French Stylist Elena Mottola on Why Taking Items Off Is as Important as Putting Them On

Portrait of Elena Mottola by Melissa de Araujo. All images courtesy of Mottola.

Welcome to Rules To Live By, where CULTURED asks sartorial voices—renegades, visionaries, and annotators—to unpack their style DNA and share the edicts they follow (and break) in the absurd game of life.

Elena Mottola broke into the world of fashion when she was still in high school. She may not have known who Anna Wintour was, but with her boyfriend, Pierre Kaczmarek, the Paris-based teen made waves with the deconstructed chic clothes of their en vogue clothing line Afterhomework. Four years into the adventure, which Mottola considers just as formative as fashion school, she decided to change course. “Having a brand was about imposing a vision two to four times a year, and I was more interested in sharing a vision many, many times a year,” she says over Zoom. “It’s like being a DJ versus creating an album. When you’re a DJ you can change songs every night, whereas a musician has to sing the same songs over and over again.” The equivalent of a DJ in fashion? Being a stylist. Five years into her new career, she’s accumulated editorials and collaborations with publications and brands such as Vogue Italia, Dazed, CR Fashion Book, Nike, and Bulgari, and cemented a tongue-in-cheek, character-driven approach to styling. For CULTURED, Mottola dishes on believing in obvious beauty, staying home if she doesn’t find the right outfit, and unpacking effortlessness. 

CULTURED: Who taught you how to dress?

Elena Mottola: The women in my family! Dressing in a fashionable way was a means to define my personality. It was so hard for me to express myself through language growing up. It was way easier to express myself through clothes, hair, and makeup.

CULTURED: What stylistic phases did you go through as a kid?

Mottola: Like many people in the fashion industry, I’ve been through every phase. I had this dark moment where everything I wore was black and by Japanese designers like Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. Before that, there was the cowboy moment, the girly moment, the princess moment—I passed through all of them. When I was a kid, the thing I looked forward to the most was my dance recital at the end of the year. Getting into a costume on stage—this for me was happiness. The costumes and the performance aspect marked me back then, so it’s funny that now it’s my job to create these “characters” from scratch. As a stylist, you build a world, which is also why it’s so linked to the movies. 

CULTURED: What are some movies that have shaped you?

Mottola: I love obvious beauty, something that anyone can like. A democratic, legible beauty. So in that way, I really love Paolo Sorrentino, Terrence Malick, and Wes Anderson. The characters are so fucked up but so charismatic and you get attached to them. Like Song to Song, 2017, by Terrence Malick, when I watched it I felt like I was on drugs. His film The Tree of Life, 2011, made me feel the same thing. These films and these directors reassure me about life. 

CULTURED: Are there people in your day-to-day life who you find inspiring?

Mottola: I’m half Italian, and most of the people I find inspiring are in Italy. Just the way that people express themselves… In France, it’s way more about what you think, what your politics are. French culture is more about the brain, and Italian culture is way more about appearance. There are these intense characters, like ladies walking down the street with dogs that match their clothing, or a 90-year-old grandpa in a full suit on his way to go grocery shopping. Any moment they go out, they have to look good. And that for me is everything. 

CULTURED: What was your breakout moment as a stylist?

Mottola: It was with the musician Lous and the Yakuza. We worked together for three years, and still a bit now … What’s important to me about my job is making things that my grandmothers could understand. And in that way, styling is a bit weird because nobody understands the job, so working with celebrities or working with publications like Vogue Italia is so important because they make what I do legible.

CULTURED: How do you get dressed in the morning?

Mottola: Depends on the vibe. Sometimes it can take literally hours. I can try 20 looks before finding the right one. Sometimes it’s the first one. But I just cannot go out if I don’t feel good in my outfit. I’d rather stay home.


CULTURED: What would someone have to wear on a first date for you to walk out?

Mottola: For a first date, wow them with effortless sexiness.

CULTURED: Effortlessness is a construction, though. It’s never that easy. 

Mottola: Effortlessness is like mastering nothing. That’s the key to fashion. On shoots, I always end up taking layers off, even if it means I’m leaving a model in just a tank top instead of some fancy outfit. When you overdress, you’re not in control of the message you’re trying to share. Striking the right tone is the chicest thing. In this way, I’m quite French

CULTURED: Whose closet would you want to pull a Bling Ring for?

Mottola: Madonna. Someone who’s had thousands of lives. 

Elena Mottola’s Rules to Live By:

1. Always adapt to the situation. 

2. Always prioritize creativity.

3. Never restrict yourself to seeing the same people all the time. Anybody can be inspiring.

4. Always mix generations and cultures. 

5. Always question your own beliefs.

6. Combine the uncombinable, but always stay chic.

7. Never stop learning. 

8. Always take care of the way you present yourself to the world.

9. Never stick to the norm. 

10. Never be late. 

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