Swedish-Eritrean stylist and costume designer Ellen Elias goes by Ellen X on Instagram, and only once you take a look at her intricate work does this futuristic moniker start to make sense. She recently collaborated with photographer Émilie Régnier on a photo series for Italian Vogue called “Dakar: The City of Light,” and perhaps the most stunning costuming moment comes halfway through the slideshow when you see one of Elias’s creations in the aforementioned glow of the city: an intricate satin black hat punctured all over with golden safety pins and decorated with dark red jewels and glassy stones.
Elias’s work is quite ornate, and while her personal sense of style does bring a lot of different elements together, she sticks to a more minimal color palette in her everyday life. The Asmara-born stylist, who grew up in Stockholm, currently splits her time between Paris and London, and she really does wear sleek black pieces that would look at home in The Matrix: She did some location scouting in Senegal in a black leather skirt with an asymmetrical cut-out, which she paired with some over-the-knee, spandex-like black boots. She’s just as likely to stunt on a motorbike in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in a red-accented pair of motocross pants and a black mesh shirt as she is to pose in the streets of Paris in a metallic silver jacket and snakeskin shoes. She’ll buy clothing when she’s traveling in street markets and small vintage shops, but she says that she’s turned to making her own clothes given how quickly she tires of certain styles. “My favorite piece that I created is a multifunctional blazer that can look different every time I wear it,” she says.
Elias says that there are nine different tribes in Eritrea who all dress in a distinct manner, which has influenced her own approach to styling. “Eritrean culture is not just what you decide to wear, it’s all in the details that make your whole look,” she says. “Even in how you choose to wear your henna—that tells something. It’s in the accessories you wear, the tattoos and the scars that tell who you are and what you believe in. I love to take these expressions from the nine different tribes to really show how I feel,” Elias says. “I’m a very emotional and expressive person so this has helped me to define what style is for me—it’s not just the clothes you wear, it’s the feelings you share.”
Elias says one of her main motivations underlying her various projects is disproving Western stereotypes of African culture. She’s now at work on a visual identity project for which she plans to travel the length of the continent to showcase the traditional attire of different tribes with custom looks that draw on each region’s unique resources. “There’s a stereotype that Africa is one big country with limited fabrication, prints, colors and ethnicities,” Elias says. “I want to achieve a bigger picture for Africa.” Watch out for more of Elias’s work to come, and check out the video above to see Elias browse the oversize baubles and reworked army navy jackets at a bustling marketplace in Brixton.