Where the ‘Rust Belt’ Meets the Runway

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During fashion week, we will be spotlighting the small details we saw on the runways that surprised or delighted us. Bring on the sculptural shoes and antique fork jewelry.

The designer Elena Velez splits her time between New York and Milwaukee. This alone is enough to make her unusual among the young designers showing at New York Fashion Week.

What is more unusual is how materials salvaged or made in the Great Lakes region are central to Ms. Velez’s designs, like repurposed sails, parachutes and steel. She grew up around waterways, raised by a single mother who worked as a ship captain.

At her latest runway show, those materials could be heard as much as they were seen: heavy metal accessories clanking as models walked the runways. Ms. Velez, 28, wanted the noise to be grating — inspired, as she described in her show notes, by “a shrieking display of female hysteria reverberating back against cultural hypocrisy.” (She did not explicitly mention reproductive rights, but the collection’s hands-off-our-bodies subtext, with its cagelike designs and military-sourced textiles, was clear.)

One of these accessories was an asymmetric hexagonal shoulder bag: futuristic and industrial, like what the Iron Giant might wear if he were an angsty teenage girl on TikTok. The metal bag had two modular compartments, held in place by silver cylindrical bars, like the bolts in the neck of the Frankenstein monster.

It was made with Morph Studio, an Illinois design firm. Ms. Velez works primarily with Midwestern artisans, machinists and welders outside of the fashion industry. Essentially, she wants to make “Rust Belt heritage” and “blue collar Americana” manufactured goods desirable to fashion people, she said: “What amuses me about what I’m able to do with my brand is that I can take the caricature the creative coasts have of the Midwest, apply some branding and a little bit of creative direction, and then sell it back to them.”



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