“When you have a similar soul, that’s how you connect. We come from different places, but she is my sister.”
At the Galerie Bourbon in Paris, a sumptuous private building from 1860, built for the Spanish Bourbon family, the laughter from Farida Khelfa and Carla Bruni seems to bounce off the six-meter-high ceilings. During their shoot for Vogue Arabia, the friendly chatter is non-stop between the two soul sisters and the atmosphere on set is light and cheerful. Khelfa is regal in a bulbous black gown by Alaïa, when Bruni rushes in and laughingly proclaims, “You took the most beautiful dress!” Clearly in a sisterly, partner-in-crime way. Swiftly, Bruni slips into a fitted black pants suit, which mirrors her own tailored-chic style. The women pose comfortably together, chatting as they lace their arms, taking artistic direction with ease.
For French documentary filmmaker, actor, fashion ambassador, and model Farida Khelfa, fashion opened an entire world, which took her far from her family and hometown of Lyon, France. Leaving home at a young age, the determined Khelfa escaped to Paris. “Suddenly, I decided to embrace my own life, to leave my family [who were originally from Algeria],” she shares. “I am very lucky. It was difficult as a child and it wasn’t perfect, but today, I am so happy with my life. It was my journey and I accepted it.” Moving to Paris allowed her to be “discovered” by the fashion world, which embraced and supported her from the beginning. She met Jean Paul Gaultier who, in turn, introduced her to creative polymath Jean-Paul Goude. Then, she met Christian Louboutin and the man she considered family, Azzedine Alaïa. They propelled Khelfa to fashion world stardom and she, along with Naomi Campbell, became the inspiring muses for Alaïa. Today, Khelfa is married to businessman Henri Seydoux; together they have two grown sons, and she is stepmother to actor Léa Seydoux. Khelfa has a creative hand that is very much seeped in the world of fashion and film – she was ambassador for the house of Schiaparelli from 2012 to 2017, while her recent documentary, The Other Side of the Veil (2021) is a poignant look at independent and powerful women breaking preconceptions about what it means to be a woman in the region. She goes beyond the clichés and lends a western platform to Arab women to speak for themselves.
Carla Bruni, former First Lady of France from 2008 to 2012, is a model, singer/songwriter, and mother of two, born in Italy and living and working in France. Coming from a different – one might even say opposite – background than Khelfa, Bruni was born into a successful family of industrialists and lived with ease and comfort. She brushes this all away, saying, “Connections in life aren’t made by your name or your color. I know this sounds so banal, but what is your soul like? What kind of person are you? When you have a similar soul, that’s how you connect. We come from different places, but she is my sister,” she adds of Khelfa. Bruni, who released her sixth album, Carla Bruni, in 2020, and who started modeling at 19, has walked the runway for Gianni Versace and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. Modeling is how the two women met. Bruni explains enthusiastically, “Don’t ask how long ago, but we were both in our 20s. Farida was working a lot with Azzedine, and she was one of his muses. I was working with other designers, but I was craving to work with him because he was paying the girls with clothes! He was like family in the fashion world. He always fed us good food. He was a very special designer and would never submit himself to the fashion world.” Khelfa continues, “Yes, I remember this very well. We met at Azzedine’s, and after a show we went to have a coffee and we immediately connected. There was a spark between us, and we didn’t stop talking.” Although the two friends don’t have endless time to “hang out” today, they do manage to have a nice kitchen lunch sometimes, or a meal at Loulou’s or the Royal Monceau. “Or we can spend time on the phone,” Khelfa says. “Carla is Italian, so very talkative and so am I!” Both went on to be witnesses for each other’s weddings and they can often be seen holidaying together in the summer, with other friends like Campbell. Keen to support each other’s professional endeavors outside of fashion, Bruni sat behind Khelfa when she unveiled her recent documentary at the Arab Institute, while Khelfa has happily witnessed many a concert of her musician friend.
Of their early modeling years, Bruni remembers, “Farida was completely unique then, the only Arab model at the time. She was the only star and very famous. She was everywhere.” They agree that fashion was different then, sharing that everything was “like a party and so much fun.” Bruni adds, “It was the time, of course, and it was that world. It was always a serious business, but it was more fun.” And it was hard work. Khelfa states, “We had to run, run, run! We would have six or seven outfits a show,” as opposed to today’s models showcasing one or two looks only.
Both women continue to model today and concur that there is a new approach to fashion, where inclusivity is important and there is space for all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages. Khelfa emphasizes, “This is a community that embraced me in the beginning.” Khelfa proves that she is also a leader in this drive for inclusivity. “The idea we have of the Arab world in the west is so different. Now, we see strong women, powerful women, expressing themselves. It is also so elegant.” Bruni chimes in, “I do believe tradition should be respected. I’ve been everywhere in the Middle East and both of us were at Qatar fashion week a few years ago. The world has changed. The world has moved. The Middle East is becoming the center of the world.”
When talk turns to family and juggling everything and everybody, Bruni jumps in, “When children are little, they take up a lot, but they give a lot and then they grow up.” Finishing her friend’s sentence, Khelfa adds, “And then they leave!” Bruni continues, “People always say it must be difficult to be married to a president but no, it wasn’t. It was much more difficult with my children. You have to change your schedule and we are lucky enough not to have to run to a job. We are in show business and have special times. My job is the majority at night. I start writing at 6pm until midnight and now, I work between 10pm and 2am. I am not a morning person.” On her agenda currently are several fashion projects and traveling for her music, along with tending to an olive oil property in the South of France. Khelfa, meanwhile, confesses to being a morning person, currently working on a podcast with Cartier featuring women like Nadine Labaki and Sudanese poet Emi Mahmoud. Together, the women express that the fashion world embraced them and as Bruni comments, “Fashion gave us names.” Khelfa adds, “For me, fashion is freedom and full of joy and life and I really love it.” The industry may have changed since their earliest days modeling, but for both, along with their friendship, it is one of life’s greater constants.
Originally published in the March 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Ilham Mestour
Makeup: Aya Fujita, Harold James
Nails: Shirin Tamer
Photography assistants: Emil Kosuge, Lucile Brizard, Olivia Tran
Style assistant: Gaby Cambero
Digital assistant: Lorenzo Touzet
Creative producer: Laura Prior
Local production: Production Berlin Group
All furniture: Infinite Mirror Tables designed by Axel Huynh Paris for Henryot & Cie
Shot on location at La Galerie Bourbon
Special thanks: Moma Group, Benjamin Patou, Grégory Lentz