Elena Velez getting ready for her salon-come-fashion show, inspired by Gone with the Wind. (Photo courtesy of Ava Perman)

Is Elena Velez the First ‘Post-Woke’ Designer?

Fashion’s new sensation is the Milwaukee-born daughter of a ship captain who says ‘the only way to be punk in 2024 is to have a component of dissent.’

Elena Velez, a 29-year-old fashion designer, knew she was poking the bear. In the lead-up to the debut of her latest collection at New York Fashion Week last Sunday, she struggled to find a makeup artist willing to paint her models’ faces. And she had a hard time landing sponsors to fund the event. At the last minute, about half of her guests canceled (Julia Fox, however, still turned up). 

Instead of a traditional show, she held a “salon” at an Upper East Side mansion, called “Tomorrow Is Another Day.” Guests were invited to come in “rustic Americana black tie” and check their phones at the door. The night began with ten models, mostly composed of Velez’s personal friends, sauntering down a spiral staircase in gowns and corsets, inspired by Gone with the Wind—the Civil War novel that was a bestseller in its day, but is now considered heresy given its racist stereotypes and romantic notions about the antebellum South.

“What’s exciting is to create a postmodern fashion brand, a post-woke fashion brand, a post-beauty fashion brand. And right now, it’s rubbing up against some really sensitive walls,” Velez told me later over the phone.

Julia Fox (center) wore the label Eunoia’s Shakespeare dress to Elena Velez’s New York Fashion Week event. (Photo courtesy of Mark Hunter)

Instead of assembling around a runway, guests were seated in a living room to listen to a discussion about Scarlett O’Hara, the Gone with the Wind heroine described in Velez’s press release as “a character whose moral dubiousness and pugnacious spirit established a strikingly relevant American archetype.” Instead of Anna Wintour, Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova, hosts of the irreverent podcast Red Scare, held court. 

Velez knew the critics—who later admitted that her designs “were actually really good”—would blast the show itself.

“Why does Velez want to be attached to this kind of nonsense?” a writer at The Cut scoffed. A Washington Post critic snarked that Velez was “obsessed with promoting” a “dated worldview to the point of self-destruction.”

But to Velez, the moral panic is just the fashion world digging its own grave, yet again. 

“I am a reflection of their own professional demise,” says Velez, who spoke to me from her home in Peekskill, New York. “There is a henhouse of fashion editors who gate-keep and are still living their Sex and the City ‘best life,’ who moved to New York to pursue their dream of being a snob.”

Velez says her clothes are inspired by the Midwest and scrapyards. (Photo courtesy of Mark Hunter)

She drops her voice into a deadly serious tone. “And I’m not making clothes for them anymore,” she says. “I refuse.”

Velez is an unlikely “it girl.” Forget Paris—she draws inspiration from the grit of her childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was raised by a single mother who made ends meet as a ship captain on the Great Lakes. Many of her designs feature intricate metalwork, inspired by what she saw on childhood trips to the scrapyard. She hopes that her earth-toned designs, which include pieces like a latex top and an egg-shaped skirt, can attract a new kind of clientele.

“Look at the demographic that fashion has historically catered to,” she tells me. “Like, these are affluent, left-leaning, sensitivity, respectability-politics sorts of women.”

Yet she is still targeting a luxury audience. Two of her most popular designs, both of which are currently sold out on her website, include the $975 “nymphomaniac ruched gown”—a mix between an ’80s prom dress and a pioneer’s frock—and the $1,200 “parachute dress,” which exposes the wearer’s arms, stomach, back, and left leg. 

Dasha Nekrasova, co-host of the podcast Red Scare, dressed in Elena Velez at the designer’s salon. (Photo courtesy of Maya Spangler)

Velez launched her brand in 2018, shortly after graduating from the Parsons School of Design in New York City. Her first big break came that same year when VFiles, a fashion incubator, invited her to debut the collection she had designed as a college senior at New York Fashion Week. The industry buzz started almost immediately, with i-D magazine naming her one of “five under-the-radar designers to discover,” and hasn’t stopped since.

In May of last year, Velez ruffled feathers on an episode of Red Scare by calling the female-driven fashion industry a “gynocracy” and debating who hates women more: women or gay men? (Both, according to Velez.) At her show last September, fashionistas were forced to watch models wrestle in the mud at a warehouse in East Williamsburg. 

Despite being dubbed “fashion’s problematic fave” by The Washington Post, Velez lives a conventional life in many ways. She is married to Swedish painter Andreas Emenius, with whom she shares two young children. Together, they work out of a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. 

Velez says most other designers make “regime art”—designs that seem transgressive and radical on the surface, but actually just reinforce the status quo. (Photo courtesy of Maya Spangler)

But while her lifestyle is bourgeois, her attitude is all rebel. She accuses her fashion rivals of making “regime art”—designs that seem transgressive and radical on the surface, but actually just reinforce the status quo. And she criticizes designers for using their collections to express solidarity with progressive movements when all they really want to do is sell clothes. In 2017, for example, Missoni sent models down the runway in pussy hats, in a nod to the #MeToo movement. This year, hip label Collina Strada made a point about inclusivity by featuring plus-sized, disabled, and trans models at her show. 

But Velez just shrugs. “They think they’re taking risks, but they already know that the ball is in their court,” she says. 

Her insistence on looking to middle America for inspiration, and her penchant for shocking the elites, led U.S. fashion influencer Louis Pisano, in September 2023, to call her “the Donald Trump of emerging designers.” 

But, rather than cancellation, her willingness to touch the third rail has won her attention and success. Singers Grimes, Ariana Grande, and Solange Knowles have all been spotted wearing her designs. This past week, LVMH, the behemoth behind Louis Vuitton, Sephora, and other household names, announced her as a finalist for their flagship prize, and in 2022, she scored the CFDA Award for Emerging Designer of the Year. Still, she says she’s only just scraping by. 

Model Richie Shazam poses at the Upper East Side salon. (Photo courtesy of Mark Hunter)

“Here’s the thing,” she said. “I’ve won everything. And it came with nothing.”

This past spring, she told The New York Times that her mom had cashed out part of her retirement fund to finance her work.

“I have nothing to lose, but also nothing to gain,” she told me. “So I’m going to be true to myself.”

Velez says there’s more to her than being a sartorial shock jock. She says she dares to wander into problematic pastures because she is “prepared to lose everything.” 

She admits she lost some friends this week over her latest collection—but it also could bring her some provocative new ones, including American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis and Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino, who she’s trying to interest in participating in her next show. 

“I would love to build a fashion capsule around their iconic works and have a discussion about their perception of contemporary culture and what we need to focus on to create the next genius of their stature,” she told me.

“I have nothing to lose, but also nothing to gain,” says the fashion designer. “So I’m going to be true to myself.” (Photo courtesy of Mark Hunter)

In the meantime, she knows her peers will continue to churn out new ways to express LGBTQIA+ solidarity and body positivity. That leaves an opening for Velez, who would rather face the establishment than create art within its confines. 

“We live in a time when everything is possible and nothing is allowed,” she says. “I think the only way to be punk in 2024 is to have a component of dissent.”

Olivia Reingold is a writer for The Free Press. Read her piece “Can You Find God in a Bikini?” and follow her on X @Olivia_Reingold.

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