Elena Velez, Willy Chavarria, and Theophilio’s Edvin Thompson – are three visionary designers shaping New York’s independent fashion landscape. Ahead of their respective SS23 shows during New York Fashion Week, they discuss their brands’ origin stories, what drew them to fashion design, and the communities they’ve built through their work.
From her Brooklyn studio, Elena expands on her craft-driven mission to create fashion that speaks to the multiplicity of womanhood and that pays tribute to her Milwaukee roots. Willy describes his namesake label as a vessel for messages that transcend clothing, such as exploring the nuances of Latinx masculinity.
Edvin reflects on how his Jamaican heritage feels in his creative output and celebrates the resonance his work has found beyond the remit of fashion.
Willy Chavarria: I’ve been in New York for a long time. I fucking hate this place, but I also fucking love this place. It’s a total shit hole, but at the same time, it’s full of life and inspiration, it’s a beautiful shit hole.
Edwin Thompson: New York is like, so like, it’s like the willpower. Like if you don’t want to do it, go home, like move back, home, move out of the city.
Having to adopt a lot of the skills and the language of a founder and a business owner has been really difficult.
Elena Velez: My name’s Elena Velez. I am the creative director of the autonomous label, Elena Velez. I think that the most difficult challenge so far has been having to grapple with the entrepreneurial side of having a brand. Having to adopt many of the skills and the language of a founder and a business owner has been really difficult.
Edwin Thompson: My name is Edwin Thompson. I am the designer and creative director of the AHI. Based out of Brooklyn, New York.
Willy Chavarria: Hi, I’m Will Chavarria and I’m a fashion designer. Brooklyn, New York
Elena Velez: Based here in New York city, as well as in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I don’t think that there was ever a really specific moment when I decided that I wanted to work in fashion. For me, it was always just a craft-based obsession that I had since my youth. I consider fashion as an artistic medium.
Edwin Thompson: When I think of fashion, I think of an artist. I’ve always been artistically inclined since I was a child, like drawing, sketching, painting.
Willy Chavarria: I was always obsessed with clothing. I would see dress books at the dollar store, and I thought that it was dress book so that I would draw like little dresses and little clothes in there.
Elena Velez: I didn’t realize that there was an economy or an industry around fashion until much later.
Willy Chavarria: Later, I went to art school in San Francisco and got a part-time job working for Joe boxer. That is when I realized, oh my God, I could make some money off of this.
I grew a very deep connection with clothing, and I just saw how it was such an amazing tool for having conversations, important conversations.
Edwin Thompson: My high school didn’t have a fashion program, and I was like, why don’t we come up with a fashion club? I think that was like my first fashion show. It was amazing to lead a community of individuals. From that,
For me, it is very important to explore the multiplicity of womanhood is becoming increasingly difficult in 2022, to be able to hold multiple truths. And the womanhood that I like to portray through my collections is the saint and the sinner at the same time.
Elena Velez: The throughline of the brand is very much about my identity growing up in the Midwest as the daughter of a single mother who was a ship captain on the great lakes. Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a lot of the female influences that I had were very much opposed to the delicate and feminine woman of New York City. For me, it is very important to explore the multiplicity of womanhood is becoming increasingly difficult in 2022, to be able to hold multiple truths. And the womanhood that I like to portray through my collections is the saint and the sinner at the same time, you know, she’s the Virgin mother and she’s also the whore and the harlott. A lot of the quintessential styles of the brand are – these parachute dresses are like very aggressively delicate quality. There’s something special about a maker who has something to say so urgently that it surpasses the tools they have to communicate it with. This is Milwaukee steel. Metal and steel are a huge cultural output of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I’m from. And so, getting to work with welders, machinists, and fabricators to revisit the craft and to turn it into something new and special for today. And for the fashion industry is something that I love to do.
I think what’s wonderful about today is there’s all this in-between that’s being realized, and I love to celebrate masculinity in a way that can be queer, can be straight, can be a trans male.
Willy Chavarria: I grew up in California, which was very much among migrant workers. My dad was a lettuce picker. That’s actually why I have this tattoo. My dad was on a horse in a field of lettuce. The brand ultimately is a vessel for delivering a much higher power message than just the actual clothing. I’ve always been fascinated with masculinity and femininity. I think what’s wonderful about today is there’s all this in-between that’s being realized, and I love to celebrate masculinity in a way that can be queer, can be straight, can be a trans male. Queer people trip out on it just as much as straight people trip out on it. I love this traditionally masculine workwear style and a workwear skirt. So you have this look that’s like really challenging the stereotypical identity. I’m not sure if this will go on the runway, but it’s like sportswear meets some kind of beach Terry cloth thing.
Silhouette to me is probably the most important thing in fashion. Sometimes I’ll even design just in silhouette and just fill it in black.
This is just a very, very easy, basic like puffer minimal garment. It’s all about the silhouette. First of all, silhouette to me is probably the most important thing in fashion. Sometimes I’ll even design just in silhouette and just fill it in black. One of the things about silhouette is the influence of Chicano culture – oversized tailored, big pants, big t-shirts. The volume in the silhouette was almost like reclaiming a space, showing our presence in the room or in the country, even walking down the street. You know, it’s like, okay, I have broad shoulders, white leg pants. Like, it’s a statement.
Edwin Thompson: Being an immigrant in the states and being gay and black, I was honestly kind of just like tackling many different things. Not seeing another black designer and black creative having a space, I was just like, why not? Kind of like creating that. It wasn’t necessarily like, “Oh, okay, I’m from Jamaica, so I have to put it in my store.” It was always there. Like when I would draw with the colors, I just happened to pick up the green pencil and the yellow pencil and these silhouettes kind of like came about. Visibility is so important and I really wanted just share with the world that Jamaica is not just like Barb Marley, with jerk food, and beautiful weather, but we have like a plethora of different artists and heroes.
Coming of age was one of my first collections where I felt like I really connected to my roots. I’ve always talked about like my grandmother in my work. She was the reason I came here, and I was able to kind of just like see the world. And I remember as a kid going to church, like how these church hats were just like a thing, you have to do your best Sunday outfits. This is one of my favorite pieces, but this guy’s going to be white satin with like gold buttons done by Johnny Nelson. The peak lapels, I’m such a fan because they reminded me of like the jacket my dad wore when he got married to my mom in 2005. It’s our first fall collection on the essence. I did name this like the two-tone pant, but it’s more of like a stripe, so that’s what we’re going to go for now.
This is the stripe pants, and we also are going to be introducing yellow. And then we also have red – growing up, which was like my favorite color. It reminds me of just conviction and purpose and tenacity and like, Hey, I’m here. This is going to be a piece for summer for sure. The bad girl knit set. She is going to Trader Joe’s, going to have drinks for her girlfriends. And the thing about this girl, you can pull it up wear it as a high-waist and you can bring it down, so you can be modest.
I think authentic fashion can only exist when it’s informed by an authentic subculture. And for me growing up, I never really found my tribe, so this is really me trying to create that tribe.
Elena Velez: Last season, we really defined the girl, and then this season, we’re starting to dig a little bit deeper into her frustrations, her passions, her sexuality. I think authentic fashion can only exist when it’s informed by an authentic subculture. And for me growing up, I never really found my tribe, so this is really me trying to create that tribe. And I think the brand exists as a little bit of a smoke signal to other creatives who like to share in the universe of values and aesthetics that we put out into the world. The community that I’m part of shares a lot of the values and the influence of the world that I come from in the Midwest outside of the creative capitals. I think a lot of the people that are influencers to the brand don’t even consider themselves artists or creatives. We are fabricators, machinists, and welders, and being able to apply a little bit of art direction to what they do and to repivot it back towards a luxury consumer is very punk in a way.
Willy Chavarria: My last show was very much about like celebrating the many different parts of the Latin-x world. This hot straight shirtless guy comes out first on the runway. And then later we had Jason Rodriguez come out from Pose and he was like, “Oh,” very, very fem. This next show I want to be a surprising departure from where I’ve been. I don’t want to get locked into like one sort of identity for my brand. It’s going to be a very dark side to it. I’m not going to fuck around. It’s going to be very real. This is a rough outline of the next season, Spring 23. We’re still like in the very early stages of casting. You know, a lot of the people that are in the shows are like part of the family, so to speak. And then we do street casting. We look for personality, and we look for presence.
Some guy walking down the street on his way to work, smoking a joint. Sometimes it will be just somebody with like amazing cheekbones. It can be – it’s like a variation, but no assholes. You know how if you’re good and nice to other people, it attracts others. I love the community that my brand has built. This is the label I decided was going to be the complete full expression of who I was. After I released this label and started working on it, the community started to build. Did that make sense?
Speaker: I want to do that again.
Willy Chavarria: Oh my God. Sorry. I don’t know if I can. I don’t even know what I just said.
Edwin Thompson: Going back to Jamaica with my team was paramount. I remember going to this club Jungle, and then like dancing, and then everyone is like yelling, creating a whole circle around me, and that was fab. Within like the last two, or three years, the brand has been just doing really, really well. I’m proud of myself regarding where I kind of like remaining very honest in my work. Very honest in my work. And I still feel like that nine-year-old kid that just got here. I remember interviewing with ABC, and I remember receiving all these messages from New Yorkers. They’re just like, “Oh my God, I just saw an interview of you in the cab today. And I love what you’re doing.” It could be somebody that’s just like works at a coffee shop. They may not be fashion inclined or whatever the case may be. But like, you’re celebrating where I’m from, I think that is so dope. I may just love track and field for Jamaica, but to see like, “Oh, you’re a designer from Jamaica also.” That’s amazing.
The reality of what I do as a founder and as a business person is to oversee and to delegate and make sure that everything is in alignment with the vision that we’re trying to communicate.
Elena Velez: I think the biggest misconception that people have about my job is that I spend all day just indulging in fashion and culture and just drawing and sketching. Whereas the reality of what I do as a founder and as a business person is to oversee and delegate and make sure that everything is in alignment with the vision that we’re trying to communicate.
Coming up with the design is like 0.0001% of the job, and the rest is like a hustle.
Willy Chavarria: The biggest misconception about being a fashion designer is that it’s just being a designer. A lot of people think that it’s standing at an easel sketching, but it’s usually just sketching in a car when you’re like late for a meeting or deciding that silhouette will be this because of the width of the fabric that you have to deal with. Coming up with the design is like 0.0001% of the job, and the rest is like a hustle.
A lot of it does have to do with the patients and the endurance that you have to continue to push past all of the financial, the bureaucratic, the political landscape to say what you want.
Elena Velez: I realize that talent accounts for so little in the industry, unfortunately. And a lot of it does have to do with the patients and the endurance that you have to continue to push past all of, you know, the financial, the bureaucratic, the political landscape to say what you want.
Edwin Thompson: As soon as I make money, I put it right into the brand. I just like feed it. I feed it. I was just like, “You know, I can eat later, but this has to – we have to take care of this.” Like when I first moved here in 2014, I feel like that eight months were like the worst year of my life. I’ve lived in the Bronx roughly for about eight months. Over 90% of the crew members are Jamaican. And I was just like, “Oh my God, I found my people.” And I was like, it was so important. It was so important.
It’s really, really hard, but there’s no other city to be in right now. This is where everything is.
Willy Chavarria: The financial challenge is always the biggest challenge in New York City just because the city’s so expensive. It’s really, really hard, but there’s no other city to be in right now. This is where everything is. It is not an easy business. If you do it, you have to make damn sure you love it.