Elena Velez and Carly Mark: Emerging Fashion Disruptors

For outsiders, the fashion industry might look as though it is all glitter and gloss, but namesake designer Elena Velez and Carly Mark of Puppets and Puppets readily shared some of the hard knocks and lessons learned.

During “The Emerging Fashion Disruptors,” a panel hosted by Booth Moore, WWD executive editor, West Coast, at WWD x FN x Beauty Inc Women in Power in New York, Velez, designer and founder of her signature label, spoke of the need for more capital for young talent.

“You get punched in the face everyday as a small business owner. You just have to wake up the next day and say, ‘It feels really good to be punched in the face again.’ After time, you’ve constructed something with blood, sweat and tears. It’s formative, tangible and exciting. That’s why we keep doing it,” she said.

Mark, a fine artist who is now creative director and founder of Puppets and Puppets, was upfront about the fact that there had been “a lot of me smiling and nodding, but having no idea of what was going on for a long time. But it’s been great. I always feel like, if I don’t know what I’m doing I can’t be doing anything wrong. That’s where I come from.”

The conversation dove into the issues facing emerging design talent. Mark and Velez — who are friends — discussed how online retail has shifted things and conditioned consumers to shop for sale items, which hampers sell-throughs of full-priced goods in freestanding stores; the upsides of hiring interns to give them a realistic view of potential career paths; relying on other more experienced women in the industry for guidance; aligning with silent investors for financial support and doing occasional collaborations to boost financial solvency.

They were less enthusiastic about the investment needed — $40,000 to $100,000 — for a fashion show, which Mark described as “a vital PR tool.” The pair also suggested that unlike in the ’90s, today the most young American designers cannot subsidize their careers by working as creative directors elsewhere.

The duo, who Velez now describes as “trauma bonded,” first connected via social media. “Honestly, like nobody gets to the point where we’re at in building our brands unscathed. There is a minority of people who are on the scene who can share the extent of our hardships, and who know what the day looks like, and what the exact problem we’re trying to solve looks like,” Velez said.

Originally from Milwaukee, Velez is the only daughter of a single mom who is a ship captain on the Great Lakes. As a result, many of her early creative references were related to heavy metal industrial spaces in the Midwest, she said. “Obviously, if you’re from that part of the country, you don’t necessarily see a future for yourself in something as cosmopolitan as fashion necessarily. But for me, it was an existential pull toward something I didn’t understand, necessarily, but needed to express somehow. So I’m doing what I wanted to do since I was like four.”

Mark, a fellow Midwesterner, first studied fine art in New York and tested out fashion in the early 2000s through internships. Around the age of 30, she switched gears from fine art to fashion.

Finding it “really impossible” to produce in the Garment District, Velez said she has “big dreams” of starting her own factory in Milwaukee to create a vertical circular ecosystem. “If I could centralize that somewhere where the overhead is lower and where there is talent, I could do something interesting for the brand in a lot of different ways. And I could contribute to the scene in an exciting way.” she said.

Mark touched upon sustainability, saying that it is “inherently built into the young designer model, because our quantities are so low. When I have a sku ordered, I’m not making more than 10 to 20 units tops. My accessories are a bit different,” she said, referencing her brand’s cookie and banana bags. “There were moments where I’ve tried to use compostable tags. They said, ‘Well, that’s going to triple the price of what you’re using now. And I thought, “’OK, I’m going to have to add that cost to the price of the garment. Then my customers are like, ‘Why are your clothes so expensive?’”

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