Elena Velez Explores “Romanticized Abstractions of Middle America” for FW23

The 2022 CFDA American Emerging Designer of the Year Winner shows off her exquisite ability to balance concept and practicality in her exploration of Midwestern subcultures

Elena Velez has quickly become a designer to watch, especially fresh off the heels of her win of the 2022 CFDA American Emerging Designer of the Year Award. Born out of Milwaukee, and currently based out of Brooklyn, Velez has used her brand as a platform to speak to the sociology of overlooked middle-American subcultures. Her presentation for FW23, titled “YR003: HOWS MY DRIVING?” is an elaboration on the intricacies of the center of the country, described by the designer as “romanticized abstractions of Middle America.”


The presentation was hosted in an almost pitch black warehouse in Greenpoint, with a thundering electronic soundtrack booming throughout the space. As a preamble to the show, a film of the same name as the collection, directed by C Prinz, showed an apocalyptic and cryptic visual filled with models with glazed over, icy white eyes standing in an army in Velez’s designs. Eartheater then emerged into the warehouse, stumbling and charging her way down the runway in a floor length concoction that consisted of laced together paneling. Between the film and just the first look alone, the vibe for the show was set; this collection is grounded by an eerie angst, perhaps even anger.

The clothing shown had an emphasis on rawness, with Velez pulling inspiration from “the lot lizard and the prairie wife.” The materials here maintain tradition, like the large presence of canvas, as a sort of homage to the no-nonsense materiality of the Midwest; yet these materials are then twisted, subverted into silhouettes that combine protective wear with elements of hyper-feminization.  Bustiers have been emboldened by their embellishment with rough and tough metalworked detailing, a craft that is pertinent to Velez’s hometown of Milwaukee.

While, yes, there is and has been an extremity to Velez’s designs, this season it is clear that the designer is starting to put more of an emphasis on more wearable clothes. The clothes were clearly made to be able to move in, as clearly evidenced in the lightning bolt speed of the models storming down the runway. Yet this extension of more “wearable” clothing does not necessitate a loss in concept. While Velez’s designs show the immense creative skills that are often ignored coming out of the Midwest, her clothing also represents, in an elevated form, the clothing that is worn in the Midwest; clothes that are meant to be worn until they are worn down.

It is no easy task to work as a small designer, which is an uphill battle that Velez openly shares on her social media. In what may have been the most meta moment of NYFW, a model came storming down the runway, yielding Velez’s CFDA award like a blunt object meant for battle — the messaging here is clear; while awards are undoubtedly a huge honor, Velez understands that true support lies in the actual buying of her clothing. This is the issue that commonly plagues young American designers; yet Velez’s acute knowledge of what she knows she must do in order to survive as a brand is ahead of the curve and applaudable. 

This understanding of survival gives Velez an all-mighty power; and her exploration of the relatively unconquered subject matter of brutalism through the lens of Midwestern subcultures will be paramount to her success. American fashion is notorious for the way in which it chews up and spits out young designers, yet both Velez’s designs and enterprising spirit have established her as a force to be reckoned with. 


Velez has come up at a time where she is needed in American fashion, creating clothing that speaks to the state of the entire country, not just the cosmopolitan capitals; she is hard evidence that brazen conceptually driven and thoughtfully executed work exists in places that are not only New York and Los Angeles. Her dedication to the center of the country and a subversion of its culture has carved out a fantastical niche for Velez, where her tactility, technique, and strength in designing is powerful and inspiring, to say the least.

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