For the debut of her latest collection Sunday night, Elena Velez promised something unusual: a salon dedicated to a nuanced discussion of Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With the Wind,” where fashion critics would join writers and pundits in exploring the complexities of art and censorship.
“What I really want to do is build a community of people who are pushing the discourse forward in different interesting ways,” Velez told BoF the day before, “and who aren’t necessarily the first people that you would think of when you consider the fashion week attendance but who are equally as passionate about aesthetics and culture in a new way.”
The salon attempted to grapple with the controversial novel, which is one of the most popular works of fiction ever published, as is its complex heroine Scarlett O’Hara. But Mitchell’s book, and the movie based on it, also glorifies the Confederacy, and has fallen out of favour with many readers in recent decades. Topics on Sunday ranged from why Mitchell’s book is considered pulp, rather than a great American epic, to which fragrance Scarlett O’Hara might wear (the consensus landed on Thierry Mugler’s Angel).
But it quickly became clear why there was a strict “no phones allowed” policy at the door.
The evening took turns into the far reaches of both ends of the political spectrum of the sort rarely seen at fashion week, where brands typically opt for spectacle designed to go down easy on Instagram.
Along with familiar front row mainstays, including fashion critics and Julia Fox, guests were drawn from Dimes Square, a neighbourhood nestled near Manhattan’s Chinatown, initially known as a nexus for downtown New York culture-makers, and now as a hotbed for a sort of meme-driven, anti-woke political discourse. Among the featured attendees were Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova, whose “Red Scare” podcast Elena Velez has guested on (the show has its roots in the far left, but isn’t so easily categorised; Infowars founder Alex Jones has also been featured.) Velez’s sponsors included the Common Sense Society, Encounter Books and Passages Publishing, which are mainly associated with right-wing speakers and authors.
Sitting in her own Elena Velez corset, Khachiyan said “I can’t breathe,” to which an audience member shouted in: “Say her name.” (Both phrases are associated with the Black Lives Matter movement). She described herself, sarcastically, as a “libtard.”
Asked about the juxtaposition of controversial opinion and ready-to-wear, a spokesperson passed along a response from Velez: “I’d challenge the audience to consider multiple truths.”
The day before the salon, Velez said that this alternative format and the dialogue was not meant to be provocative for its own sake.
“I take umbrage with the word provocative, honestly, because I think that it infers and it implies a sense of irony and carelessness that I just don’t relate to or identify with,” she said. “I care very, very much, and I want truly, so badly to be understood.”
Velez’s talent is recognised by the fashion industry – she’s won many prestigious awards including the CFDA prize for emerging designer of the year in 2022. Last week, she was named a semifinalist for the LVMH Prize. Even so, her relationship to the fashion world is uneasy.
She’s been forthright about how acclaim hasn’t resulted in financial security, and has used her growing visibility to poke back at the fashion system. Last season she sent models stomping through a makeshift mud pit in an old Bushwick factory. In the middle of the finale, the models broke rank — fighting and flailing and dragging each other through the mud.
On Sunday, guests could view models in Velez’s signature corsets leaning over a spread of food, then mixed in with with the crowd during the discussion. The 10 looks included layered gowns that mixed high-end silks with humble acetate, drawing inspiration from Gone With the Wind’s O’Hara, who facing dwindling resources after the Civil War, tears off curtains to fashion a new ball gown.
The clothes, said Velez, were meant to paint a portrait of various psychological states — and American women in the face of apocalypse and collapse. Velez says the book “Sexual Personae” written by academic and cultural critic Camille Paglia has been formative to her conception of her brand. It’s Paglia’s riffs on O’Hara – insecure yet intelligent, petty but also courageous, and straining against patriarchal structures of the era – that Velez found “titillating.”
“I’m the daughter of a single mother who’s a ship captain on the Great Lakes,” Velez told BoF. “I come from Wisconsin. I’m [of] a lower socioeconomic class. I really identify with this feeling of the shrewd and wily woman who’s trying to transcend circumstance and really make something of herself in America, you know?”
As the discussion wound down, Khachiyan and co-host Jack Mason, a writer and podcaster, asked the crowd if they had any questions.
“This is a fashion crowd, they don’t like asking questions,” an audience member said.
The crowd emptied out of the mansion and headed to Sovereign House, an underground discussion and performance space in downtown Manhattan.
“Can you imagine if every fashion show had one of these talks?” asked Khachiyan.