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Elena Velez's version of feminism involves sheer ship sail dresses, metal corsets, and dirt.
The core of Elena Velez’s brand is in the family-run workshops and cool waters of Wisconsin. Her romantic dresses, in matte creams and sheer blacks, contrast with the sharp grittiness of the metal bars she molds into corsets and bra tops. It's raw, industrial design at its most sensual, and a fresh Midwestern expression in America’s New York- and Los Angeles-centric fashion scene. And yet, the designer—who debuted at New York Fashion Week just last fall—has ironically, though understandably, become a Hollywood darling.
Last month, reggaetón singer Rosalía wore a sheer white look of woven PVC filament from Velez’s "Vessel" collection while filming a video for her album Motomami, and she was in head-to-toe Elena Velez for her "Hentai" music video, which debuted March 16. One look included a tan leather corset made in Milwaukee—Velez’s home city—out of deconstructed bits from a welding apron.
"In all honesty, the stardust chase can lead to a pretty cynical place, so I try to keep out of it," Velez tells BAZAAR.com. Having said that, the designer admits, "Rosalía has been a manifestation years in the making."
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Rosalía's stylist, Caitlyn Martinez, was in the depths of her Instagram Explore rabbit hole when she came across Velez. "It’s an instinct," Martinez says of finding the next designer to obsess over. "It’s like purchasing a painting for a specific room in your crib. You just know when it fits and contributes to the entire vision. Her designs fit the direction of the video so well."
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Velez has also made looks for Kali Uchis, Grimes, Charli XCX, Arca, Kim Petras, Tinashe, Rico Nasty, and Caroline Polachek. Solange Knowles wore Velez’s steel rebar bodice for a shoot with Numéro Berlin, Jane the Virgin actress Diane Guerrero wore a PVC topless harness from her Homecoming capsule collection "for no damn reason," the designer says.
Making high-fashion from scraps is Velez’s specialty. The designer takes inspiration from her childhood, which she spent aboard industrial ships, traveling across the Great Lakes with her captain mother. It’s why she often uses materials such as ship sails, rope from boats, and discarded metal in her pieces. It's why she stains her ivory dresses with dirt and brown tea water, and why her designs, while always delicate and feminine, reference the construction sites and manufacturing plants that first shaped her idea of womanhood.
It's a deconstructed, anti-beauty approach to gorgeous fashion, similar to what we saw in Rick Owens's smoke-filled fall 2022 show, or in Yohji Yamamoto's perfectly chaotic fall ready-to-wear collection.
At her second show, which took place at the Freehand Hotel during New York's fall 2022 season in February, Velez debuted one of her most technical projects to date: the Morph Epoch Boot, made in collaboration with Aion Prosthetics, a Midwest-based company that specializes in machinery and robotics. The team, who met Velez in a collaborator studio she's been hosting seasonally for the past year, tells BAZAAR that the shoe, which looks a bit like an astronaut boot, was a "concept piece made to fully enclose the wearer" and to introduce "heavy industrial manufacturing into the fashion industry." Crafted out of PETG, a plastic-like substance, each had to be bolted around the foot using bespoke bolts and Milwaukee Tool drills.
"The premise behind [the boot] is to offer a pipeline to the industry for nontraditional makers outside of the creative coasts," Velez says. "Disassembling the geographical condescension that has inhibited my opportunities as an artist in the midwest is a mission close to my heart."
In fact, for every one of her collections and drops, she has involved fairly unknown artists, often from her town, and highlighted the partnerships as the welding of two equal visions, rather than a star and her accessories. One of her longest collaborations has been with Nelson Kies, a Milwaukee metal worker who, after working with Velez, launched his own jewelry brand: Nels Studio. And more recently, she worked with genderless footwear designer Kira Goodey, whose sculptural, metallic take on a platform heel made it into Velez’s fall 2022 runway show. The shoe was a true echo of Velez’s own version of feminism, driven by both history and fantasy, earth and the divine.
Velez is more comfortable discussing these collaborations that her recent success. "Public response, as far as I'm aware, has been overwhelmingly positive, which is no fun," she tells BAZAAR. "I'm always appreciative of some of these highly-discerning editors who overlook some of the (personally) obvious snafus that come with a fledgling brand. I think it means they see a future in helping me build the type of operation that will one day afford me the ability to create at the quality we all demand."
While her business has certainly expanded since I met her nearly five years ago, when she was a one-man show, designing, sourcing materials, liaising with reps, and creating every single look herself, she has now set her sights on a new way of manufacturing. Currently, she creates the full concept looks of each collection herself, which are then put together in the various small New York City ateliers she works with. "The growth is exciting, but always comes at a price when you're relying on others to materialize a very delicate personal vision," she says.
She dreams of launching a sample development factory in Milwaukee, where she can "really celebrate the experience of authentic craftsmanship in a way that I've never been able to find elsewhere."
American fashion is screaming for attention, here's hoping the Midwest finally gets a say.
Elena Velez Year 1: photos by Tre Crews; styling by Joe Van O; makeup by Maite Moreira; accessories by Carolin Dieler.