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Meet the Milwaukee designer dressing Solange, Grimes, Kali Uchis and others

Last year we met Milwaukee designer Elena Velez in New York for New York Fashion Week. The creative entrepreneur has done an impressive amount of work since then, with a new collection based on Milwaukee's industrial roots and high-profile artists wearing her pieces in magazines and her custom designs on tour.

Radio Milwaukee interviewed Velez to go behind-the-scenes on her process.

In the Community Story interview last year Velez told us, "The fashion industry is so quick to forget. You have to keep outdoing yourself and keep impressing people and keep doing bigger and better things or else become a has-been." It's clear Velez is fighting obscurity relentlessly. The last few months the artist has worked with or dressed Solange, Grimes, Kali Uchis and Brooke Candy. What people may not see is the rejection and "tiny heartbreaks" on the road to success.

Solange | photo by Marcus Cooper

In a post on Facebook, Velez shared screenshots of rejections before the now iconic image of Solange wearing her design, which was chosen after five attempts. "Being approached to loan to a project is ultimately a lottery when there are ten other designers contributing to the same shoot and there will only be four images in the final spread or one look chosen for the red carpet. Over the last six months I've loaned to projects for Rihanna, Ciara, Halsey, Ella Mae, Cardi B... Making it into the final styling is super lucky and in an Instagram culture where we can only claim that which we have an image of, it's important to keep realistic expectations." She adds, "I wanted to share that with my friends and creatives in my community as a reminder that the road to success is paved with lots of rejections and tiny heartbreaks but good things are around the corner if you keep at it and protect yourself from discouragement."

Velez was commissioned to design custom pieces for touring performers Ariana Grande and Kali Uchis. Uchis was seen in a custom corset set designed by Velez on her recent tour with Jorja Smith. Velez points out, "Ariana's tour will extend through the summer and although I designed and produced six different garments for her Sweetener World Tour, I haven't seen images yet -- another moment to highlight the importance of checking expectations and staying realistic! Once you get to that level of styling there are all sorts of politics, brand alignments and big money promotional contracts that these celebs have to consider. As a recent graduate sewing out of her bedroom on a machine she's had since the age of 13, it's virtually impossible to compete so I'm just appreciative of the consideration."  

Kali Uchis on tour styled by Corey Stokes in custom corset set by Elena Velez

Many of the designs created by Velez have an easily recognizable signature look, one she describes as "an aggressively delicate aesthetic signature." The newest collection "Vessel" is inspired by her upbringing in Milwaukee as the daughter of a ship captain. The materials used in the line include repurposed sails, boat covers, salvaged ship steel presented in a way that's equally soft and draped along with cold hard steel -- "aggressively delicate" is pretty apt.

..."the road to success is paved with lots of rejections and tiny heartbreaks but good things are around the corner if you keep at it and protect yourself from discouragement."

Elena Velez
Velez returns to the city with a homecoming runway show for Milwaukee Fashion Week this fall, which will include many local collaborators. "I really want it to be a By Us For Us moment to celebrate the fact that creativity  can thrive in underrepresented creative communities like ours and that the world is starting to take notice."
Grimes styled by Jessica Worrell in Elena Velez | Photo by Charlotte Rutherford

While fashion design has taken the artist around the world, she still tags her posts "#MilwaukeeCreatives" and her native city is still essential to her brand. "It informs the work conceptually, collaboratively, and is the backbone of my design identity," she says. "My work incorporates an appreciation for the craftsmanship and the artisanal heritage of the rustbelt as epitomized by the metalsmith industry, a historically iconic trademark of Milwaukee. A lot of my peers and critics in the fashion industry are very curious about the creative message of designers from the American Midwest and I really believe that our perspective adds an interesting and needed component to the global fashion narrative."

You can find more about Elena Velez and her work at