One day before Elena Velez’s New York Fashion Week show—one that involved truly killer clothes, but more importantly, felt like the beginning of something exciting in a young artist’s career—was a picture of contained chaos. In her Greenpoint, Brooklyn studio, Velez and her team put the finishing touches on her fall 2022 collection, titled “Year One—Maidenhood & Its Labors,” which showed at Manhattan’s Freehand Hotel on February 11th. But it wouldn’t be Fashion Week if there wasn’t some kind of drama—so when Velez discusses the aforementioned “finishing touches,” she really means scrapping garment concepts and restarting from scratch, rolling with the changes that come with fittings and “last-minute disasters.”
“We know it’s coming! We have, like, six months ahead of time,” Velez says, laughing over Zoom while she walks through the expansive industrial space she shares with her partner. “I don’t know why it always comes down to the last 24 hours.”
This kind of experience is par for the course, even for the most seasoned designers. But 27-year-old Velez is only showing her second official collection. Despite that, her designs are fully evolved, thoughtful, and filled with the stories of her life.
“You have to start from a place of identity, and I don’t have anything else to really talk about,” she says. Velez, an only child, grew up in Milwaukee and spent her earliest years on shipyards, in engine rooms, and dock houses with her mother, who worked as a ship captain on the Great Lakes. As she explored these industrial spaces, her interest in working with fabric and form grew; although she didn’t know what to do with that interest until she realized fashion was a viable career. She studied at Parsons for undergrad and Central Saint Martins in London for grad school— at the former, she learned how to build her artistic abilities into a brand that would be attractive to investors and consumers alike. At the latter, she was encouraged to take wild risks, to embrace making something hideous, something outside the boundaries of palatableness, and then beautify it after the fact. Both experiences, she found, revealed a tension between “very Midwestern blue collar, traditional hand craftsmanship through a fine arts perspective.”
“There were so many different unique opportunities to bring Milwaukee back into my story and to reference it as a point of authenticity in the work,” Velez adds. “To embrace and reject my unglamorous Midwestern upbringing is an angle that resonates with people.”
This theme is a constant, baked into the ethos behind each of Velez’s collections. But for “Year One,” it translates to a character study of “our woman,” she says. “There’s a very paradoxical narrative to the brand that stems from my relationship with my mother and my idea of femininity and beauty—what I wanted from it as a child—pretty, light, and delicate—versus what I want from it now: a more fortuitous, industrious womanhood that’s aggressive and durable and prioritizes functionality over aesthetics.” She holds up a few garments (all of which are in various stages of completion) to demonstrate: one dress-length tailored jacket features a lapel that extends all the way around the body. She describes it as “deconstructed, but also kind of horny and equestrian, which really feels Midwestern. It’s got these cool indentations and creases that feel elegant, but also kind of butch.” A dress made from a World War II parachute with corset-like construction feels of-the-moment while still honoring its original purpose. The third look she shares is the bones of a dress, pinned to a form; the garment is made of a waxed laminate canvas that was once a parachute as well. “We’re gonna turn this into a beautiful gown,” she says. “It’ll feel brutalist and severe, but also lovely.”
When I see that gown in its finished state at the Elena Velez presentation, it fits the description exactly—a strapless, off-white dress with a high slit and pleats gathered at the bodice. Any traces of chaos or unpreparedness from the previous day have vanished. Inside the Freehand’s Baroque Georgia Room, Velez and her team have created their own world—one that marries industry and a certain kind of maritime coarseness with all kinds of feminine archetypes. The “Belle Epoque harlot,” as Velez described her to me the day before, manifests in a sheer dress with an elastic cut-out around the model’s stomach; the “forklift certified girl, which is like the Midwest tractor glam,” wears a pair of black JNCO-sized slacks with silver hardware, and a “spiritualist agriculturalist” opens the show wearing an off-white crepe gown with cutouts, holding a piece of burning incense in a hanging censer. The models are adorned with pieces of fabric around their chins that loop around the backs of their heads. Their hands are covered in charcoal up to their elbows, and their lipstick is dark and smudged all over their faces, like dirty angels. Their blank expressions give the distinct feeling of demonic possession. It’s a scene out of the chicest horror film you’ve ever watched.
There’s one more piece of Velez’s upbringing that plays a part in each garment she creates: the designer is half-Puerto Rican, a country she grew up visiting “here and there.” “My relationship with Puerto Rico was very strange,” she says. “I was raised by my mom, and my father’s Puerto Rican. I have a kind of a weak relationship with it, unfortunately.” But as any person of mixed descent will tell you, growing up half-and-half doesn’t always translate to a literal interpretation of two cultures. It’s a constantly evolving melding of identities, a consistent struggle to understand oneself while funneling all the cultural paradoxes into one human experience. As Velez takes her bow at the show’s closing, she waves and blows kisses, then walks straight into the photographers’ pit at the end of the runway to give her father a hug.