Elena Velez Understands It All
Velez is looking you directly in the eye and asking you to take this impossibly garish thing very seriously, and that is her power.
There are only so many lengths beautiful gowns can take you. My pre-season prophecy was correct: this would be a placid season, one without much drama and, in the words of Cathy Horyn, the industry will need to reckon with newer beliefs and values if it wants to stay relevant. Gauzy numbers and feeble attempts at Recession-era nostalgia cannot do that.
Before Elena Velez’s show, the question people had — and by people, I mean the Twitter rabble — was thus: Who gets to decide, now? Who are our new upstarts? Not the squeaky-clean commercial darlings, à la Tom Ford or John Galliano, but the enfant terribles — the Gaultiers, the McQueens, the Slimanes. Taste mechanics have been dulled, neutered; creative directors have been plucked from pop culture, not pedigree; and one-time innovators have now become devoid of risk, instead pleasantly shepherding their brands and corpse-puppeting their greatest hits.
Whether you like it or not (and many people don’t, thanks to a scandal revolving around unpaid casting) CFDA award-winning Elena Velez is our new enfant terrible. The missing elements in our current design ecosystem — risk, audaciousness, braggadocio, sex, catharsis, violence — are here in SS24, potent in their lack of precision. Models amble down the runway in milky waffle-knit tights and thick leather dresses, struggling to walk in a straight line. Then, they wrestle in the mud, their bustiers and beautiful gowns ruined, splattering front-row dilettantes in sludge. Velez is looking you directly in the eye and asking you to take this impossibly garish thing very seriously, and that is her power.
Critics are keen to corner Velez as a gleefully brutish “antiheroine” — even down to a “villainess.” It’s not an accusation without merit; she has an aloof social presence both online and in real life, avoiding post-show interviews and instead tightroping on an unspoken tension. It is far too easy to chalk any of this up to sexism — but it is also too easy to wonder why Velez’s male peers, like Demna Gvasalia, are baptized as industrial “bad boys” with a wink and a fawn, and Velez is baptized the witch.
And yet — shockingly and pleasantly refreshing — Velez is aware of this positioning. In her show notes, she writes: “It feels to me like the sanitization and unilateralization of womanhood in popular culture today leaves no room for the nuance and multiplicity we deserve as architects of labyrinthine interior lives.”
In that, the collection has a core of rigidity that keeps you squirming. Models have their hands cuffed to their backs, their hair matted, their legs caked in plaster. One model — her plaster-covered breasts wreathed by long, white-blonde hair — floats through the mud, an undead woman climbing out of a Scottish peat bog. My favorite look in the collection is perhaps Velez’s most commercial, but no matter: a strapless dress with slanted ribs and julienned layers of silicone latex hanging from the waist, crawling towards you, beautiful and evil.
Velez’s poison medicine, from inside-out jacket construction to cobwebby corsets clinging to the abdomen, is a deep relief. The Velez woman is aggressive, defiant, spooky, post-progressive, real — and, against the popular judgment of many modern CDs — she is not making any kind of point about politics, identity, or being. Velez is doing what so many other designers have been glamorously accused of: beautiful dresses for beautiful people, no deeper moral conviction. But Velez is doing it with a sleek perception — this is clothing made from necessity, from authenticity, and on her own terms. That is the essence of risk. 🌀
You can view the whole collection here.