Should Making It in Fashion Be This Hard?

Elena Velez held up her phone. A banking app showed the available funds in her business account.

It was Feb. 17. Earlier that week, she had held a runway show that earned her raves as an original voice in New York fashion; reviews from Vogue and others called her “urgent,” “provocative,” “delightfully deranged,” a “rare talent.” Three months before, she’d been named emerging designer of the year at the CFDA awards, the industry’s version of the Oscars. Her deconstructed corsets and asymmetric dresses had made the rounds on celebrities known for their propulsive sense of style: Rosalía, Solange Knowles, Julia Fox. What more could a 28-year-old fashion designer want?

Well, money. There was $370 in her account. “And I made a $400 sale two hours ago,” she said, meaning she had been in the red that morning.

That triumphant runway show, held in a Brooklyn warehouse and opened by a model-musician who lurch-walked as if she’d been summoned from hell, cost Ms. Velez’s company almost $40,000, she said, most of which came from her mother’s retirement fund.

Her cash runway was “days,” Ms. Velez said. “But it’s always been that way. The ramp has been days for years.”

“Even today, I was like, ‘Well, this is it. We’re pulling the plug,’” she said. Then her publicist told her someone claiming to represent Kanye West and his new wife were interested in buying some pieces. Ultimately they bought about $7,000 worth, Ms. Velez said.

She started her company in 2018, and lately these scattered windfalls have helped keep the business afloat. Orders placed on behalf of high-profile clients — like the stylist for Beyoncé’s world tour — mean that Ms. Velez’s outlook can shift from grim to manageably grim in the span of a day. Agree to host a branded party: small paycheck. Organize a sample sale: bigger paycheck.

Earlier this year, she was named a finalist for a prize worth up to $150,000 from Fashion Trust U.S., a new nonprofit. Ms. Velez was hopeful. Hours before the winner was announced, in March, she recited from a spreadsheet she’d made outlining how she might use the money: settle debts, cover new production costs, fund the next runway show, begin work on opening a factory in Milwaukee, her hometown.

Looks from Ms. Velez's breakout runway show in February. Credit…Photographs by Albert Urso/Getty Images

But she didn’t win. Ms. Velez smiled gamely at the awards ceremony but clapped her hands a little too tightly together, looked down a little too long at her untouched plate of roast chicken. Later that night, she won a different award of $25,000. Even then, she felt as if she’d lost.

“I’m in trouble,” she said.

To sustain her business, to stay living and producing her designs in New York City, to convince herself that it was possible to succeed in fashion without money or connections — to just “be OK,” as Ms. Velez put it — she needed more.

‘A heavy, heavy, heavy burden.’

Fashion is not an especially easy industry to penetrate. And making a living from it is even harder for young designers of color who don’t come from privilege. Ms. Velez, whose father is Puerto Rican and who was raised by a single working mother, is certainly not the first to struggle.

But she is bringing new candor to the struggle. There is a game of humble gratitude and head-down perseverance that Ms. Velez declines to play, even as her star rises. After receiving her breakout award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she wrote on Instagram, “could y’all just stock me tho?” over a zoomed-in photo of her young son’s face.

For those potential retailers, Ms. Velez does not make easily marketable hoodies or leather bags; H. Lorenzo and Ssense — the highest profile places that stock her clothes — are known for selling more avant-garde designers. Her garments are unapologetically gnarly and technically chaotic: a skirt shaped like an “obeliskoid pillow” ($735), a cutout dress with “collapsing styling possibilities” ($1,475).

They are also produced in the United States, which is costly but core to her values. She dreams of building infrastructure for fashion manufacturing in Wisconsin, providing an alternative to New York and Los Angeles for herself and her local collaborators. The Midwest is her muse, but not for its farmland and lakes. She likes its sharper, rustier edges, the industrial yards and seedy truck stops.

Ms. Velez’s mother, Holly Church, is a ship captain in Milwaukee, and Ms. Velez spent parts of her childhood accompanying her on construction tugboats and dinner cruises. That proximity to manual labor helped shaped the Elena Velez aesthetic, which she has described as “anti-beautiful” and “unrefined.” A 2021 collection titled “Vessel” used repurposed materials like boat sails and rigging line in slinky silhouettes.

“I have never been the female form of beauty that she wanted when she was younger,” Ms. Church, 59, said by phone in April. “But then she began to understand that strength and beauty come in different forms.”

Ms. Velez first started filling up notebooks with fashion drawings around age 5, according to Ms. Church, and received her first sewing machine as a gift from a family friend at age 10. She took sewing classes at 12 (the instructor accepted only adults, initially, but Ms. Velez looked mature for her age, Ms. Church said). At 15 a local TV reporter described the teenager as having “the talent and drive to be a world-class designer someday.”

But for as long as she has wanted a career in fashion, Ms. Velez and her mother have been reckoning with its costs.

Ms. Church sold their family home to pay for Ms. Velez’s tuition and fees at Parsons School of Design. To start her business, Ms. Velez said she raised about $450,000 from a handful of investors, “which came and went in two years,” she said. (Those investors have not given any additional money since.) There was a $50,000 award for being a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, a $25,000 grant for small brands at New York Fashion Week and a $20,000 donation from a family friend.

Lately, Ms. Velez has begun taking predatory loans she finds online. Ms. Church has opened multiple credit cards and waits tables in the winter to help with bills. She said she has given Ms. Velez about $25,000 from her savings and, more recently, another $25,000 from her I.R.A. account. That last sum went toward financing the February runway show, covering expenses like catering and fake nails and “all of these dumb things that you have to have to get written about on Vogue Runway,” Ms. Velez said.

“My mom doesn’t have a retirement fund anymore, and that’s an awareness I have to confront and suppress every time somebody doesn’t want to come to the show because ‘It’s too late at night,’ or ‘It’s in Brooklyn,’” Ms. Velez said.

Yet there is no sense of regret from either woman. “I know that if she can find the financial footing, the rest is history,” Ms. Church said. “She’s worth every single ounce of energy to push her where she needs to go, so that other people can recognize what she has to offer.”

The problem, Ms. Velez has learned, is that recognition — the buzz around awards, reviews and celebrity endorsements — doesn’t always yield tangible returns. If anything, she said, it contributes to the idea that things are going well when they are not. And these metrics have not been easy for her to explain to venture capitalists.

“How many accomplishments do I have to collect, and how many co-signs and check marks does it take before people invest in helping me keep myself afloat?” Ms. Velez said, with an expletive or two. “Nobody’s malicious. Everyone is just busy doing their own thing and assuming that you can take care of your own business, which theoretically, you should be able to do. But we can’t deny that there’s a lot of money in this space, and a lot of people who are playing are playing with their own.”

While home in Wisconsin a few months ago, she said, she drove past an Arby’s with a sign advertising a manager position for something like $20 an hour. It occurred to her that there was more stability in that job, even if her job’s perks included an invitation to sit at the Balenciaga table at the Met Gala in May. Then she realized she was unqualified for anything but fashion.

“It’s a heavy, heavy, heavy burden for me, and a lot of the people that I love,” she said. “And I think that I could live a healthier, more sustainably paced life doing another thing.”

‘Crashing and burning’

It’s from this mentality that Ms. Velez sometimes jokes about going to work at Pumps, a strip club in Brooklyn. It’s a raunchy flavor of humor from a woman who often makes references to her own inevitable cancellation — an edgy, uncompromising attitude that’s either savvily authentic or a form of self-sabotage.

On Instagram, she has fought back against questions around size inclusivity, arguing it’s not financially feasible for small brands, and posted about being “removed from the line” of a Met Gala after-party for causing a scene when her guest wasn’t allowed inside.

Ms. Velez does not always engage in fashion’s mutual back-scratching. Elle magazine recently named her one of its “women of impact,” celebrating her at a Washington event with members of the Biden family. But when Elle asked to borrow an Elena Velez dress for a cover shoot with Karol G, the designer declined, in part because she didn’t think the pop star aligned with the brand. (She prefers more “feral” girls, like Ethel Cain and Caroline Polachek.)

She has pointed views on “toxic femininity,” a theme she plans to explore in her next collection, and was recently a guest on the “Red Scare” podcast, whose controversial hosts she has dressed. On the episode she answered questions like: “Who hates women more, women or gays?” and “Who’s the bigger problem in fashion, women or gays?”

She has been critical of certain aspects of modern feminism, like the de-emphasis on motherhood — “it doesn’t rub me the right way,” she told Vogue — and once shared a clip on her Instagram of Jordan Peterson on “The Joe Rogan Experience” discussing women “turning university students into the infants they never had.”

These views come in part from the clarity that being a mother has brought to her own life. She became pregnant with her son, Atlas, at 25. Her second child, Freja, is almost 1. She has their names tattooed in tiny print on her cheek and neck. Earlier this month, she married their father, Andreas Emenius, a 50-year-old Swedish painter with whom she shares studio space in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint.

“All my friends back home have kids, they own real estate, and I come here and I’m like a teen mom,” Ms. Velez said. I feel very much like I have to keep the struggle of motherhood back-of-house. Nobody really wants to see it.”

Still, she’s often seen with at least one of her children nearby: napping on a couch at an industry cocktail party, sitting on her lap at a friend’s downtown fashion show, being rocked in a stroller by her side while she speaks on a Parsons alumni panel. She’s been told, she said, that it’s “such a cute P.R. stunt.”

But Ms. Velez is also aware that her inability to pay people could be a much bigger problem than some of her more outspoken views. She has joked about someday getting hit with the “inevitable toxic workplace allegations.”

In April, after the Fashion Trust U.S. awards, she estimated her debt to be about $90,000. Her creditors include factories that are starting to get mad, she said, but also people central to her team, like the designer Andrew Curwen, who is owed a few months’ worth of invoices.He helped create some of her February show’s most memorable pieces, like a bomber hoodie with bulbous, fungal-like quilted sleeves. (Most models in that show agreed to trade their services for exposure and clothing rather than be paid a fee.)

“I know that when money comes through, I will get paid,” Mr. Curwen said, comparing working for Ms. Velez to working for Alexander McQueen in the early days (a company that was later sued for unpaid intern wages).

“She’s not riding around in some Maserati,” said Gregory Werbowsky, her publicist and a fellow Midwesterner who also hasn’t been paid regularly — except in stained glass pieces made by Ms. Church.

Mr. Curwen pointed to Ms. Velez’s transparency around the struggles of being a young designer as part of the value in being in her world. “I don’t see what Elena is doing right now as just the beginning of her thing but as a movement in fashion in general,” he said.

She is sharing resources, including more recently with paid subscribers on her Instagram. She is sharing her blunt anger, too, and sometimes it seems as if she wants to burn the whole system down, though she is quick to clarify she doesn’t.

She is more interested in making an example out of her own “crashing and burning,” she said, for the greater benefit of the system.

“There’s never going to be a democratic American fashion narrative if the only people who can do it are, like, the coastal elites,” Ms. Velez said. “I’m transparent because I don’t expect it to be here that long. I want people to know this was an experiment to see whether or not it was possible to create a thriving fashion brand with these assets. So far, the answer is no.”

“I’m going to sink with the ship one way or another," she said, “and just hope that kind of energy is attractive to people.”

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