Coming out of Parsons School of Design in 2018 as an outstanding designer in her class, Elena Velez thought she was embarking on a well-worn path to launch her own business.
VFiles, the New York retailer and incubator, invited her to show her thesis collection as part of its group runway show that September and the Swedish Fashion Council sponsored her during London Fashion Week. But the exposure didn’t turn into consistent orders.
Velez quickly realised there was no benefactor coming to anoint her. The traditional path that led a generation of designers from fashion school to Barneys New York and the pages of Vogue was all but dead.
“The Proenza Schouler model was kind of what I had anticipated this was going to look like — you do something amazing and people respond to it, and then they’ll just lift you [up],” said Velez. “It just was so not that.”
But Velez — who went on to get a degree from Central Saint Martins, too — was undeterred. And for the last two years, the young American designer has worked to make her own luck, creating collections “regardless of whether or not people are watching” and finessing her brand’s identity, earning critical validation from the likes of Cathy Horyn, who praised her work in New York magazine for “project[ing] a gutsiness that doesn’t feel New York or London.”
Velez is banking on a different path to success, one that is built around the craftsmanship community of her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she hopes to one day set up a production hub.
“I [realised] that if you’re going to create authentic fashion, you have to create an original, authentic community of people that can inform that fashion,” Velez said, adding that she did not initially recognise her Milwaukee community as relevant to fashion because of the industry’s focus on New York and Los Angeles.
“These are my friends who are working in factories, or my mom who works in a shipyard,” she said. “Why can’t what they do exist in the world as luxury if interpreted and guided through somebody who has a creative entrepreneurial perspective?”
The designer, 27, spoke to BoF this autumn at her studio, located on a street full of warehouses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which she shares with her partner, the Swedish painter Andreas Emenius. The industrial setting fits her brand’s aesthetic, one inspired by her upbringing near the industrial activity of the Great Lakes, as well as brutalist architecture and the Belle Epoque. Her collections are accented by delicate wearable metal pieces and she uses unconventional materials like repurposed boat sails, much of it sourced from Milwaukee.
The result is an “aggressive delicacy,” she said, adding that she works to make her pieces feel “weathered and worn.” Much of the “Year Zero” Spring/Summer 2022 collection, which she showed during New York Fashion Week in September at her first on-calendar show, was hanging in the studio’s backroom or filling the metal bookshelves along its wall.
The collection marks a milestone for Velez: it’s the first that will actually be available to shop when it launches at Ssense.com in January. Until now, she’s only offered pieces to private clients, which have included pop stars like Rosalia and Solange looking for distinctive on-stage costumes.
In February, Velez’s newly launched e-commerce site will start regularly offering “collaborator studio products,” or limited edition products created with other designers in adjacent fields, from jewellery to furniture, at a range of price points but typically less than her ready-to-wear collections. Many of the collaborators are friends she knows from Milwaukee, though she calls them makers because many are blue-collar workers like welders or blacksmiths and don’t identify as designers.
This multi-pronged strategy — the combination of twice-annual ready-to-wear collections, monthly collaborations collections as well as private client orders — was formalised in the year since Velez connected with a Milwaukee-based startup accelerator called Gener8tor, which seeks to support businesses with local ties.
The accelerator wasn’t familiar with how to run a fashion business, Velez said, but had seen how brands like Supreme or Off-White could scale online and were interested in supporting her brand. Velez agreed to less than ideal terms, she said, giving up more equity than she would have liked because she had yet to generate any revenue. But the designer said the deal was worth it.
“I did not have a lot to show for myself, aside from a lot of soft power in terms of cultural capital, which is really difficult to communicate to investors,” she said. “But like it really built the foundation of everything that I’ve been able to accomplish since.”
The team at Gener8tor guided her in establishing a business plan and prepped her to raise more capital, setting her up with rounds and rounds of investor meetings in early 2021. One Milwaukee-based venture firm, CSA Partners, was interested and signed on in February. With that additional funding, Velez was able to show at New York Fashion week and set up her e-commerce site. She said she is going to seek additional funding to help support the next year when revenue from sales via Ssense and the other projects will also start to provide the cash flow to keep going.
“Elena comes to Milwaukee and talks about manufacturing and bringing our ethos to the wider world — it’s a point of celebration, not anxiety,” said Joe Kirgues, Gener8tor’s co-founder.
Velez’s goals go beyond building a sustainable business. She wants to use her brand to start an “entirely self-sufficient atelier, maker space, small scale factory in Milwaukee” to support the craftsmen that have helped make her brand unique. The first step is to create a physical space where all the craftsmen she collaborates with can work together, and where she can train sample-makers and others with specialised skills.
Such a plan is years away from being a reality, but the designer is already looking at possible spaces and meeting with people involved with garment manufacturing initiatives in Wisconsin. In the future, she also wants to invest in the collaborators she works with, turning the atelier into a version of an artistic incubator and early-stage investor.
For Velez, this ambition cuts to the core of what is important to her and her brand.
“The [industry] accolades are really nice, but I am so much more obsessed with making and working with people that I care about … and letting that really be the thing that ignites the business,” she said. “This current industry is in such an unhealthy state of transition in so many different ways. I don’t aspire to any of that.”