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Fashion designer Elena Velez brings Milwaukee to the runway

A black and white photo shows a woman in a strapless dress with a nautical rope-like texture. On the right, a close-up of a piece of metal jewelry with ropes on the chains.
Courtesy of Elena Velez
The Milwaukee native draws inspiration from a childhood spent on the Great Lakes.

Lights lift and the fog rolls as angry models stomp down the runway to the sounds of clashing metal and drums. Some items are strappy and harsh, others feminine and lofty. There are hefty buckles alongside delicate corsets. The women look like they might haunt you.

It’s the work of Milwaukee native and designer Elena Velez, shown at New York Fashion Week in September. She takes inspiration from the Rust Belt, making her a distinct voice among the crowd, using salvaged materials like ship sails, military canvas, and steel. Her work has been described as “post-apocalyptic” and “aggressively delicate.”

“The collection in general is very much about my experience from the Midwest and re-contextualizing regional craftsmanship,” Velez said.

portrait of a woman with long straight dark hair looking directly at the camera, her hand under her chin
Courtesy of Elena Velez

Like Milwaukee’s history of manufacturing: Once known as the “Machine Shop of the World,” the city has a rich history of engineering. In the early 20th century, Menomonee Valley churned out farm machinery, rail cars, and electric motors.

When she was in her senior year at New York’s Parsons School of Design, working on her thesis collection, Velez was researching World War II commodity industries. In part, she was drawn to what she calls “aftermath industries” — moments in history where people have had to create after facing some kind of societal collapse. She was surprised to find she kept encountering her hometown in that history.

"Because of [Milwaukee's] influence in metal production and the amount of welding and fabrication that took place, and really what it lent to the war front,” Velez said.

Listen to Elena Velez, a Milwaukee-born fashion designer, share how she celebrates her hometown in her work.

That led her home for a welding collaboration with Gallas Metalworks in Riverwest.

“You take this metal rod, and you actually have to hammer it over an anvil and then compare it to the form at every bend and shape,” Velez said. “It’s a really slow and intentional process to shape and cut all of these different metal pieces. Then we TIG-welded them together. From there, I had this really unique, wearable architecture.”

on the left, a close-up of a leather work gloved hand holding steel as it is being welded. on the right, a clothing rack holds corsets alongside steel frames and accessories.
Courtesy of Elena Velez
Collaboration with Midwestern makers like Gallas Metalworks in Riverwest is a pillar of Velez's work.

This idea — bringing the Midwest to the runway — defines Velez’s work now.

The thesis collection caught the attention of the publication Vogue Runway, which celebrity stylists often use to find fresh designers, and her work has since taken off. Velez has dressed celebrities like Ariana Grande and Solange. In September, she was nominated Best Emerging Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which runs New York Fashion Week.

Several years after the debut of her senior collection, the inspiration remains deeply rooted in Velez’s hometown.

“I grew up as the only child to a single mother, who is a ship captain on the Great Lakes,” she said. “I had this very non-traditional childhood in these very bleak and industrial spaces around Milwaukee.”

Places like shipyards and engine rooms, as her mother ran cruises on the river, steered tugboats to break winter ice, and ferried commercial shipments up and down the lake.

The artist Solange appears in a piece designed by Velez.
Courtesy of Elena Velez
The artist Solange appears in a piece designed by Velez.

In an economy of abundance, Velez thinks luxury can be an elusive concept. In her own work, she considers luxury items those that connect the wearer of the work to the source of inspiration. By drawing upon Milwaukee’s trade history, she’s also claiming that heritage itself is worthy of admiration.

“I try and do that by appropriating a lot of site-specific or salvage materiality into the collection,” she said. “We work a lot with ship sails and military textiles. A lot of the metal and steel integrations are from Milwaukee.”

Velez said her work has become a conversation between her and her younger self, over what it means to be a woman. As she’s gotten older, and become a mother to two young children herself, that understanding has complicated.

There is “this childhood image of what I wanted from my mother, to be pretty and wear makeup and wear high heels,” she said. When in reality, “a lot of the women that really helped me shape my identity were these very assertive and masculine, gritty types of personalities.”

Each season’s collection represents a different chronicle of womanhood. The latest is called IN GLASS, for the English translation of “in vitro.” Velez wrote that the work is “a bloodletting for woman in her most insufferable and divine glory” and a “shrieking display of female hysteria.” The collection is angry, dark, filled with muted gowns. Many gape open to frame the parts of a woman’s body that are usually hidden: the thigh, stomach, lower hip.

A black female model wearing a bra top holds a black, angular, hexagonal-shaped metal bag
Courtesy of Elena Velez
The "shrapnel bag" from Velez's latest collection, IN GLASS.

“‘In vitro’ is really this act of removing something from an organic body and placing it into an artificial landscape,” Velez said. “That’s very much how I felt through all of these dystopian narratives around womanhood and feminism today.”

Take this bag, for instance, dubbed the “shrapnel bag.” It’s black, asymmetric, futuristic, all bolts and harsh angles. It looks like a weapon. At 10 pounds, it could probably be used as a weapon — though Velez noted that if more preorders roll in, they’ll likely rework the materials to make it more wearable. She designed it in collaboration with MORPH, a Chicago-based studio. Collaborating with other Midwestern makers is a pillar of her work.

“It just feels like a tool of destruction,” Velez said. “It just feels right. To have something that is both meant to be feminine and pretty and practical, but it’s also body armor for the world that we live in today.”

Velez said it’s okay with her if people from Wisconsin don’t see themselves in her work. That was never the goal. Rather, her work is an expression of what that shared home means to her.

But maybe what they can identify with, she said, is having a story or an archetypal person from home that they identify with and want to see more of in the world.

“After having pursued fashion out in the world — I’ve lived in some of these really incredible, high-fashion cities — I went to school in New York and Paris and lived for some time in Sydney,” she said. “All of those really reinforced for me the necessity and the missing conversation that was to be had around the identity of the Midwest and a Midwestern woman.”

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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