Anna Morra Sednaoui interviews her daughter, model Elisa Sednaoui Dellal, bringing her boundless heart to the forefront
Egyptian-Italian Elisa Sednaoui Dellal – social entrepreneur, actor, and model – is forever the apple of her mother’s eye. “Elisa is charismatic, witty, and caring,” says Anna Morra Sednaoui, recalling that as a little girl, running through the streets of Cairo, her daughter was “adorable and independent.” The two women offer a knowing smile, revealing identical cheekbones and matching angular shapes of face. Throughout the photo shoot, they bare a similar way of walking, talking, and even moving – showcasing unabashed confidence in front of the camera. At ease, almost joyous in each other’s company, they break out into hearty laughter as they play word games in Italian.
In front of a lens, Sednaoui Dellal is a seasoned professional, having modeled since a young age for Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren as well as acting in films. Today, her foremost passion is social entrepreneurship, in the form of the non-profit Elisa Sednaoui Foundation. Its raison d’être is providing creative learning programs for children and youth across Egypt and Italy. The after-school curriculum and year-round activities are buoyed by the Sawiris Foundation and Save the Children. In the six years since its launch in Luxor, its Funtasia Cultural Centre has reached and enriched the lives of almost 6 000 people, of which more than 5 000 are children.
The foundation is not her only undertaking, though. Along with Tania Fares, the mother of two young boys is the co-chair of CFDA Fashion Trust Los Angeles, where she helps build the calendar of events and curate content and speakers. Meanwhile, as a founding board member of the League of Egyptian American Professionals, she maintains close ties to the country of her childhood where her family supports interests in Spring Place, a collective of global entrepreneurs, and Semaine, a platform that aims to push the boundaries of media and e-commerce.
Anna Morra Sednaoui: What is your earliest memory of us together?
Elisa Sednaoui Dellal: Images of us in our apartment in Zamalek, Cairo. You are working in the house with the seamstresses on the line of clothes in pure silk that you used to design and sell in Egypt and Italy. I’m singing and dancing to “Ya Moustafa” in the living room, jumping between sofas.
AMS: What did you think of my style and work in fashion when you were a child?
ESD: Style has always surrounded me, both with you and the women in our family, so I didn’t intentionally consider it for a while. Your way of dressing was always organic. Your skill at combining colors and fabrics came across as effortless. More than anything, it’s your allure that has always been impressive. Around age six or seven, after we moved from Egypt to what was a more conservative environment – Milan in the 90s – I noticed that your style was extraordinary. It was more sophisticated, avant garde, and fashionable than most other mothers of the children attending my private school in Milan. As you know, this difference, which made us noticeable, embarrassed me at times. I was trying to fit in with everyone else, following what was a difficult move from Egypt. As a result, I was a bit “tight” as a child in my quest for total normalcy. I know now that this was all part of my lesson. I am incredibly lucky to have parents who have always been true to themselves. Non-conformists. Unapologetic. You taught me to be brave enough to be myself.
AMS: How do you find our relationship has evolved since becoming a mother yourself ?
ESD: I feel that it gets better with the years, as we get to know ourselves and each other and as we learn to master – or at least address – our more extreme sides or trigger reactions. And what a gift it is to see you build your own relationship with my children, Jack and Samo. To be able to watch them grow up together and laugh with them and complain about them! I feel that I have come to understand so much more about you – your choices and your generosity. I have become less judgmental of myself and, in return, with everyone else – you included.
AMS: Is there something I taught you that you wish to instill in your boys?
ESD: This unapologetic way of being who you are. The creative, solution-oriented, problem-solving attitude. The quickness in processing and the largeness in thinking. The courage, and also the work ethic. You and I are passionate about what we set out to do and can happily work long hours.
AMS: From where does your desire to create and grow your charitable foundation stem?
ESD: I’m sure my upbringing has something to do with both my curiosity for innovative education and my desire to create a different and safer educational environment for various types of learners. Seeing you and Dad both working and having businesses in Egypt planted the option in my mind, and also warned me of the potential challenges. The projects have been very demanding, and I know that the foundation has brought a lot of work to the whole family. I realize that it hasn’t always been easy to watch me experience the harder moments. Thank you for understanding that I am driven by total conviction, and for supporting me and encouraging me regardless of the hurdles. It’s funny to see the reactions of people who don’t understand why someone with a blossoming career in entertainment would choose such a radical shift. I have since witnessed genuine hope in the eyes of youth when suddenly a spectrum of options awakens in their minds. Women born in the countryside become leaders and trainers nationwide, paid the same as men, and also feel relevant to their communities, inspired, and engaged. All this feels so real, so concrete, there is not much that can compete with it.
AMS: Your recent appointment as co-chair of the CFDA Fashion Trust Los Angeles sees you committed to the behind-the-scenes of industry development. What triggered this?
ESD: When Tania Fares asked me if I would take on the role, it felt like it would be a chance to deepen my contribution to fashion and designers. What is most interesting to me about this initiative is that it supports brands that have been in business a minimum of three years. Of course, I believe it’s important to look at and promote new talent, but in a world that has so many issues with sustainability, it does feel relevant to help brands that may also be in a critical phase. Resources and funds may have already been invested and it’s that “make it or break it” moment. The CFDA Fashion Trust creates a support system for designers through access, mentoring, and funding.
AMS: The fashion industry has evolved so much over the years. What does it take for a designer to make it today?
ESD: I believe that what hasn’t changed is that long-lasting success is the result of some form of authenticity. What modern times – this globalization and competitiveness – have shown me is that we need to be better communicators. Perhaps we also have to re-evaluate our notions of time and success. Our expectations are inhuman and it’s become so hard for brands to survive this incumbent rhythm. Also, listen to what is going on around you and inside you. Keep an eye on the ego push. If the market is not responding, it means there is something, somewhere that needs to change. Unless you are happy to just keep producing what you like, and that’s fine too. We need to surround ourselves with solid, trusted, honest, kind people, who are equally motivated. In the case of fashion, specifically, there are also responsibilities to keep in mind, such as sustainable processes of production and sale.
AMS: After having lived in Cairo and Milan, how do you consider your new adopted city of Los Angeles?
ESD: In LA I find the quality of life that I’ve been seeking. Bringing up young kids with the ease that a place with such weather and services provides, to see the horizon, make a huge difference. There are moments when the light and something magic in the air make me think of Egypt. To be able to live in a place that is the source of so much opportunity is a gift. And while it is a bit far from you in Puglia, I look forward to more leisure time together to savor all landscapes, sounds, and perfumes.
Originally published in the May 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
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