In a small, remote, mountainous village, when she was 4 months old, during the almost 30-year Eritrean war for independence, fashion stylist Elsa Isaac had a near-death experience. Her mother and grandmother were in another part of the family compound when a bomb fell on the village, near the hut Elsa was sleeping in.
“My mother ran in and grabbed me. She said the left side of my body was on fire!” Elsa recalls in our interview. “Somehow, some way, I survived that; in a place where there were no hospitals or modern-day medicine.”
Elsa is now a professional fashion stylist based in New York City. Her website, elsaisaac.com, focuses on figuring out and owning your style. Though she does not remember the terrifying events of her childhood, she is left with a sense of gratitude, wonder for her mother and a drive nothing short of remarkable. Throughout our almost hour-long conversation, she freely dispenses motivational wisdom.
“Figuring out when it’s time to go or make a change can be daunting. You may wonder, ‘Am I ready? Should I stick it out a little longer?’ Just do it. You’ve got to do it before you’re ready, and that pressure will be good for you.”
Getting into the Industry
For as long as she can remember, Elsa has always been interested in fashion, recalling that she was more absorbed by her dolls’ clothes than playing with them. Her journey to her dream city, New York, included taking a year off after high school to build her fashion portfolio, getting accepted into the exclusive Ryerson University in Toronto and then gathering all of her courage in 2006, she started working in the commercial fashion industry.
“How can you tell women to be stylish, when you are continuously pushing one type of beauty down their throats?”
After a while, however, the dream turned to a constrictive reality. “Around the year 2009, I remember feeling like I wasn’t in alignment with what I was doing, like something was off. Maybe I was also trying to find my own style, and what I was doing wasn’t helping my creativity,” Elsa said. “It wasn’t fulfilling.”
“How can you tell women to be stylish, when you are continuously pushing one type of beauty down their throats? I think that’s why the commercial industry didn’t fit well with me anymore,” she added. “I don’t think it is an industry that promotes individuality; [which] in essence, is exactly what style is about.” She wanted something different, and so she started working with real, diverse women who were entrepreneurs struggling to feel beautiful.
Her styling business is all about tapping into the personality of her clients and helping them express their individuality through their clothes.
Elsa describes the strong connection between her culture and entrepreneurial drive and has plans to create an online cultural collection soon where her Eritrean identity can be featured online; exhibiting modern silhouettes using fabrics from back home. “There is a gap in the market for those of us who grew up in the diaspora and want a different fit than what our mothers would wear, but still represent our cultures by how we dress,” she said.
Her final words of wisdom to young Africans is to be bold in what makes us different. “Don’t shy away from your culture and where you come from,” Elsa said. “I feel like I drew inspiration from my culture many times when things were hard.” She feels that ability has made her lucky. “Not everyone has that culture.”
Being proud is a must, because “it’ll be your source of comfort, inspiration, and heritage; it should be your foundation. It’s going to be the thing that takes you furthest in life,” Elsa said. “I truly believe that. If we accept our weird, we’ll make it in life.”