Perspective | Fashion’s problematic fave is Elena Velez

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Every generation of fashion designers has a problematic favorite — someone whose politics, taste or point of view run against the status quo.

Elena Velez, 29, is her generation’s enfant terrible. Puerto Rican and raised in Wisconsin, she came on the scene in 2018 with a ragged and romantic picture of femininity, and techniques that reflect an obsession with the bygone craftsmanship and industrial decay of the Rust Belt. She is Puerto Rican, and was raised in Wisconsin.

Velez has a chip on her shoulder. She has vocally chastised the fashion world for its lack of financial and critical support (she has said her mother cashed out her retirement fund to help pay for her label), although these are unfortunately issues that any young designer with their own brand faces.

And she has aligned herself with the unsavory flavor of a tendentious downtown New York crowd, whose podcasters, media personalities and fashion- and art-adjacent figures rose to prominence under the aegis of “Dimes Square” — the over-explained neighborhood in Lower Manhattan known for its reactionary politics and associations with Peter Thiel. (Louis Pisano, an Paris-based American influencer, posted on X last fall that Velez is “the donald trump of emerging designers.”)

She is particularly friendly with Anna Khachiyan and actress Dasha Nekrasova, the hosts of the podcast “Red Scare,” which began with a “Bernie is daddy” dirtbag left mind-set, but has since devolved into a hipster J.D. Vance for women who are good at taking selfies in their underwear. The Dimes Square perspective was so overcooked during the peak of the pandemic — earning thinkpieces in nearly every newspaper and magazine — that it is already dated, especially as the presidential election snaps into gear.

After a mud-wrestling exhibition in the fall, she mounted a more pointedly hostile show on Sunday night: a salon themed around the film and book “Gone with the Wind” — the controversial story of Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara and the decline of her plantation, Tara, and the South during the Civil War — in an Upper East Side mansion, with a symposium hosted by Khachiyan and podcaster Jack Mason on the work’s supposedly misunderstood genius.

For the first hour, cigarette smoke filled the creaky mansion as attendees in a “rustic Americana black tie” dress code wandered around a table with a sprawl of pomegranate chunks, stacks of cheeses, heaps of meat, and platters of oysters topped with edible silver. The dare of focusing on the novel and film — which has been debated since its release in the 1930s for its racist stereotypes, and framed with trigger warnings since 2020 — hung over the evening, giving it a nefarious, rather than nostalgic, mood. Ten women were dressed in looks Velez called “couture,” their hair mounted in Marie Antoinette-like piles, and they wandered in and out of the various rooms.

The setting, especially the number of similarly-attired women and unexpected ratio of men, was more “Eyes Wide Shut” than Tara when it sizzles. “I want to go to Minnesota or Michigan and do new Rockwell s—,” I overheard a man say during the cocktail hour. “Photograph tobacco and fields.” Another guest lamented that she was being told her film was too problematic to get a distribution deal. A man in a suit mentioned the food with trepidation. “I’m kind of afraid that everything here is poison.”

After an hour, Velez, in a minidress and over-the-knee boots, her own hair stacked high and festooned with flowers, welcomed the group “for the first of a new series of salons dedicated to bringing fashion into the foreground of thoughtful, modern discourse.” She drew comparisons between herself and O’Hara: “her grit, intrepidness and recalcitrance lead her toward dream or disaster.”

Then everyone went upstairs. Mason and Khachiyan spoke in their signature shocks of droll pseudo-evil; Khachiyan complained about her tight wig and corset. “I can’t breathe,” she said flatly, and an awful pause hung in the air as the audience tried to decide whether she was making a disturbing joke about George Floyd. “Say her name!” an audience member chortled.

Khachiyan then read aloud a printout she called a “monologue,” comparing O’Hara to a modern day e-girl, Madonna and Kim Kardashian in a voice like a hungover boarding school student, stoic but self-satisfied.

Mason spoke about how “Gone with the Wind,” published in 1936, presages books about women who gain power through sex and shopping, like Judith Krantz’s “Scruples” from 1978 — ignoring Edith Wharton’s much more influential “The Custom of the Country” from 1913. “Gone with the Wind” makes the case for big and sweeping romance “against the miserable gray aesthetics of today,” Mason said.

The specter of the work’s bad reputation, especially its treatment of race, clung to the talk like a bad handbag, mostly by the hosts’ design. Khachiyan referred repeatedly to “the topic we’re not allowed to touch on” — race — though she mentioned that the actress who played Mammy — “I think her name was Hattie McDaniel” — was the first Black person to win an Academy Award. “Less important is all the racist controversy,” she said. “More important is that people think it’s a piece of pulp.” When an audience member pressed Mason and Khachiyan to address “the topic we’re not allowed to touch on,” Khachiyan refused, saying, “I’m a libtard.”

Equally as odd was the unoriginality of the argument that O’Hara is a feminist icon — a position so committed to trolling that its instigators failed to realize they were simply arguing for Mitchell’s original intention. The book and film paint O’Hara as a pillar of strength, and in many parts of the South, she’s still thought of as such. (She’s a popular inspiration for attendees of southern sorority balls.) This is one of the best-selling books of the 20th century — not exactly a suppressed work. It has not been a part of the current wave of book banning, which has mostly focused on LGBTQ+ literature and books by non-White authors. HBO temporarily removed the film from its streaming site in 2020, but then restored it with trigger warnings, and last year, the book’s publishers rereleased it with similar warnings about its racist content — in other words, it remains accessible.

And it’s long been trendy in pop-intellectualism to reframe the villain as the hero — a framework in everything from the musical (and forthcoming film) “Wicked” to “Breaking Bad.” Giving intellectual heft to flaky subjects has been a familiar if smooth trick for roughly two decades, since media outlets like Gawker and n+1 were founded.

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The night amounted to a boring distraction from the clothes, which were actually really good. They tell the story Velez wants to tell, but better: the femme flourishes of Khachiyan’s gown were disturbed by its muddy color; a secretly not-simple button-up frock looked like an expert sewer used the saddest, plainest, last resort material for a desperately needed dress.

“Each look is both an insistence on glamour in the face of apocalypse, and a repossession of a time in women’s history when the sharpest weapon in her artillery was a red dress,” Velez said. Interesting! If the fashion powers that be ignore or don’t care about her misplaced edgelord act, you could imagine one of her pieces would make a great look for the Met Gala.

Fashion is a powerful medium because it isn’t didactic. Clothes are ambiguous, easy to co-opt and reframe: one designer’s classic jeans and T-shirt is another designer’s disruptive statement on the horrors of conformity. A fashion show does not need to be obvious or unmistakable in its messaging, and it is usually at its worst when it is. (Just think: nothing is more boring now than a T-shirt with a slogan on it.)

John Galliano, who just showed a ravenously received couture collection at Maison Margiela more than a decade after a drug-fueled antisemitic tirade derailed his career at Dior, is a useful example here. His show was all about the underworld of outcasts and despicable people, but there was no clear sense that Galliano was referring to himself. You could still read him there, though, which is what made it thoughtful instead of a snooze.

You can say what you mean and feel and think is wrong with the world through cloth, stitches, staging, music and mood — that’s what a great designer does. Velez is clearly capable of that, but also seems obsessed with promoting this dated worldview to the point of self-destruction. It was — to quote Chester Cheetah, another cartoonish antihero who pushes junk — dangerously cheesy.

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