos and the gang at Thea Foundation. Paying it forward in these ways is not only incredibly fulfilling, it is integral to the maintenance and growth of art as an institution. It is also my responsibility to provide guidance, support and a positive role model to the next generation of artists/designers here in Arkansas.

Most young creatives are told that artistic pursuits, such as in fashion, are not real careers, yet the fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that employs around 300 million people globally. Kids need to know their aspirations are realistic and to be supported from a young age to pursue their true interests. I can tell you from personal experience that nothing makes you feel happier or more at peace than pursuing the inspirations that motivate you.

I just want to make sure these kids know this and have their feelings validated. I want them to find the strength in themselves to make their vision a reality and grow into the best and most authentic version of themselves they can be. As long as I have a platform to encourage them along their way, I will.

Credit: Jason Masters

What’s next for OFaolain? Any specific projects or goals in the works?

I’m in the process of having custom hardware made for my bags in Italy but this pandemic is slowing that process down a bit for the moment. Otherwise, I am scouting other high-end boutiques in major cities to hold trunk shows with and more. I’m also looking into some small-scale production options in the U.S. and working to expand my personal studio space. Plenty to keep me busy!

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