In a studio in West London, photographer Dan Belieu is reviewing his camera lenses while makeup artist Lisa Eldridge gives five young Arab models their final touch-ups. Nora, Nour, Hayett, Leyla, and Malika are filling the room with excited chatter, eager to play around on the box set erected for the cover shoot. If the models are throwing it back to the supermodels of the late Eighties, and with styling that nods to the era, they are all too conscious that they represent women whose identities have been stereotyped for centuries.
In the fashion and beauty industries, the tide is steadily changing. Arab models are resolutely making a name for themselves while changing the way the rest of the world perceives Arab and also Muslim women. Educated and fearless, this young, new generation is aiming to break social and cultural barriers and spark conversations around the region and beyond in fashion. Today, established faces like Moroccan Nora Attal and Algerian Hayett McCarthy, along with up-and-coming models like Lebanese Nour Rizk, Egyptian Leyla Karim Greiss, and Moroccan Malika El Maslouhi, all aim to inspire young Arab women in fashion to lead the charge for change, and celebrate their origins in the process. “The Middle East has a bigger influence than ever in fashion, and I’m glad to be a part of it by representing it,” explains Attal, who has also graced the covers of Vogue Arabia and British Vogue in 2017. “A lot of Arab women inspire me in what they do, from human rights activism to succeeding as beauty entrepreneurs or filmmakers who are shedding light on women’s struggles in the Middle East.”
The importance of looking up to Arab women as role models and contributing to their narrative is what will encourage today’s young generation of women from the region to make a difference, according to El Maslouhi. “On a smaller scale, I have become a reference point for several young women telling me how proud they are to see an Arab girl representing them on a global stage,” she says. “It gives me energy every day to fulfill that role, and to try to represent a positive light for Arab women so we can progressively and constructively move forward. We – as much as all women – try to break out of the norms that have existed for generations.” As much as the Arab woman has been steadily gaining momentum in the luxury and fashion industries, models of Middle Eastern or North African origin have rarely been acknowledged, until recently. A handful were setting the tone at the beginning of this decade – notably the Tunisian model and Lancôme’s first Muslim brand ambassador, Hanaa Ben Abdesslem as well as Imaan Hammam, who became the first model of Moroccan and Egyptian origins to walk the Victoria’s Secret show. Its runway shows and campaigns would usually feature a few models of African or Asian origin alongside a predominantly Caucasian casting, often sidelining Arab women in the process.
There was a time when young Arab women modeled for Azzedine Alaïa, Paco Rabanne, and Yves Saint Laurent’s greatest fashion shows and were considered to be the muses of their generation. From the late 70s to the 90s, Algerian model Farida Khelfa, as well as the Tunisian model Afef Jnifen, caused much ink to flow. Their fiery personalities and distinctive physical attributes were an exception at the time, as the luxury industry primarily featured Caucasian models to cater to a Western clientele. And yet, they made a lasting impression on the fashion industry – one that reached beyond their generation. “These women were simply incroyable,” recalls Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, legendary French stylist, and fashion editor, who recently visited Saudi Arabia for the Fashion Futures conference. “They were absolutely stunning and had such strong présence on the runway.”
Khelfa has always been aware that being an Arab woman in a predominantly white fashion industry would be an everlasting challenge. “It wasn’t easy. As a non-Muslim, it might be difficult to understand that, but it wasn’t easy for me to pose for pictures – it’s like exposing yourself,” she explains. “How do you deal with exposing yourself when you’re 16 and you don’t know anything about the world? It was difficult, but the people I worked with were nice and very patient with me – I am fortunate for that.” Her success did not open the door for more Arab models to walk through, though. They were rarely featured in the industry’s top runway shows and advertising campaigns – until Gigi and Bella Hadid, the model siblings of Palestinian and Dutch heritage, burst onto the scene five years ago.
Is this historic lack of representation because Arab models refuse to expose themselves out of respect for cultural sensitivities? Or because fashion professionals are too afraid to explore Arab femininity, which is intrinsically linked to religious and socio-political debates? For Cerf de Dudzeele, the question itself is irrelevant. “Beauty is universal. It should not even be necessary to question a model’s origin or skin color, and whether certain physical traits are supposed to set industry standards or not. For me, it has always been absolutely natural to work with a diverse casting of models – and Arab women are formidable; their charm and grace are exceptional.”
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As much as public opinion is still debating the evolution of Middle Eastern and North African women in society, the latest flag-bearers of Arab womanhood in fashion fully embrace their new roles. As members of a post-millennial generation, they are unlocking the new potential of Arab femininity, one step at a time – and staying humble throughout the process. “No one is unique,” says Hayett McCarthy when asked what makes her stand out as an Arab model. “I see no hierarchy, and I have no pride. No one is better than another. We can empower Arab women by asking them about their stories.”
For Greiss, taking the lead as an Arab woman in fashion means asserting yourself without giving in to standardized conceptions of beauty. “Arab women can feel beautiful and powerful without westernizing themselves or turning their back on feeling proud about being Arab.” And indeed, Arab women have been starting to tell their own stories to create new places of self-expression across the region and beyond. And yet, according to model agent Richard Habberley, who manages supermodel Naomi Campbell and his latest protégé, Nour Rizk, Arab women still have a long way to go to be recognized by the luxury industry. “Major cosmetic brands still sometimes lack an Arab face, which is why I find Nour to have such wonderful potential,” he comments. “At 18, she has already walked for Alexander McQueen and has been featured in an editorial for Vogue Arabia. There is no reason that in 2020 she cannot be considered by the major players in the beauty and fashion industry.”
Today, more than ever, there is potential for Arab women to have a significant place in the luxury, fashion, and beauty industries. Recognizing as well that their economic independence and power is continuously growing, makes the status of Arab women in society an even more attractive force to be reckoned with. Recent reports by Goldstein Research confirm that the Middle East’s young and affluent consumer base makes the region another global bright spot for purchases of luxury goods both on and offline, next to China and the US, who remain growth leaders for luxury retail worldwide. The regional market is projected to reach the US $22.4 billion by 2025, owing to the growing importance of millennial consumers – which is precisely why Arab models have such potential to become the luxury industry’s next brand ambassadors and It girls. However, the Arab world is still lacking in strong global brand ambassadors due to both the ongoing pursuit of gender equality and reclaiming of racial identity. While luxury brands do already invest in It girls of Arab origins, these celebrities and influencers tend to cater to a regional audience rather than an international one, like their peers in the Afro-American or Latin communities do. Arab women are just starting to build their own cultural narratives internationally, as laws and traditions become less restrictive worldwide. They have yet to gain momentum on the international scene through global voices of pop culture and entertainment.
If Arab women are proving their mettle – adding their unique value to the regional industry as entrepreneurs, designers, influencers, and innovators – in parallel, they are building an Arab female capital awash with empowering opportunities. “To empower is to self-express,” comments Rizk. “It’s about expressing who you are, where you come from – and all the beauty within all aspects of being an Arab woman today. The more you showcase your diversity in what you do, the more you’re empowering yourself, and all the Arab women around you.
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Photography Dan Belieu
Style Katie Trotter
Hair Teiji Utsumi at Bryant Artists
Makeup Lisa Eldridge at Streeters
Nails Sylvie Macmillan at M+A
Set design Anna Sbiera at Swan MGMT Artists
Producer Dawn Moretti
Casting agent Tasha Tongpreecha
Models Nora Attal at DNA Models, Malika El Maslouhi at DNA Models, Layla Karim Le Greiss at IMG, Hayett McCarthy at IMG, Nour Rizk at Models 1
With thanks to The Marriott Park Lane Hotel