Elena Velez Embraces “The Tender and Terrible Paradoxes” of Motherhood

It was the night before the Met Gala and Elena Velez had a raging sinus infection. “I will take my dead body to the Met Gala tomorrow, I swear to god, nothing is getting in my way,” the designer declared as we spoke over video chat. Indeed, Velez attended the gala (very much alive) along with her guest, the artist Sasha Gordon. Both wore, of course, original pieces hand-crafted by Velez. In life and in work, the woman is a fighter, tough as nails in the most charming of ways. And despite being at the top of her game in the high-fantasy fashion sphere, she’s a pragmatic, down-to-earth Midwesterner at her core.

She’s also a 28-year-old mom of two: Freja Lucia, 11-months and Atlas, two-and-a-half. Velez’s husband Andreas Emenius is an artist and they live and work in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Her Mom, Holly, is a ship captain, as she has been for the last 35 years, in their hometown of Milwaukee. These are the beings that give Velez her spark, a family that she unabashedly, and rather seamlessly, intertwines within her work as a designer, both from logistical and philosophical standpoints. They are a part of it all, from interviews to the CFDAs to travel to deadlines to bills.

Just like she did for the first Monday in May, Velez is pushing full steam ahead on new designs and not even taking a break to celebrate Mother’s Day. As she noted via email the week before the holiday, she has “no plans for Mother’s Day, no expectations of fanfare. I don't celebrate my personal life much. I don't love attention and I get so much of it in other parts of my life. Feels gratuitous to keep finding opportunities to celebrate myself.”

There’s that corn-fed grit. But while Velez protests the spotlight, she really is the most inspiring kind of woman, designer, and mom. She’s honest and relatable, but still a dreamer. She doesn’t fret about bringing her little ones along on the ride, but has some anxieties and ideas around how they should or shouldn’t be raised. Her hauntingly beautiful, industrial clothes celebrate womanhood and matriarchy, but they do so with an open lens, a middle ground between what we think a modern feminist mother should look like and who she actually is—flaws, mediocrity, and all.

Velez is dedicated to letting women—moms and not—define their lives, their families, their clothing, their being, all for themselves. It’s wisdom we don’t often get in Momland, where cultural tropes like “Mom style” and “Mommy bloggers” and “Almond moms” can often cloud the purity and individualism of motherhood. Simply put, Velez doesn’t have time for all that. Her experiences as a mom are her own and below, she gives insight into exactly why.

Velez with her daughter, Freja.
Velez with her daughter, Freja.
Courtesy of Elena Velez

Tell me a bit about what your day-to-day looks like right now in terms of work/life balance with the kids.

Our house is cash-strapped and time poor. Researching affordable, local, and trustworthy childcare is essentially a third job. They’re both at sensitive ages and we’ve somehow just leaned into throwing them over our shoulders and hauling them along through our day. We live and work, both self-employed, in the same single mile radius in Greenpoint and also have a minivan so we’re set up for as much success as we can get.

You reference the pressure that society puts on women and mothers in your design work. What are some of the very real, maybe tough-to-admit emotions that come with your own work/life balance?

I regret having kids 10 times everyday–but I cherish having kids 11. In the day-to-day minutiae, the regret-to-reverence ratio is constantly fluctuating, but our love and our bond are imperishable and everlasting.

I do miss the spontaneity of living in NYC in your 20s–you never know where the day will take you. I gave that up in willing sacrifice to live a full life with a good man. I’m so thankful that I was open to receiving these gifts of the universe, even if they didn’t look like what I thought they would look like or come when I anticipated they would come.

Did you know that you always wanted to have kids and did you have certain expectations around what having kids would look like?

As an only child to a single mom who worked a lot, I spent a lot of time alone, and so I was always yearning for a tribe of some sort. I never really found it, which led to so much melancholy throughout my young adult life. I also had this desire for witnesses and people who knew me back when, or knew me in all of these separate contexts throughout my life.

So yes, for me to be able to have a family really kind of fills that niche in a way that I hadn’t expected. My kids know what my room in Wisconsin looks like, but they also know how annoying it was at one time that we were all in Paris and our flight was late. They are experiencing all of these different, disparate facets of my life with me. There’s something kind of unhealthy about that too, because the point of having kids isn’t necessarily to create reflections of yourself back to yourself. So I’m trying to get to the bottom of that, but I’m also learning as I go.

They’re still really little but, as you carry your kids along with you for the ride, do you see them responding to it all in any way? And on top of that, do you hope that they are inspired by you and your work?

It’s funny, my mom does this all the time, where she locates one of their little niche interests and then prescribes an identity for them around it. Like, “oh he loves trucks, he’s going to be a truck driver” or “oh, she loves food, she’s going to be a chef”.

This is such a weird story but it ties in. When Atlas was revealed to me as being a male child, I was inconsolable for 48 hours because my entire life I just wanted a daughter and that’s all that I saw for myself. It didn’t occur to me that I would have a son and during that time I was talking to a therapist and she said something so profound that I try and recall throughout the day, everyday. She said, “you’re learning one of the hardest lessons of motherhood, which is that you don’t get to be the creative director of every single project.” And up until that point, I had been the creative director of everything in my life and it had gone really, really well for me. I had the fashion brand, I had all the accolades that I wanted, I had the man that fit the criteria that I set out for him. But to suddenly be confronted with the fact that this is not an extension of a project that I’m working on, and that I don’t necessarily get to paint the picture with all of the colors that I had intended to, that was a really jarring and important lesson that I had to continue to keep with me.

Letting go of control in motherhood is a huge challenge.

Yes. I think, ‘how can it be perfect if this ingredient is off?’ And that’s such a reflection of my core crisis as a person that is amplified by having kids. But I guess that’s also a part of this journey that I really appreciate is that it really forces you to look at parts of yourself that need work.

Speaking of imperfections: your work as a designer surrounds these ever-evolving ideas of feminism. You’ve said that for you personally as a kid, your idea of feminism was about lightness and beauty and now, it’s much more about the industriousness and even painfulness of being a woman and a mom. Can you explain how this shift has changed for you since having kids?

There are so many tender and terrible paradoxes in the female experience, especially as it relates to motherhood. I’m so much stronger in my capacity as a human and I’m so much weaker in my tolerance of human suffering out in the world. That really surprised me. My relationship with contemporary feminism has evolved tremendously with the convictions that motherhood brings.

I decided that I would like to have a man in my life, and I can’t do everything alone, and I want kids but that doesn’t mean that I’m sacrificing my liberty and my ability to self-actualize. I think there’s no space for that in contemporary feminist conversation. There really is a motherhood-shaped blindspot in the way that we think about feminism today and it doesn’t rub me the right way. I want to be somebody who is unapologetically entrepreneurial and ambitious and doing what I think makes sense for me, psychologically, professionally, existentially, but also not necessarily rejecting all of the traditional things that have made womanhood special.

And what are your thoughts around the more mass ideas of “mom style” or maternity style? Is this on your mind, as a mom, as you design?

People don’t like it when I say this, but I really, really don’t think about a certain “girl” or the afterlife of a garment after it leaves the studio. Not from a sustainability standpoint, but from a sociological standpoint. For me, it really is just such a craft-based obsession and an opportunity for me to get to articulate something that feels really special and satisfying to me. That is either something that resonates with someone or it doesn’t.

I’ve actually never experienced having mom friends who feel they have to dress a certain way after having kids. I’ve always been a voyeur, and I’ve never had a core group of girlfriends or like really felt part of any sort of parallel community that influenced the way that I felt about the way that I dressed depending upon different stages of my life. I think I’m just kind of doing my own thing and people are gravitating towards it, maybe it’s working, maybe it’s not. I’m living my best and worst life simultaneously and you can pick and choose what works for you.

Your designs are also very much derived from your experiences growing up in the Midwest, with a working mom–has this shaped the way you view motherhood as well?

We split our time almost 50/50 between Wisconsin and New York. I live out here, I’ve got a studio here, but obviously the root of the brand ideology really comes from the Midwest and I’m really, really close with my mom. We talk and we have a bond for sure. I’ve been afforded the luxury—through her labor—to design my own life, including motherhood. And I’m definitely a momma’s girl. Part of the reason that I chose to have kids early is because I felt like I wanted to really reinforce a bond that I felt was weakening between us. Navigating adulthood, I wanted to need my mom again, and so the best way to do that is to have kids.

My mom is still doing exactly what she’s been doing for the last 35 years, working as a ship captain. Just getting to experience life through her perspective has definitely shaped a lot of the ways that I think about contemporary womanhood and motherhood. I think that a lot of the symptoms in pop culture and society that are plaguing women are, at the root, a reflection of the dishonesty around the way we’re living our lives and what it is that we think that we want. I think if everyone were just a little bit more sincere about what they want, what their ambitions are, I think we could solve a lot of problems.

And does your mom love being a grandma? Is that what your kids call her?

She loves it, and they call her grandma. My mom has an obsession with being needed and she derives all of her satisfaction in life from making sure that the people she loves are taken care of and feeling good. Like today, me being sick is her favorite thing, and the kids being sick is her favorite thing. She loves an improvement project of some sort.

She also remarried recently, and she’s got a new family unit that we of course have assimilated into. It’s nice to spend time there with her and everyone and to be able to provide the kids with that sort of duality too. I think it is important to have a liberal city perspective but also a relatively conservative country perspective, and formulate proximity close to two really conflicting ideologies that are bridged by love.

Do you think maybe you all will move back to the Midwest someday?

That’s something we have not reached a conclusion on yet. I’m just trying to live a life that’s really flexible to changing things up on a whim.     

What have you discovered about yourself that has surprised you the most during your motherhood journey?

I’m still me. My ambitions didn’t change, my dreams didn't change. Having kids didn’t turn my world upside down or derail my career. My life is a logistical nightmare–I take another hour to get everyone out the door in the morning, and I do a lot of schlepping. But after a long day, tucking bathed, fed babies into a warm bed in a safe home feels like a lifetime achievement—and I get to have that every night.

Originally Appeared on Vogue