JOE VAN O, STYLE
NATALIA MONTERO, MODEL
ISAAC DAVIDSON AT DISTINCT ARTISTS, HAIR
MICHAELA BOSCH AT BRYANT ARTISTS, MAKE-UP
ANDREW CURWEN, STYLIST’S ASSISTANT
OLIVIER ZAHM — Elena, you’re based in Greenpoint. How would you describe your space?
ELENA VELEZ — The space is a converted warehouse storage unit. My partner is a painter, so he takes over a bit more of the established studio space. And I’ve kind of snuck in and created a little atelier back here for myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where you do everything: the drawing, the research, and some production, too?
ELENA VELEZ — Yes. This is the professional outlet for the brand here in New York, but I also work very closely with a lot of collaborators from the Mid-west and Milwaukee. This is where the brand exists from a professional and networking standpoint. And then a lot of the work and collaborations, as well as the creation of the really bespoke products, happen back in Milwaukee. So, I go back and forth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay. So, you keep a connection to Milwaukee?
ELENA VELEZ — Definitely. I’m trying to exist as a pipeline to the industry and as a curator for other artists in the Midwest. The mission of my brand is really about decentralizing the fashion narrative and trying to open it up to people who don’t necessarily live in LA or New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because LA and New York are the two main places for fashion?
ELENA VELEZ — Yes. And I find that there’s more room in the American fashion narrative for other designers with different perspectives. Socially, politically, now is really a moment when Americans are trying to discover their identity. And there needs to be more conversation with people who are making and thinking outside of the creative coasts. I had a very non-traditional childhood growing up in Wisconsin. My mom is a ship’s captain on the Great Lakes, so she was immersed in a very masculine, utilitarian, heavy-metal landscape. So, when I was young, I had this image of what femininity looked like. You know, to a child, it was beautiful and fragile and pretty, and she never fit that archetype for me. So, there was always the frustration of wanting her to be different. And I think that for all designers, their mother is their first muse. That’s kind of how you identify with fashion. So, for me growing up, there was al- ways frustration, wanting her to dress differently, to wear heels and make-up. And she just wasn’t that girl.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you embarrassed about it in front of your friends?
ELENA VELEZ — Not necessarily. It was just that I was so excited about fashion, and I couldn’t understand that she didn’t identify with that. As I grow older, and after living in Paris, London, and New York, I realize how much I miss that type of femininity, and I want to bring it here. You know, the type of woman who raised me was utilitarian, assertive, tough, gritty. I really miss that kind of energy out in the world, and I think that through the clothing, I’m able to have a unique take on that paradox of a child’s vision of femininity as deli- cate and light and feminine versus what I know it to be now, which is a little bit more aggressive, tenacious, and strong. So, the work is paradoxical in that sense.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your palette is also very industrial. Brown, beige… And not a clean, modern beige.
ELENA VELEZ — Yes. I work a lot with brown spectrums. I think black and white are just too easy. So, I like to exist in this space of dirty whites, things that tell a story of time having elapsed through wear.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you call that off-white?
ELENA VELEZ — Yes. Like ivory, bone, ecru, white.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s beautiful. So, to finish with your working context, do you feel at home in Greenpoint, an industrial area?
ELENA VELEZ — I do. There are a lot of really exciting industrial projects, and what’s fun is that people here are used to being approached about creative projects, whereas in Milwaukee, it’s a very separate world. The industrial and the utilitarian spaces are not used to being approached by a creative community. Whereas here, it’s all interwoven. So, I interact with the types of people I love but also have more creative references, which is refreshing. I love Greenpoint for that reason. It’s also anonymous, which is nice. I think that in New York City especially, there are so many subcultures and so many subcommunities that it feels easy to have lived different experiences already. I’ve done East Williamsburg — I’ve lived that life. I’ve lived the Chinatown life, I’ve done the West Village. I don’t identify with this. Whereas Greenpoint and Long Island City are still relatively underdeveloped. And you can vacuum-seal yourself into your own world a little bit more easily.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s interesting. You need some space around you to be creative, to imagine your collection.
ELENA VELEZ — Yes, definitely. And I try very hard not to look over my shoulder in the fashion industry here in New York because it does become so regurgitated. It is a place where I come and have the brand interact with the influencers whom we work with, with the manufacturing partnerships, the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America], but my mind is still very much in the Midwest, and it’s important to try and keep as much purity in that mindset as possible. That’s how we are able to retain a unique perspective.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe this mindset, compared with New York’s?
ELENA VELEZ — In the Mid-west, there’s an urgency and a functionality that I really appreciate. All of my favorite art is done by creators whose passion and urgency to say what they want to say, or make what they want to make, transcend the resources they have to communicate. So, you get something that’s imperfect, that is pitchy or scuffed. It’s all about creative catharsis. And at times, they don’t have the technicality to execute it perfectly or the language to say it perfectly, but there’s just a need to execute. I place myself in the mindset of somebody who is prioritizing functionality and utility and urgency over perfection and beauty. So, the work, by nature, is very constructivist and crafty, but also artisanal in a unique way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you keep this quality.
ELENA VELEZ — Yes, because the Midwest is known for metal and steel production. So, for me, it’s really exciting to get to recontextualize regional craftsmanship, to flip this idea of American manufacturing and what that looks like and how we turn it into something that’s desirable, especially now that globalization is decentralizing where we make all of our things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your fashion is very creative, but it’s also kind of extreme. You’re very conceptual. Do you think you can touch people outside the big cities?
ELENA VELEZ — I think so because, for me, Milwaukee is a case study, but at the end of the day, you can extract the universality of a small town and the nostalgia that we have for where we come from and really touch people with that narrative. There are a lot of people who identify with that small-town Americana, discovering things that aren’t typically established.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re not interested in creating a trendy label?
ELENA VELEZ — No. I mean, fashion has to be so many things today. It has to be beautiful for the wearer who wants something aesthetic, but it also has to be storytelling for somebody who values the narrative. For me, it’s important to try and reach the wearer with the source of inspiration for the collection, however possible. That’s why I do as much as I can with local craftspeople from my hometown and use site-specific materiality. So, if we’re doing a collection that’s inspired by my mom, then we use ship sails or we use repurposed Milwaukee steel. I did a collection that was inspired by World War II, so I did a lot of repurposed military canvases and parachutes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We have a very successful young designer in France whom you remind me of a bit, Simon Porte Jacquemus. For him, it’s all about the South of France.
ELENA VELEZ — Yes, and he recreates that world and brings you into it. And whether you’re from there or not, you can feel the nostalgia, and you can feel the sentimentality of it in a way that feels universal.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And people can relate to that.
ELENA VELEZ — Yes. There’s also so much talent away from the creative coasts in the States.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Decentralization in fashion?
ELENA VELEZ — Yes. I’m very much about adding to the narrative of the fashion industry in the States. And it needs to be democratized in a way that also leaves room for people who don’t live on the creative coasts or don’t necessarily have the language or the entrepreneurial endurance that it takes to be able to survive in the cities. Because it’s just so difficult to be a fashion brand.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you started the brand relatively recently?
ELENA VELEZ — Yes, I graduated in 2018 from Parsons, and among the top students in the class, you were either offered opportunities to be hired by a house or opportunities to show your own work. And so, all of my opportunities were to go on and do showcases. I did VFiles here in the city, which was a huge platform. A couple of awards in London.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m impressed by the speed of your success.
ELENA VELEZ — Thanks. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a child, so I’ve had a lot of time to put myself on the right path. I’ve known exactly what I wanted since I was, like, 11 or 12. So, this is the manifestation of a lifetime of dedication. But I did Central Saint Martins as well in 2020.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, fashion schools are still important for you? Did you learn a lot about design?
ELENA VELEZ — I didn’t necessarily learn a lot, but I learned how to speak the language and how to articulate the things I’m passionate about and how to speak about my brand in a way that helps people get an idea of it. But in terms of technicality, I learned next to nothing. My education from Parsons was purely art direction and theory. All of the fashion schools are good for different things. FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] is technical — that’s where you learn how to sew. Parsons is where you learn how to be a design mind.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And Central Saint Martins?
ELENA VELEZ — Well, it was funny because Parsons taught me how to be a comprehensive brand package. So, I had this perfectly compartmentalized brand. I had a thesis statement and all the things you would need to know about a small design brand. And then I took that to London, and they just beat the shit out of it. And I loved that. In London, it’s avant-garde, it’s the history of punk, and that still exists at Saint Martins. At the end of the day, it’s turned into a content factory, but the philosophy of tearing you down to rebuild you in a different direction is really helpful. The biggest lesson that I learned at Saint Martins was how to make ugly work, which is actually very difficult and is really the frontier of genius. Because the more spectacular and outrageous could be distilled down to a t-shirt. But that sort of thought is really hard to cultivate.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, they push you to the extreme, to make you free?
ELENA VELEZ — Yes. Whereas NewYork was a very political education. It was very contextualized. New York is obviously historically relevant for its commercial potential, and I think that New York is still searching for its design identity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the young designer scene in New York?
ELENA VELEZ — It feels right now like we’re part of a movement of solidarity and resource-sharing that is special. I’ve never seen that before. We’re communicating among ourselves in more interesting ways. We’re all trauma-bonded by forging a name for ourselves in this industry, so we don’t have to say too much to each other to understand one another and what we’re going through. There’s solidarity today in the underground New York fashion scene.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s all about community and embracing the political?
ELENA VELEZ — Definitely. New York fashion is always subcultural in a way that I think is really special. Authentic fashion can only be created by participating in and being informed by an authentic subculture. I don’t necessarily identify with any of the ones in New York, which is why I refer back to mine in the Midwest.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you find it inspiring?
ELENA VELEZ — Yes, definitely. Because people are creating music and fashion and culture and performance. Creating a community in a lot of different ways, and fashion is just one of those outlets. So, it’s very human-centric.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel like you’re part of the fashion community in New York or on the side?
ELENA VELEZ — I’ve always been kind of a voyeur. I think that’s what makes me good at what I do — that I’m never really part of any one scene. I just take notes on the side. If I’m too deep in it, then I don’t have creative objectivity. Not that I feel like I really need that, but I’ve always thought about fashion and creativity from an academic standpoint. The way that I go about creating my collections is very journalistic. I start with writing, and I often do research. And then I basically translate a thesis paper into garments. So, the idea of journalistic integrity is somehow really important to me. I never like to get too close to any one community that I’m trying to speak about.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel that your clothes empower women?
ELENA VELEZ — Yes. The woman that I’m trying to communicate is very different from the type of woman who is seen in the world today, especially in New York. I’m trying to communicate a multiplicity and a grayscale version of femininity. There are so many serious binaries of woman hood today. I like this idea of a paradoxical, complicated, not necessarily politically correct woman. You know, somebody who takes responsibility for her desires. I’m trying to reassert a little bit of the woman back home who has a loud mouth and gets in trouble for it sometimes, but is at least honest with her desires. And this idea of matriarchy is also really inherent in the brand because, of course, I’m so inspired by my mom. And then I also have two kids myself. But this idea of sorority and community and this kind of tribalistic matriarchy — it adds to this very raw and visceral type of womanhood that I’m trying to communicate.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting. It’s rare because fashion has a super individualistic ethos. So, when you break that…
ELENA VELEZ — Yeah. I try to be as helpful to my community as possible. It’s very mutually symbiotic if we can collaborate together and come up together, and I can really be that pipeline to the industry. A faction of the brand that I’m trying to build a bit more is the atelier space in Milwaukee that is doing all of the manufacturing, all of the production, creating textiles for me. Something in the vein of LA Apparel, but more art-directed and more specific to my experience in the industry here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you work on the textiles, too?
ELENA VELEZ — Yeah, we do everything from the ground up. We build the fabric. So, I’m trying to be as circular and vertical as possible. And we do a lot with site-specific, salvaged archive fabrics.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s more expensive to create your own fabric.
ELENA VELEZ — It is, yes. But it’s not necessarily more expensive to locate out in the world. Like ship sails — that’s actually a really exciting textile, and people really respond to that. And I get a lot for free because people who have a lot of these resources in the Midwest don’t necessarily see the artistic value in it that I do, and I’m able to wrap that into the narrative. So, we get so much stuff for free out there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you can make it more sustainable in a way?
ELENA VELEZ — Exactly. But I don’t ever want sustainability to be part of the brand. I think it’s too much of an obligation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have any designer heroes?
ELENA VELEZ — I have such a hard time answering that because I have never been interested in the fashion industry. It just never appealed to me. What I love about fashion is so craft-based that it really is about making things and world-building. I have a lot more references for by-gone American industrialism that is such a part of the landscape of the Midwest. And I grew up in a very heavy-metal world, where my play spaces were the engine rooms of tugboats and ships and welding garages, very machinery-based. People like to triangulate off of other designers like Rick Owens, like Helmut Lang, like Martin Margiela. So, I have those references now.
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