Born in Italy to an Egyptian family, Elisa Sednaoui has become this season’s hot ticket. A muse to Karl Lagerfeld, god-daughter to Christian Louboutin – Elisa’s career is anything but tokenism.
With her parents’ divorce in 1994, Sednaoui moved to France and began modelling in 2006 at the age of 19. In April that year, she made the move to New York to actively pursue a full-time career in modelling.
The move proved worthwhile with a campaign for H&M in 2007, a campaign for Victoria’s Secret and a part in film ‘Neither Before Nor After’, working with director Sharunas Bartas.
In 2008, Elisa signed a fragrance contract with Diesel to become the face of their prolific ‘Fuel for Life’ campaign, photographed by Ellen Von Unwerth. In August she got the cover of French ‘L’Officiel’, and walked in shows in September for designers Diane Von Furstenberg, Tuleh, Betsey Johnson and Costume National.
2009 saw Elisa’s career step up a gear with a signing for John Frieda haircare, and an early runway season walking for Catherine Malandrino, Tuleh and Diane Von Furstenberg.
In April and May, she scored back-to-back editorials with Italian Marie Claire, Italian Flair and German Vogue. Elisa became the face of the Diesel label in 2010, also modelling for the S/S Hogan campaign.
Her first big break, however, came in March when she appeared in an editorial for Numero, photographed by Karl Lagerfeld. Named ‘Dangerous Couture’, the spread was a fetish-themed shoot, with Elisa’s trademark locks swept into a 20’s-style bob.
Any association with Chanel tends to act as stardust on a new model’s career, and Karl’s nod of approval took Sednaoui’s profile to the next level. In April, her personal style was the subject of a profile in French Elle, and in the same month, Italian Vogue featured her as a rising star.
The following month, Italian Vogue put its statement into effect by booking Elisa for her first editorial with the major publication, photographed by her cousin, Stephane Sednaoui.
Elisa’s link with Chanel went one stage further in May when she appeared in a short film directed by Lagerfeld, advertising the Chanel Cruise collection for Autumn 2010. Also featuring Karolina Kurkova, Heidi Mount, Abbey Lee and Jake Davies, the short played to every one of Elisa’s strengths. In head-to-toe Chanel, Sednaoui looked every inch the cool, arty girl that Lagerfeld ultimately designs for. Every one of Lagerfeld’s muses has been a woman of substance: ice princesses need not apply.
In July, she got her first editorial with American fashion magazine W, photographed by Terry Richardson. Featuring among many new faces, ‘Lunch Break’ was a mix of bawdiness and couture sensibility – in other words, trademark Richardson. Elisa’s blend of high-fashion awareness and mainstream sex-appeal made her a perfect model for Richardson’s shoot.
The end of 2010 saw Elisa become one of the faces of the Diane Von Furstenberg label, and a second editorial for Italian Vogue. Photographed by Miles Aldridge, ‘Like a Movie’ was perfect subject matter for film-fan Elisa. Aldridge’s work verges on the cinematic, and this spread was no exception.
Exploiting make-up and wardrobe to their fullest potential, the series of images were constructed to look like film stills, both referencing old Hollywood (including Bette Davis in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’) and the work of art-photographer Cindy Sherman.
Working since the 70’s, Sherman made her name with haunting black and white ‘stills’ using herself as the model. The photographs do not directly reference any one film, but steer you towards films you think you may have seen, but can’t quite pin down. It is this uneasiness that makes the work so potent even 30 years on. Sherman’s now-famous series of film stills are both familiar and uncomfortable viewing – exactly the tone Aldridge and Sednaoui aimed for, and got.
Sednaoui rounded out the year with editorials in Dazed & Confused and L’Officiel and a spread in Russian Vogue, photographed by Ellen Von Unwerth.
This year, the buzz on Elisa has reached fever pitch. Already profiled in the broadsheets as the name to watch, she has scooped an editorial with Chinese Vogue, the cover of Italian Elle and now the Giorgio Armani S/S 2011 campaign. It is a major booking for any model, but Elisa’s status as a fashion IT girl was cemented by this signing in one fell swoop. Not only that, any doubts that her growth in the industry was due to her connections were now dispelled: there’s no room in campaigns of this calibre for models that are second-rate, even if they are a ‘name’. Armani demands, and expects, perfection.
Elisa’s success is made all the more remarkable simply because of the current fashion climate. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the bombshell had exited fashion’s vocabulary altogether. Traditional sex-appeal has been off the books for some time, with off-beat beauties such as Freja Beha, Lindsey Wixson and Jamie Bochert scooping all the campaigns and glory. Even with top models such as Lara Stone, the body may be textbook bombshell, but the gap in her front teeth places her squarely at the heart of high-fashion.
Where fashion has done bombshell recently, it’s been by nuance. Hungarian model Eniko Mihalik has cornered the market in chic sensuality. Her series of editorials may be in danger of searing the page, but the heat’s always tempered by that fashion edge.
Why Elisa has made such an impact in such a short space of time is not hard to figure out. She is tipped to be the face of 2011 because she provides that nostalgic hit of sexuality once part of the high-fashion experience of the Eighties and Nineties. Elisa does particularly well in editorial and campaign work. Her spread with Miles Aldridge for Italian Vogue is perhaps the most perfect summary of her talent so far: bold, complex and filmic. It’s no accident that Sednaoui has branched out into films: her movie-star face almost craves a bigger canvas.
Elisa’s leanings towards cinema are not the far-reach you might imagine. Many models have made that leap – some more successfully than others – but the reason they still feel compelled to do so is simple: modelling at its high-fashion core is all about story-telling. Any campaign, no matter how well styled or shot, needs a performance from the model to make it work. Most of the big labels have their own shorthand: Gucci = smouldering, conspicuous consumption. Marc Jacobs = razor-sharp intelligence applied to fashion’s back-catalogue. Recognising a brand’s identity is the easy part, but translating that label’s vision for the season? It requires a set of skills that are not dissimilar to the actor: for that moment you have to believe you are the carefree teenager in nothing but H&M, or the Cavalli glamour-puss with money to burn.
Without that commitment, the campaign loses its sparkle: even the most outrageous, creatively avant-garde ad needs an emotional charge to make the connection between campaign and consumer. Wanting to look like the model in the ad isn’t really the point: imagining yourself clutching that Versace bag is the all-important step towards buying. A model has to put herself in the label’s shoes but we have to put ourselves in her Manolos in order to complete the purchase chain. Fashion’s all about want: the most primal - and sometimes irresistible – urge there is. Factor sex into the equation and you’ve got yourself a monster hit of a campaign.
Elisa’s multi-page ad for the S/S 11 Giorgio Armani campaign is the perfect illustration of how fashion sells sex. Sophisticated but definitely smouldering, the images take the label to a relatively unexplored part of its identity. The well-documented friendly rivalry between label-founder Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani saw the former label take on high-fashion’s ultimate challenge: how to make clothes sexy but still make them trend-relevant. Dressing sexy before Versace meant cheap fabrics and a sense of the obvious. What Gianni, and now Donatella, have done is made ‘sexy’ fashionable. The formula is simple: good-quality fabrics, unexpected colour choices and a revealing of the body that’s tasteful, not tacky.
The divide was drawn between Armani and Versace when Armani took a decidedly different route to glamour and sex appeal. Armani has consistently produced achingly-glamorous silhouettes and given us some killer red-carpet moments thanks to his couture line, but where Versace chooses to reveal, Armani plays the modesty card. Between them, Armani and Versace have sent Italian fashion values through the roof and made Milan an international fashion capital, but there’s never been any danger of confusing the two labels.
What this latest campaign does is introduce us to the more overtly-sexy side of Armani. It’s still in the best possible taste, but by choosing Elisa as the girl to represent the season; it’s a darker, steamier side of Armani: refreshing as it is surprising. That’s what a good model can do – their own personal currency can seep into a campaign, giving the images an added layer of depth: in Elisa’s case, the quintessential Italian model for the quintessential Italian brand.
Already courting press attention with her appearance in the 2011 Pirelli calendar, Elisa has also experienced a breakthrough season on the A/W 2011 runways this year. Doing both calendars and catwalks is no longer unusual, but to be able to play up to your looks and still get taken seriously by the fashion crowd takes considerable skill. It used to be a feat reserved for the supermodels of the 80’s and 90’s: household names that still opened and closed major catwalk shows without having to compromise their ‘look’.
What Elisa does that’s different is to go to fashion’s extremes: the places where styling and make-up physically transform you, but can only take you so far: you do the rest. Her fetish-themed editorial for Numero and the role-swapping shoot for December’s Russian Vogue required models to go beyond their own image, even their own gender, to get an editorial that’s both thought-provoking and convincing. Again like acting, it doesn’t matter if all the technical elements are in place: without emotion, without heart, it just won’t work.
Elisa’s career choices haven’t always been what you would expect, and that’s exactly why the fashion world finds Elisa so intriguing. Never the same woman twice, Elisa Sednaoui is the ultimate 21st century bombshell.