Follow Vogue Arabia

Hijabi Modeling Star Ugbad Abdi on Welcoming Her Younger Sister Hani in Fashion

Modeling star Ugbad Abdi’s career has been shaped by faith and family – and now, her younger sister Hani is joining her in fashion.

Hani (left) wears jacket, Dries Van Noten; earrings, Alexis Bittar; headwrap, stylist’s own. Ugbad wears bodysuit, Balenciaga; dress, AZ Factory; headwrap, stylist’s own. Vogue Arabia, April 2022. Photo: Luigi and Iango

Transformation is an essential part of being a model, but Ugbad Abdi appreciates every moment she gets to be herself. The 23-year-old star has spent most of the year so far traveling for work, jetting from one destination to the next as she brings designer fantasies to life. On paper, the job is glamorous – one day, she’s a Versace beauty in Milan, the next an urbane muse for Tom Ford – but the ceaseless nature of fashion’s current calendar means every spare minute is precious. Fresh from a trip to Miami for a shoot and blessed with a rare evening off, Abdi could explore the city, but she’d rather call her mom. “I’m always checking in, giving her little updates on how things are going,” she shares on the phone from Manhattan. “My family was just here over the holidays. I loved it. We spent so much time going to parks, riding our bikes, or hanging out. They’re such a big part of my life.”

Vest, skirt, Luchen; headpiece, JR Malpere; earrings, necklaces, bangles, and bracelets, Alexis Bittar. Photo: Luigi and Iango

One of five siblings, Abdi is part of a close-knit Muslim family in the Somali community of Des Moines, Iowa. A hub of activity in the American heartland, the city has been the star’s home since she was nine. Born in Kismayo, Somalia, Abdi and her family fled the nation’s civil war in the 90s, relocating to a refugee camp in Kenyan suburbs. Though far from the bustle of fashion capitals, she dreamed of seeing the world and taking her loved ones along for the journey. “I was always telling my family that we should travel. I was in love with anything that took me beyond my hometown,” she says. “There was just so much I wanted to see and experience.”

Abdi’s family understood that implicitly. “They’ve been my biggest supporters from the beginning,” she says. “Everyone is exposed to so much information, positive and negative, about fashion, and people can have a hard time grasping what we do as models. I was fortunate to have a family who understood. My mother saw how happy this made me and that having a career where I get to experience different cultures and continuously learn was so important to me.”

Dress, leggings, shoes, Fendi Haute Couture; helmet, Heather Huey. Photo: Luigi and Iango

In modeling, a support system can mean the difference between success and failure. A highly competitive field with long hours and high turnover, the business of beauty is daunting. Abdi, who was discovered by a scout from Next Management after posting images of her makeup artistry on social media, relied on her mother to navigate the ups and downs of her new career. “When I started, I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she says. “All through high school, people told me that I should model because I’m so tall, but in Iowa, you can’t just walk into an agency. Modeling was jarring because I didn’t grow up looking at people in the spotlight.”

Abdi’s inspirations hewed closer to home. The women in her family were the people she looked to most, and their influence informed many of her earliest accomplishments. “I remember calling my mom seconds after I walked Valentino,” Abdi says of her debut at Pierpaolo Piccioli’s SS19 couture show. “I sent her a video before I even stepped out of the building, and I could hear her excitement and pride. Booking my first Vogue Arabia cover (October 2019, in Peter Lindbergh’s last editorial fashion shoot) was such a big deal because she loves the magazine, and I was thrilled for her to see it in print.”

Jacket, skirt, tights, boots, Alexandre Vauthier Haute Couture; gloves, Causse; helmet, Heather Huey; earrings, Alexis Bittar. Photo: Luigi and Iango

Sharing her second cover with little sister Hani was a full-circle moment. “What is so rewarding is finally being able to take my family into what I do, instead of sharing the outcome with them,” Abdi explains. “Very few people get to experience working on a project like this and having Hani on set with me was amazing. Watching her have so much fun reminds me of how I felt when I first started. When I looked over at her while she was shooting her singles, I was in awe. She was serving face! I had to pull her aside and tell her how proud I was.”

Hani (left) and Ugbad wear jackets, dresses, baseball caps, gloves, shoes, Marc Jacobs

Though they’d discussed posing together in the past, Abdi never envisioned their first collaboration would result in a Vogue cover. “We’ve been talking about it forever. I’ve always wanted to do an editorial with my family,” says Abdi. “Of course, neither of us could have predicted it would happen so soon. “Hani is only 18 and just stepping into this world. This is her first shoot, so I wanted the experience to be as comfortable as possible.” Accomplishing that meant giving her little sister a crash course in modeling basics. To outsiders, posing for a portrait might seem intuitive, but after years of working with photographers and stylists, Abdi understands how much preparation goes into each image. “I gave her a little pep talk, especially about heels,” says Abdi. “Shoes are part of the learning process. There are still times when I still struggle with them, but she adapted so quickly. The moment she got in front of the camera, she had it down.”

Bodysuit (worn throughout), Balenciaga; bathing suit, skirt, earrings, bracelets, bag, Chanel; headpiece, JR Malpere; gloves, stylist’s own. Photo: Luigi and Iango

Stilettos aside, Abdi’s highlight was seeing Hani interact with photographers Luigi Murenu and Iango Henzi, whose work she’d long admired. “She loves to take pictures and capture special moments, so I understood how much connecting with Luigi and Iango would mean to her,” says Abdi. “On set, they’d discuss the cameras they use and their techniques, how to set up a shot or retouch an image. She loved every minute, and it allowed me to see her exploring one of her passions.”

Dress, gloves, neck scarf, necklace, Marc Jacobs; earrings, cuffs, bangles, Alexis Bittar

At present, Abdi’s own goals center on advocating for her community. Her roots have informed her career trajectory, and as one of fashion’s most prominent hijabi models, Abdi’s influence extends beyond the catwalk. Keenly aware of how her presence in the industry reflects broader social change, she wants to be a force for good. “It’s about challenging perceptions about what a Muslim woman can and can’t do,” she says. “I don’t take for granted how difficult that can be, but we all have a voice and opinions. I’m lucky enough to also have this platform. When I get messages from women saying that they feel represented by me or that for the first time they see someone who looks like them in a magazine or runway show, it’s so meaningful. “For me, that’s what makes the work worthwhile.”

Dress, leggings, shoes, Fendi Haute Couture; helmet, Heather Huey. Photo: Luigi and Iango

Fittingly, their images of two confident, elegant women in hijab speak volumes. Though the shoot went off without a hitch, Abdi and her sister haven’t told their family about the big moment. With the issue centered on family and releasing during Ramadan, the pair decided it would be best to wait to share the good news. “The holidays are so special for us. We’re a big family, and it’s a time when we all come together and take a moment to appreciate each other, which has been so important during the pandemic,” says Abdi. “This means so much, and we wanted to wait until Ramadan so that we could share it with everyone.”

Keeping the secret under wraps required some sleight of hand. “My mom and I talk almost every day, and sometimes I just want to blurt it out,” says Abdi. “Seeing her reaction in person will be worth the wait. I know she will be so excited once we present her with the hard copy. This was a moment I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life and to be able to see her experience it for the first time surrounded by our entire family makes it even more meaningful.”

Dress, gloves, neck scarf, necklace, Marc Jacobs; shoes, Alaïa; earrings, cuffs, bangles, Alexis Bittar

Read Next: How Modest Fashion is Evolving and Being Embraced By Women All Around the World

Originally published in the April 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Gaultier Desandre Navarre
Sittings editor: Michael Philouze
Hair: Sasha Nesterchuk using Kérastase
Makeup: Sil Bruinsma
Lighting director: Dean Dodos
Style assistant: Liv Eklund
Studio manager: Kristian Thomassen

View All
Vogue Collection