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While thinking about the American fashion industry, a few cities come to one’s mind. New-York is surely on the top of the list. This is where Elena Velez - founder of her eponymous label - currently lives and works. However, she was not raised in the megalopolis context. Elena is from Milwaukee in Wisconsin. Her “childhood was spent in spaces that were very industrial and utilitarian - ship yards, docks, engine rooms”, she explains. Her mother is a  ship captain operating in the Great Lakes. Being mainly in a male dominated field and as a single parent, Elena’s mother set the example of strength, independence and unconditional femininity to her daughter - as a person and a designer. 

With this unconventional upbringing, Elena has struggled “upwards for a place in this industry against the impediments of class finance, cultural homogeneity, and the geographical condescension of coastal elitism.” She continues that “because I feel strongly that it is my duty to use my passion and talent to empower and inspire”, it was  essential to give a place to the underrepresented creative communities within the American fashion narratives. Her label Elena Velez is celebrating the talents of local makers and craftsmanship to convey the idea that luxury is not a question of elitism. Luxury is a question of savoir-faire, ability and dialectic between opposite concepts. The latter is a sphere  that the designer is often exploring through her practice of fashion design. “There is always an inherently paradoxical and contradictory approach to the way I design and conceptualise my work.”

Since you graduated in 2018, you started your label, Elena Velez. Could you introduce yourself and your vision for your brand?
I’m an American fashion designer and artist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, based in NYC. My work is known for its non-traditional synthesis of metalwork and high fashion. Dressing celebrities including Solange Knowles,  Grimes, Charli XCX, and so on. My recent collaborations include custom looks for music artists such as Kali Uchis, Rosalia, and Ariana Grande.
I made my first official NYFW debut on the CFDA calendar in September 2021. My work is inspired by the historic craftsmanship and manufacturing legacy of the American rustbelt and is the product of collaboration with local metalsmith artisans to revisit regional artisanship. Aesthetically, the work references to deconstruction, aggressively delicate femininity, and alternative construction methods, which include salvaged and site-specific materiality.
Elena Velez is a label that is truly inspired by your own upbringing. You grew up in Milwaukee with your mum who is a ship captain in the Great Lakes. How does this influence visually express itself through your collections?
My childhood was spent in spaces that were very industrial and utilitarian - ship yards, docks and engine rooms. My mum is a woman who has had to command respect from men as a profession. As a single mum she also had to assume the role of both mother and father when I was growing up. Her strength, independence, and unconventional femininity have really inspired me as a person and a designer. I often work with materiality original to this context - parachutes, ship sails, and hand forged Milwaukee steel. I believe that the fact that I embrace and reject the notion of an unglamourous midwestern upbringing in my work lends itself to some degree of differentiation from other American designers who might think that creative assimilation is the key to success in a luxury industry. In some respects it's an act of revolt but more so a plea for democratisation and representation for fly over creatives in the American fashion narrative.
While describing your vision for your label you said that “it's a sort of a post-apocalyptic liminal space that feels both antique yet future minimalist and has the tactile sensibility of a resourceful and utilitarian, yet inherently romantic maker.” Would you say you approach  fashion design based on the dialectic between opposite concepts you like to explore?
Absolutely. There is always an inherently paradoxical and contradictory approach to the way I design and conceptualise my work. I find myself to be a very functional and imperturbable person out in the world. My carrots never touch my peas. All of my idiosyncratic tensions exist compartmentally and collide directly.

For your Fall/Winter 2022 collection you used the Freehand Hotel by transforming its Georgia Room – usually a bar – into an empty space. The collection is a celebration of women and the different forms of femininity. Do you feel society tends to use a one-dimensional definition of these terms?
In my experience, the issue isn't so much a lack of variety in our cultural representations of femininity but a lack of patience in exploring its complexities. Our ability to hold multiple truths is diminishing so quickly which I feel enforces a certain dishonesty and cowardice that my brand of feminism rejects.
Speaking of women, while designing you use the female body. However, you are always glad to see your creations on other bodies. Moreover, even though you identify as a woman, you also feel very masculine – especially in your process of creation. Is gender hybridity and fluidity important in your collections overall?
This psychological investigation of our woman is really the nucleus for the collection shown a few weeks ago. I feel very much at home in my identity as woman but admire the more phallic representations of femininity throughout history and culture: The pioneer wife with her husbands gun, the belle époque harlot counting her cash, the virginal succubus sinking ships of wayward men - women who own their desires unapologetically and make no excuses in regards to their capacity for wickedness. I don't think this manifestation of femininity is inherent solely to women - in fact it's my observation that none have out-mastered the lovelorn and coquettish conquests of heterosexual men.
In addition to your own collections, you also have the EV Collaborator Studio that you created in 2020. The goal of this initiative is to codesign unique pieces with artists. So far, you have collaborated with Emily Castillo, a nail designer, and Morph, a design studio – you are even accepting applications on your website for anyone who wishes to be part of it. Could you drive us through the process of selection for this kind of collaboration? Any advice for someone who would like to submit a proposal for collaboration? 
I’ve struggled upwards for a place in this industry against the impediments of class finance, cultural homogeneity, and the geographical condescension of coastal elitism because I feel strongly that it is my duty to use my passion and talent to empower and inspire.
Aside from the commercial component to the brand, there is a very strong mission statement of radical inclusion for artists and nontraditional makers outside of historically established creative capitals. I believe so strongly in an American fashion narrative that speaks to the experiences of all sorts of underrepresented creative communities and use my brand as a pipeline to the industry for other local makers who I feel represent this cause.
The most meaningful fashion throughout history has always been informed by the fostering of authentic subcultures that speak to the larger cultural zeitgeist: small city makers deserve a place at the table.
My favourite discoveries are tradesmen or skilled craftspeople who don't even identify with the title of artist or creative. My proudest collaborations have been with makers entirely outside of fashion who challenge themselves to think past the disparagement that our culture places on blue collar work and to demand a better explanation from the world as to why our hands are incapable of producing luxury.

The fashion industry is truly saturated. In an interview you stated that “this current industry is in such an unhealthy state of transition in so many different ways. I don’t aspire to any of that.” Could you expand on this?
Culture in general right now is under attack internally and externally for a variety of different existential and quantitative reasons. There are pitfalls to making too strong of an assertion on just about anything. We're witnessing the effects of corporatism and exploitation in the fashion industry that have sustained the machine at the cost of authenticity and meaningful novelty. My ultimate investigation will be to find out how my contribution to the industry can be articulated most impactfully - by climbing the ranks or burning them down: there is no room for moderateness in my short life and your short attention span.

Words
Koura-Rosy Kane
Photography
Tre Crews

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