For Wisconsin and NYC-based fashion designer Elena Velez (@elenavelez), growing up in the Midwest and exploring industrial spaces left a lasting impression, influencing the creative identity she brings to her eponymous brand, Elena Velez. On this episode of In The Know: Style Changemakers, Velez shares how she incorporates elements from her non-traditional childhood and the history of Midwestern craftsmanship in America through her work as a designer.
“I think of myself more as a historical archivist,” the CFDA award-winning designer tells In The Know. “I think it’s really cool to be able to share allegorical stories of my encounters as a woman today.”
As the only daughter of a single mother who works as a ship captain on the Great Lakes, Velez describes her childhood as non-traditional, which feeds into her design aesthetic. “The distinction between pretty and practical [was] always very blurred to me,” Velez notes. “My work incorporates an appreciation for the artisanal heritage of the American Midwest, which is evident in some of the metalworking that we incorporate into the work, which is very much a historic, quintessential trademark of my hometown,” she explains.
Regarding Velez’s design process, authenticity is “paramount to the success of the work.” Velez develops this effect through her brand’s collaboration with local artisans from the Midwest “to recontextualize American craftsmanship from a fine art perspective.” For this reason, Velez approaches her work “from the headspace of a maker who really tries to prioritize functionality over perfection and beauty.”
This “linear and pragmatic approach to design” is evident in the many historical references influencing Velez’s clothing. “Time travel really plays an essential part in contextualizing the work. I love to riff with caricatures of bygone Americana like prairie wives, Western harlots, Rosie the Riveters, [etc.],” she mentions.
History and storytelling also play a huge role in the specific materials and construction featured in Velez’s designs. “I repurpose a lot of site-specific materiality,” Velez shares. “Something really special happens when you can bridge the wearer to the source of inspiration in a tangible way,” she elaborates, noting, “It really lends an artifact-like quality to the work that says ‘luxury’ to me in a very transcendental way. Wearing the work should feel like a continuation of the story.”
Despite the clothing’s heavy and industrial aesthetic, the concepts of femininity and matriarchy are embedded in Velez’s brand. “For a lot of designers, their mother is their first muse, and for me, I had a lot to work with,” Velez explains, noting that her definition of femininity has evolved throughout her experiences starting a business and becoming a mother herself. “A lot of the brand focuses on paradox and contradictions within femininity and womanhood,” she says.
As for the brand’s future aspirations, Velez is shifting her attention to bigger goals, such as building a cut-and-sew factory in the Midwest in addition to offering employment opportunities and education resources to ultimately “restimulate American design.” With these goals in mind, Velez is well on her way to transforming the Midwest into the next big fashion hub.
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