Elena Velez is an American fashion designer and entrepreneur from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her work is known for its non-traditional synthesis of metalwork and high fashion. Velez graduated from Parsons School of Design and completed her studies at Central Saint Martins in London. Of Puerto Rican heritage but raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Velez claims that the industrial nature of her nontraditional upbringing as the only child to a single mother who is a ship’s captain on the Great Lakes influenced her current artistic identity, one which she says draws heavily on the relationship between femininity and force. Her company, founded in 2020, was subsequently featured in Forbes for its work with Midwestern makers and mission to ‘democratize resources and recognition’ for artists outside of traditional creative capitals. Velez is the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s 2022 Emerging Designer of the Year, Elle Magazine’s 2023 Women of Impact recognizé, a 2022 Vogue Fashion Fund winner, and recipient of the Fashion Trust US Sustainability Award.
Elena Velez incorporates appreciation for the artisanal heritage of the American Midwest, epitomized by the metalsmith industry – a historically quintessential trademark of our hometown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The authenticity of our design process is paramount to the success of the work and is built on collaborative relationships with local artisans to revisit and re-contextualize iconic regional craftsmanship. A proponent of authentic process and creativity under constraint, our collections often incorporate found, salvaged, and site-specific materiality. Through an aggressively delicate aesthetic signature, the Elena Velez brand designs with the tactile sensibility of a maker who prioritizes functionality and utility over perfection or beauty, working beyond contemporary references to investigate the relationship between femininity and force. Our styling codes are anti beautiful, contemporary artisanal, industrial, and era agnostic. The brand thesis is the recontextualization of regional craftsmanship while sharing the stories of its makers. Our tone is divergent, anecdotal, artisanal, prescient, and steeped in contemporary anthropology.
Our industry’s failed implementation of sustainability has manifested itself as little more than an aestheticised marketing tool. At the detriment of wearing consumers sympathy and attention thin, the concept has diluted into a hollow and aesthetically unilateral contrivance. EV incorporates sustainability through the philosophy of making more tangible yet quieter measures in a way that give the exhausted yet attentive luxury consumer respite while simultaneously building equity in our product. Each season, we work with sourced, salvaged, and site-specific materiality, including ship sails, military parachutes, repurposed utility canvas, and Milwaukee steel. I find that working with textiles authentic to the context of the story we want to tell that season lends an artifact-like quality to the work that marries the wearer to the source of inspiration in an incredibly powerful way. We avoid inedible synthetics, prints, artificial chemical dyes, and superfluous trimmings, finding favor in minimal and modular styles. Domestic production is also essential to the philosophy of our American fashion message, producing locally in New York and Milwaukee. The vision of the brand at scale is to become entirely vertical, with a small scale factory in Milwaukee, WI that brings us closer to our creative roots, bolsters job opportunity and resources in fashion to makers outside of NYC and L.A., and reintroduces garment production back into the American Midwest in a covetable, meaningful way.
The future of my brand is inspired by a physical emphasis on community building and innovative manufacturing. The EV Collaborator Studio program, a remote residency and rotating artist showcase, oversees the creation of limited co-designed products with creatives curated based on a mission parallel to the Elena Velez brand. The studio focuses on democratizing creative and entrepreneurial resources for makers outside of typically established creative capitals and provides a pipeline to the industry for small brands through sales opportunity and network access. Through my time in the industry, I’ve realizes that the only way to protect the company I’m building is to secure the means of manufacturing. At scale, my vision is to build a maker space and small scale factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to repair the covetability of American manufacturing, while testing the viability of domestic manufacturing, servicing both internal brand needs and external production partnerships. This space will expand regional apprenticeship programs, employment opportunities, ephemeral retail experiences, and at scale, will act as a venture capital accelerator for creative enterprises like mine.
I approach conceptual fashion design through a fine art lens, placing authenticity of process before aesthetic: reflection above result. I seek to use my ability as a designer to serve as pioneer of positive change, examining parallels and potential solutions to contemporary industrial pressures by way of precedents set throughout history and subculture. I aspire to lead a quietly conscious fashion label that rejects current industry conventions of excess, exclusion, and geographical condescension, while stressing quality of design, community engagement, and compelling storytelling as ultimate remedy. Passionate about fashion design since the age of 7 years old, I’ve had a very exciting few months since the takeoff of my BFA thesis collection.
I feel my brand champions several important initiatives that I believe could make a meaningful impact on the American fashion narrative. Aside from a reverence for the visual language through which the art of fashion communicates I also realize first hand it’s ability to pioneer positive cultural change. As a designer, it is my challenge to create a product that is visually covetable to the client that values aesthetic, meaningful for the wearer who requests a story of our times, constructive to the industry that demands meaningful change, and honest as a representation of myself out in the world. 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 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. One of my proudest initiatives is our Collaborator Studio which serves as rotating residency and mentorship for local makers to co-design products with the brand for feature in our NYFW showcases, celebrity placements, and e-commerce platforms. At scale, my dream is to build a makerspace and small scale factory in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to reimagine domestic production from a modern, holistic, and collaborative perspective. 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 kids deserve our moment!