By Anna Lardinois
Her designs have been featured on the catwalks of both New York and London Fashion weeks. Her clothing has appeared on the glossy pages of magazines around the world, and she’s dressed a who’s who of A list fashionista celebrities, including Grimes, Kim Kardashian, Ariana Grande, and Halsey. Named a Generation Next designer by Teen Vogue in 2019, Elena Velez is making her mark in the fashion world with designs inspired by her hometown: Milwaukee.
Before she was a globe-trotting fashion designer, the Milwaukee native grew up as an only child raised by a single mother, who made her living as a Great Lakes ship’s captain. An artist since childhood, Velez took inspiration from the world around her, and was captivated by the manufacturing and heavy industry she saw at lake ports. Her work uses found, repurposed, and site-specific materials to create designs that evoke her childhood haunts in the shipyards and metal shops that line the Milwaukee waterways she once traveled with her mother. Today, lithe models sashay down the runways of the world’s fashion capitals, clad in designs constructed from Milwaukee metal and canvas ship sails salvaged from her mother’s boat yard, thanks to Velez’s vision.
Despite her passion for design, the pragmatic Midwesterner initially opted for a more traditional career path. She began to plan for a future as a government translator and attended both Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School and Milwaukee School of Language. Her love of fashion remained a constant during those years, and it was her acceptance into her childhood dream school, Parsons School of Design, that solidified her career path. She graduated in 2018 with a dual focus on fashion design and creative entrepreneurship, and then continued her studies at Central St. Martins in London. From the beginning of her journey, her objective was always to launch her own line, and have her own business.
She had everything she needed launch a successful brand: talent, training, accolades, famous clients, and industry connections, the only thing she lacks was the capital to start her business. That changed when she was approached by Joe Kirgues, who asked her to join the gener8tor cohort in 2020. She was ready for his call, explaining,
“having my own business was always the objective. So, upon graduation, you’ve kind of shifted into two different pathways. If you’re amongst the students that the faculty would like to put themselves behind in terms of support. You’re either hired by a major house, or you’ve given opportunities to kind of show you own work. I received no proposals “having my own business was always the objective. So, upon graduation, you’re kind of shifted into two different pathways. If you’re amongst the students that the faculty would like to put themselves behind in terms of support. So, you’re either hired by a major house, or you’re given opportunities to kind of show your own work. I received no proposals for employment and quite a few opportunities for me to showcase my work in some really high-profile scenarios so the objective from the very beginning was to have my own brand. It really set me on my own course, and I knew that from the start creative entrepreneurship was going to have to be something that I was able to build a language around. And I think building fashion and building a brand are extensions of the same skill set, just applied differently. I knew I was going to have to figure it out the business and the entrepreneurship side [which] is really what facilitates the work and just getting to that point in my career where I realized that to get to the next point, I was going to have to learn how to wear those hats. Fortunately, I think that I’ve kind of got the aptitudes in place to be able to handle business and entrepreneurship, as well as the creative component.”
With the infusion of capital from both gener8tor and CSA Partners , Elena Velez Industries, formed in February of 2021, is ready to take the multi-billion dollar fashion industry by storm. Velez has outlined a three-prong approach for her business: a Ready to Wear collection marketed directly to consumers via ecommerce, custom commissions for celebrity clients, and a collaborative studio that will feature short runs of pieces created with regional co-collaborators.
She defines her corporate values as being “sustainability, self-sufficiency, and authentic co-design,” as well as what describes as the “democratization of creative capital in the United States.” Velez expands on the statement, explaining that for her, doing that means
“using your privilege and your resources in your opportunities to uplift other. You know other artists, other makers who don’t necessarily have access, and I think geography plays a huge part in that. I think that we have a very long-standing history of traditionally established creative capitals. And there is this geographical condescension that takes place.
For artists who refused to leave their hometown or don’t have the resources to. It’s a stereotype that doesn’t need to exist. I know a million talented people in Milwaukee, WI who compete or are on par with some of these celebrities that I’m working with in my day to day [business], who could do it better, and who are hungrier and more deserving, honestly. And they’re just not part of the machine.
In what I do, I have access to a lot of different outlets I work with. I know actors and actresses. I work with musicians, influencers, all sorts of people behind the scenes who are impacting culture and creating it. To have access to that and not diffuse it where it’s most needed would be such a waste of opportunity. It also gives me the satisfaction of being a gate opener and to be able to really curate talent that I believe in and to share it with the world. That’s something that is really cool to me. Like you get to be almost like a gallerist or an agent for people who have not been discovered yet.
Regionalism is central to Velez’s brand and Milwaukee heavily factors into her long-term plans for her company. She lives and works in New York City as a necessity, but her identity, and her plans for the future, are right here in Milwaukee. She sees her Midwestern roots as a key to what sets her apart in the world of high fashion. On this point of differentiation, Velez states,
“Culturally, socially, we’re entering a moment right now where people are really curious as to what’s happening in the middle of the country. People want to know what is of interest outside of these, like overexploited over saturated creative capitals, and I think that that’s kind of where I have an opportunity to introduce people to a world that I’m passionate about and at the end of the day, I don’t really have another narrative, so I have to find something that is authentic and original to me as a designer.
I think that it really gives me an opportunity to kind of contradict and undermine this geographical condescension that exists in fashion and art. And to really, you know, propose my own alternative to that. Milwaukee is essential. It’s the entire ethos and philosophy behind the brand. “
Velez has ambitions that match her outsized talent. She plans to extend her influence in the region through her Collaborative Studio and a future “cut and sew makers space” to be headquartered in Milwaukee. In this space she envisions not only the manufacturing of her own inventory, but also products from other designers looking to work with small-batch factories. The location will offer education and employment for Milwaukeeans, as well as provide opportunities for regional artisans to sell their services.
Business accelerators are not the place where most people imagine a creative entrepreneur launching a business, but perhaps they should be. High end fashion lines and luxury brands offer the opportunity for rapid expansion and tremendous profits. Being an expert in a niche market with accreditation and social capital made Velez look like a good risk to the gener8tor team. When asked to share her advice with other creative entrepreneurs interested in connecting with an accelerator program, the designer is not optimistic about a pipeline being developed between creatives and venture capitalists, at least at this time. Noting that “a lot of like what makes fashion valuable is intangible, so having to convert those into numerical metrics is very difficult. It’s difficult to try and convince an investor why this celebrity with this following on this platform is such is worth like $10,000.” She observes that the world of creative entrepreneurship requires a lot of trust from investors, and “investors don’t really have time for trust, especially not when they met you five minutes ago.”
Expanding on her thoughts on creatives approaching Milwaukee venture capitalist, she goes on to state,
“I don’t think that that culture is there yet. I don’t think that there is a culture of investors that are ready, or knowledgeable enough, or frankly see the value in creative enterprise just yet. When you think about it, this is a very specific type of person who has venture capital. This is like a really specific demographic of person. You rarely find that type of person taking a risk on something that they don’t necessarily understand or interact with immediately.”
Of her experience in looking for funding to launch her luxury label, Velez shares her struggles, stating,
“I’ve been like really, really hard pressed for investment capital in in around Milwaukee because the artists don’t want me because I’m a business. And then the businesses don’t want me because I’m an artist, so there isn’t enough of a language around creative entrepreneurship in Milwaukee yet for people to see the merit, which is really frustrating because I have a shot at something really, really really powerful here. And to be consistently struggling for capital when you know it exists, but you just don’t fit the technical criteria of what they’re looking for is really frustrating.
I’m very fortunate to have found investment capital, but I don’t think that I could have done it again. I wouldn’t know how to replicate that success without locating somebody who was willing to just take a chance.”
Fortunately for Velez, she found investors willing to take that chance in Milwaukee-based gener8tor and CSA Partners. Of Velez, gener8tor’s Kirgues has been quoted as saying “she is a one-in-a-generation talent,” and notes her clear vision for the future when considering her business. For now, Elena Velez Industries has been launched and made a prominent showing New York fashion week, and the in-demand designer continues to earn customer commissions from some of the most recognizable celebrities on the globe.