Elena Velez Talks Her Latest Collection At NYFW

The New York designer speaks on her Fall/Winter 2022 collection: identity, femininity, and the future of her brand

Elena Velez left the Midwest as a teenager to change the fashion industry, and she’s doing just that. Her eponymous brand is a reflection of herself: a Milwaukee native and only child to a mother who is a ship captain on the Great Lakes, Velez explores the concept of femininity and growth in a world that creates multiple conflicting labels for who and what a woman is supposed to be. “I’m really trying to reconcile this idea of femininity as I knew it to be in my youth versus what I understand it to be now,” Velez said. “There’s a direct conflict between this youthful feminine adoration of fashion versus what I’ve learned it to be now, which is more dexterous and industrial.” 

Elena Velez’s second show for New York Fashion Week unveiled her Fall/Winter 2022 collection. Year One — Maidenhood & Its Labors was presented on Friday, Feb. 11 at the Georgia Room, stripped bare to showcase raw architectural beauty, playing off the aesthetic of the garments. Lingerie, tailoring, and menswear references work closely within the theme of deconstruction, as raw edges and seams and thread-bare materiality create feminine shapes with delicate construction. “It really is an exploration of the duality of mankind in our nature to be violent and destroy and degrade, but also to rehabilitate and find ingenious new methods to rebuild,” said Velez.

A synergistic collection indicative of the human process, the brand is a continuation of the commentary of womanhood through characters. Her first collection for NYFW, debuted last fall and entitled Year 0 — Rinascita, first introduced these figures—the harlet, the horse girl from the Midwest, the mother sage presence—and they have returned to contextualize and develop through the seasons. “I see myself in all of these different roles,” said Velez. “And I articulate them through me and my aesthetic inclination.”

Site-specific materials are pulled from a variety of collaborators from all corners of the country—with particular emphasis on the Midwest—and include laminated military canvas, repurposed parachutes, Lake Michigan ship sails, leather, linen, gauze, and wool. “I like to dig [our collaborators] out of really obscure geographies and be a curator and discoverer,” said Velez. Sticking with this theme, also employed is a footwear designer from England who created intricate, artisanal shoes, a Germany-based accessories designer who specialized in hardware for the collection, and a textile conservator at The Met who worked closely with Velez to create a bespoke textile that integrated some of the steel fixtures that the designer does in Milwaukee.

A democratic approach to collaborative design, this is how Velez finds her place in an industry she could not immediately relate to. “It’s exciting to look around versus look up,” she said. “I think that’s where I can find more of a meaningful placement for what I’m doing in the fashion industry.” Fine art is at the forefront of her brand, as artisans who specialize in rust belt trades or crafts help create a post-apocalyptic feel to design, re-contextualizing regional craftsmanship. “It’s really about decentralizing creative resources away from the traditionally established capitals to really empower underrepresented voices in the American fashion narrative.”

Her future extends far past New York, as she aims to use the capital city to become established in the fashion industry enough to redistribute that influence outside of major hubs. Relocating back to the Midwest and becoming a source of jobs and education for underrepresented geographical locations feels authentic to her journey as a designer. “It feels meaningful to me to be a gate opener, not a gatekeeper,” Velez said. “I want to curate my own talents and use that platform to share resources and professional exposure, really sealing myself in that subculture.”

As a multidisciplinary artist whose studies have taken her to Paris, London, Brazil, Sydney, and New York City, Velez continually returns to her Midwestern roots to find inspiration and originality. “In order to build genuine and authentic fashion I have to draw from an original subculture, and I could only locate that in Wisconsin,” she reflects. “I’m not interested in novelty of the contemporary. There is nothing that inspires me about today, which is why I have to create it.” And that’s exactly what she did. 

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