Leaving Parsons School of Design in 2018 as an outstanding designer in her class, Elena Velez believed she was on a clear path to start her own business.
VFiles, the New York-based retailer and incubator, invited her to show off her thesis collection as part of her group show in September and the Swedish Fashion Council sponsored her during London Fashion Week. But the exhibition did not turn into consistent orders.
Velez soon realized that no benefactor came to anoint him. The traditional path that led a generation of designers from the fashion school to Barneys New York and the pages of Vogue was almost dead.
“The Proenza Schouler model was kind of what I expected it to look like – you do something amazing and people respond to it and then they’ll lift you up. [up]”Vélez said.” It was so wrong. “
But Velez – who also graduated from Central Saint Martins – was not deterred. And over the past two years, the young American designer has worked for her own luck, creating “whether people see it or not” collections and honing her brand identity, earning critical validation from Cathy Horyn, who congratulated her Work in New York magazine for “project[ing] a daring that does not feel in New York or London.
Velez is setting on a different path to success, one that revolves around the craft community in her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she hopes to someday set up a production facility.
“I [realised] that if you want to create authentic fashion, you have to create an original and authentic community of people who can inform that fashion, ”said Velez, adding that she did not initially recognize her community in Milwaukee as relevant to fashion in because of the industry to focus on New York and Los Angeles.
“It’s my friends who work in factories, or my mother who works in a shipyard,” she said. “Why doesn’t what they do exist in the world as a luxury if it is interpreted and guided by someone with a creative entrepreneurial perspective? “
The 27-year-old designer confided in BoF this fall at her studio, located on a street full of warehouses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which she shares with her partner, Swedish painter Andreas Emenius. The industrial setting corresponds to the aesthetic of his brand, inspired by his upbringing close to the industrial activity of the Great Lakes, as well as brutalist and Belle Epoque architecture. Her collections are accented with delicate wearable metal pieces and she uses unconventional materials like repurposed boat sails, largely sourced from Milwaukee.
The result is an “aggressive delicacy,” she said, adding that she strives to give her pieces a “faded and worn” feel. Much of the Spring / Summer 2022 ‘Year Zero’ collection, which she showcased at New York Fashion Week in September on her first calendar show, hung in the studio’s back room or filled in. the metal shelves along its wall.
The collection marks a milestone for Velez: it’s the first that will actually be available for sale when it launches on Ssense.com in January. So far, she has only offered pieces to private clients, including pop stars like Rosalia and Solange in search of distinctive stage costumes.
In February, Velez’s new e-commerce site will start regularly offering “collaboration studio products” or limited edition products created with other designers in neighboring fields, from jewelry to furniture, at a range of price points. but generally less than his ready-to-wear collections. Many of her collaborators are friends she knows from Milwaukee, although she calls them manufacturers because many are blue collar workers like welders or blacksmiths and don’t identify as designers.
This multi-pronged strategy – the combination of biannual ready-to-wear collections, monthly collaborative collections as well as orders from private clients – was formalized the year Velez connected with a startup accelerator based in Milwaukee called Gener8tor, which seeks to support locally anchored businesses.
The Accelerator didn’t know how to run a fashion business, Velez said, but saw how brands like Supreme or Off-White could evolve online and wanted to support his brand. Velez agreed to less than ideal terms, she said, giving up more equity than she would have liked because she had not yet generated any income. But the designer said the deal was worth it.
“I didn’t have much to show for myself other than a lot of soft power in terms of cultural capital, which is really hard to communicate to investors,” she said. “But as if that really laid the foundation for everything I’ve been able to accomplish since then.”
The Gener8tor team guided her through the establishment of a business plan and prepared her to raise more capital, setting it up with rounds and rounds of investor meetings in early 2021. A Milwaukee-based venture capital firm, CSA Partners, was interested and signed in February. With this additional funding, Velez was able to attend New York Fashion Week and build his e-commerce site. She said she will seek additional funding to help sustain next year when revenues from sales through Ssense and other projects also begin to provide the cash flow needed to continue.
“Elena comes to Milwaukee and talks about making and spreading our philosophy around the world – it’s a point of celebration, not of anxiety,” said Joe Kirgues, co-founder of Gener8tor.
Velez’s goals go beyond building a sustainable business. She wants to use her brand to create a “fully self-contained workshop, manufacturing space, small-scale factory in Milwaukee” to support the artisans who have helped make her brand unique. The first step is to create a physical space where all the artisans she collaborates with can work together, and where she can train samplers and others with specialized skills.
Such a plan is far from a reality, but the designer is already studying the possible spaces and meeting with people involved in clothing manufacturing initiatives in Wisconsin. In the future, she also wants to invest in the collaborators she works with, turning the studio into a version of an artistic incubator and early investor.
For Velez, this ambition goes to the heart of what is important to her and her brand.
“The [industry] the accolades are really cool, but I’m so much more obsessed with creating and working with people I care about… and letting that really be the thing that turns the business on, ”she said . “This current industry is in such an unhealthy state of transition in so many ways. I do not aspire to any of this.