Free Your Mind

The alluring empowerment of Elisa Sednaoui

Photography Emily Soto • Fashion direction Sally Matthews • Words Elle Timms

Elisa wears: Blazer by MSGM. Trousers by MSGM. Sneakers by Marc Jacobs.

A multi-hyphenate woman on a mission, Elisa Sednaoui is providing a vital voice of support to young people and emerging talent alike, bridging creativity with curriculum all with a signature charm and power of persuasion. The MOD meets her in L.A. where she lives now with her husband, art dealer Alex Dellal, and their two young boys – a location that suits her spirit entirely, poised to champion the positive changes in the world she wants to see.

Looking like the effortless Parisian woman we all want to be, and from the kind of melting-pot heritage that is modern Bohemia personified, Elisa Sednaoui could not, in fact, be further removed from any sort of Instagram cliché. But if you want a label for it, we’ll say: Cool French insouciance meets a very specific brand of sensual Middle Eastern femininity. Born in Italy and raised between Egypt, Italy, and France, with Italian heritage on her mother’s side, Syrian-Egyptian on her father’s, to call the 30-year-old ‘well cultured’ seems a touch feeble (not to mention her being fluent in five, soon to be six, languages we witness when she road tests a newly acquired Portuguese for our cameras, her small and behaved pet dog Nina sitting alongside – so chic). Once best known for her modelling career and being the face of brands such as Chanel and Armani, plus various acting and film direction projects, Elisa’s life has since changed track when she decided to concentrate her attention elsewhere, with purpose. Ending up in L.A. certainly suits her, she goes on to explain.

In the entertainment business everything was too self-celebratory, too self-obsessed

Dress by Zimmermann.

“Everything is so light here. The West and the Middle East, we are proud of our history and our culture and they are a big part of our identity, and when you come here suddenly there is a lightness of freedom, of who you are today and what do you want to do.” In a place where old-school Hollywood has made way for important tech players and self-starting entrepreneurship, and conversations are shifting from entertainment and show business to equality, Elisa is perfectly positioned to use her voice and be heard, driving the change she so passionately believes in and has been working for over the last few years. “I do things that motivate me, and that’s why I ended up dedicating myself to development when I had a career starting in cinema, and other things. In the entertainment business everything was too self-celebratory, too self-obsessed, and this whole idea of people revolving around you and wanting to be with you just because of how famous you are and that expectation of ‘what’s your next movie?’ it’s just never felt right. I wasn’t happy.”


Robe by Haider Ackermann. T-Shirt by RE/DONE. Jeans by RE/DONE. Boots by Malone Souliers.

The move from fronting campaigns to philanthropy was a natural shift, but not without challenges, some from her most trusted friends and family.  “When you’re 20-years-old with a career that is just beginning and you’re saying, ‘I don’t want to do it’, even the people closest to you will not understand why – they thought I was trying to self-sabotage.”

Quite the opposite, an inspiring social entrepreneur and the founder of a network of global youth education programmes within the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation emerged. Its schemes in Egypt and Italy provide access to innovative, hands-on creative learning experiences, offering a variety of after-school programs to youth and children, and professional development to adults. Her roots in fashion remain in part, by way of offering her support to carefully selected worthwhile projects she truly believes in, ones with meaning, such as sitting as CFDA Fashion Trust LA co-chair, encouraging and mentoring emerging designers.

Robe by Haider Ackermann. T-Shirt by RE/DONE. Jeans by RE/DONE.

Elisa credits the strength of her upbringing for being able to establish herself and stay true to her beliefs, despite the aforementioned push back, and other issues she faced as a young woman in Hollywood and the fashion industry. She talks openly about how the #MeToo movement has changed the world for good, but the concept isn’t anything new for her. It’s as if everyone is finally catching up with the mentality she’s always had. “I was brought up by parents that never made me feel inferior – my father as a man never made me feel inferior because I am a woman, I had empowered women in my family.” Acknowledging the privilege she was surrounded by, her sense of self-worth and confidence in what she is meant to do was once called upon during a meeting with Harvey Weinstein.

“I went to one of those meetings. Of course, he tried, he tried to take me home with him, but I said no. I was laughing, I wasn’t impolite, but I said no. thank you but no. And it was a categoric no. For me there is nothing, there is no profession that I would want enough to do something that didn’t feel right.” It was a pivotal time in her young life and one which she is comfortable and compelled to share with honesty.

Dress by Zimmermann.

For me there is nothing, there is no profession that I would want enough to do something that didn’t feel right.

Sweater by Rachel Comey. Skirt by Rachel Comey. Sneakers by Marc Jacobs.

Blouse by Erdem. Skirt by Erdem.


The common thread when it comes to causes Elisa feels strongly about: if it’s something she can lend her voice to and help someone she will, it’s that simple, and it’s what drives her. However, for all the empowerment and voices of activism that’s occurred in the past twelve months surrounding the global themes of equality and empowerment, she doesn’t condone media witch hunts either, “I think it is a complicated aspect – and I don’t rejoice in seeing Mr. Weinstein suffering.”

For Elisa, the issue begins with education. “A lot of it comes from the pressure we felt in the world but the pressure we felt in the world comes from the education we were brought up from – the examples we looked up to, so I am proud that women know now that is not okay, that we don’t have to do that to achieve our dreams.”

Strong, determined, a role model in self-worth and endearingly persuasive, Elisa is engaging company. The epitome of a Modist Muse, doing things her way with effortless style. Fluidly moving between the world of fashion, to fundraising, to sitting in classrooms in rural Egypt discussing implementing curriculum, she is as versatile as she is intelligent. “How you dress, and if you choose for whatever reason for that to be in a modest, covered yet still glamorous way, that is a sign of empowerment and ownership of your own identity.” She finishes, referencing the various looks she’s happily danced in the street wearing in the fading, still golden, L.A. sunlight. “To dress modestly doesn’t feel like I am renouncing anything, I don’t lose any of the charm because I am more covered.”  

To dress modestly doesn’t feel like I am renouncing anything, I don’t lose any of the charm because I am more covered.

Blazer by MSGM. Trousers by MSGM. T-Shirt by Baum und Pferdgarten.

Dress by Layeur.

Dress by Layeur.

Blouse by Erdem. Skirt by Erdem.


Discover more about the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation

Hair Malcolm Logan
Make-up Natasha Severino
Photography Assistants Victor Soto and Christian Raices
Fashion Assistant Mohammad Diallo

Production William Carducci @ Urban NYC
Picture and Production Editor Nina Ross
Production Assistants Devan Francisco and Mike Lai

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