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The Arab Models Changing the Face of the Industry

Nimet Eloui Bey photographed for Vogue wearing a mirrored gown, capelet, and skullcap
designed by Lucien Lelong, 1929





Originally printed in the March 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia. 

The first oriental model to be featured in the pages of American Vogue, in 1929, was socialite Turkish Circassian Nimet Eloui Bey. The wife of a wealthy Egyptian railroad magnate posed for Lee Miller and Man Ray. Her symmetrical features were described as a “profile seen on pharaohs in Egyptian royal statuary.” Dubbed “La Belle Circassienne,” her career would not last. She ended her life when she learned of her husband’s infidelity. The debut of oriental models was tainted with scandal and tragedy. More than 30 years would pass until an Arab model would appear in the pages of Vogue.

Of course, Aïcha Laghzaoui Benhima wasn’t a model at all. She was the wife of Morocco’s ambassador to the United Nations. Rubbing shoulders with New York’s finest at society functions, she quickly caught the eye of editor Diana Vreeland, who sent Richard Avedon to shoot her portrait. The pictures show her profile: almond eyes framed by thick, groomed, arching eyebrows. The styling is what would be called “modest” today, and utterly luxurious. Her hair is hidden, swept back under a turban. The neck is covered by brocade and strands of pearls. “I did everything myself,” she recalls of the shoot. Her kohl-lined, smoky eye was mastered at Carita in Paris. The styling was almost innate. Wearing custom-made Moroccan kaftans along with Dior dresses and Saint Laurent pantsuits was second nature to her and still is today. So taken was Pablo Picasso when he saw Avedon’s pictures, that he did not hesitate to call then editorial director Alexander Liberman to request an introduction. He wanted to paint her. Alas, the sitting planned on the island of Ischia was abandoned. Her husband had been called to speak on behalf of Arab countries during the six-day war. Yet the impact of this “exotic” face remained. House & Garden soon booked Benhima for a cover story. It should have opened the floodgates for the search for Arab models. Instead, it was Arabian and Maghreb locations that flourished.

Aïcha Laghzaoui Benhima in American Vogue, 1969

Vreeland was known to spend monumental sums on photo shoots in far-flung countries. She commissioned a number of them in the Arab world. Photographer Franco Rubartelli has described at length his carte blanche creative shoots with Veruschka styled like a queen of light, in Libya. Talitha Getty, the original gypset, shot by Patrick Lichfield on her Marrakech rooftop, remains the most iconic image of the doomed heiress. More recently, Vogue Paris featured 62 pages of fashion shot in Morocco for its 2010 shoot “Vogue-à-Porter.” The landscapes speak to wanderers. To Western eyes, the vanilla skies and clay houses concealing mosaic courtyards offer a “luxurious” sense of time travel. In the Arab world, it appeared that wealthy Caucasians could return to a time when the color of their skin and the money in their pocket reinstated colonial ways. Among themselves, they encouraged dressing in local costume.

Veruschka in the Libyan desert photographed by Franco Rubartelli,

Where were the Arab models? In the Eighties, Algerian-French Farida Khelfa was discovered and employed by Jean Paul Gaultier, Jean-Paul Goude, and Azzedine Alaïa. She quickly rose to become the first “Berber” model. Equally successful during the same era, Tunisian Afef Jnifen swiftly crisscrossed between model and television host in her adopted country of Italy. But models from Arabia were unheard of. They still are. Jean-Baptiste Mondino recalls his now famous “feminité (dé)voilée” Nineties shoot. Women in burkas flashed luxury bags in a tornado of black fabric. “I would not do a shoot like that today,” he says. “I have no desire to be provocative.”

Farida Khelfa photographed by Jean Paul Goude in Paris, 1983

Tunisian producer Dora Bouchoucha, mother of Kenza Fourati, recalls, “I was asked to model but I never did it.” Stopping short of explaining why, she turns the subject to her daughter. “When Kenza was approached to model, the women in the family were against it. ‘She is very smart, why would she model?’ we asked among ourselves.” Fourati was a trailblazer when she became the first Arab model to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, in 2011. “With the success of being ‘the first’ often comes backlash,” says Fourati. “When I was cast in the issue, I didn’t grasp what I was getting myself into, both professionally and personally. The magazine had become a staple of American culture; I was unaware of its global reach. Initially, I didn’t perceive myself to be a trailblazer, nor did I think that my appearance would be controversial. After all, I had previously appeared in more revealing campaigns.” Fourati quickly learned that her shoot had made a statement both in the West and the Middle East. “That an Arab Muslim woman can be celebrated for her athleticism and identity defied Western culture’s stereotypes of what Arab women are and should be,” she says. “But it also challenged stereotypes back home in Tunisia and in the Middle East that aim to limit how a woman can and should define and express herself.” She recalls that the magazine’s publication coincided with the Arab Spring. “It was a rare and unique moment in history. After years of oppression, people felt that they could irresponsibly say whatever they wanted about women, without any consequences. Ultimately, I found my participation in the shoot a barrier-breaking appearance. One that helped change stereotypes in the West while advancing the rights of self-expression and free speech in the Middle East.”

Kenza Fourati photographed for Vogue Arabia, October 2017

That same year, Egyptian-French-Italian actor and model Elisa Sednaoui was landing campaigns for Chanel and Missoni and shoots for the American and Italian editions of Vogue. Now that she has founded cultural centers for disadvantaged children in rural areas in Egypt, international journalists have significantly increased their interest in her Arab roots. In the meantime, Brazilian models, led by Gisele Bündchen, were thriving. Black models were (finally) given major international visibility with the all-black Vogue Italia July 2008 issue. In recent years, Asian models, led by Liu Wen, are increasingly seen on the runway; a direct response to the number of Chinese buyers in the front rows and the millions of women they represent. Notably, Wen was the first Asian model to walk the Victoria’s Secret runway and be the face of Estée Lauder. In the world of beauty, Arab models also pushed through a glass ceiling when Tunisian Hanaa Ben Abdesslem was named the first Arab model to be the face of Lancôme. When the image of Ben Abdesslem, with her delicate features and short pixie cut, went around the world, many Westerners were quick to note how similar she looked to Isabella Rossellini. For those who read between lines, this could be interpreted as: this Arab woman has European features; this works. But the rise of social media exposed a real desire to see diversity on and off the runway. When a woman in a hijab, Halima Aden, landed her first Vogue cover – for Vogue Arabia’s June 2017 issue – she was celebrated with international headlines. However, for all her liberated representation of Muslim women, she is not a Middle Eastern model in a hijab, but an American-Somali.

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem photographed by Tom Munro for Vogue Arabia October 2017

Whereas Copenhagen fashion week abounds with Scandinavian models, Arab fashion weeks look to Eastern European countries to cast for shows. Blond, blue-eyed models arrive by the planeload, twice annually. Presently, there are still no Saudi, Emirati, Kuwaiti, or Omani top models to cast in these roles or in these pages. The rise of influencers modeling clothes helps satisfy an aching gap in our region’s market – at least on social media. But should influencers make the cover of Vogue outside of an influencer story? Are they bona fide models? Should Vogue shoots be commissioned to iPhone-abled influencers to photograph? While Vogue Arabia has featured nine Arab-heritage models on the cover since its launch – Imaan Hammam (twice), Halima Aden, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Khelfa, Jnifen, Fourati, Ben Abdesslem, and Nora Attal – demand far exceeds supply, if @voguearabia’s followers are any indication.

This issue’s cover features icon Iman and Moroccan-Egyptian model Imaan Hammam. With 500 000 followers on Instagram, Hammam promotes Arab diversity within the industry to her audience on social media. “I want to be a role model for young girls who are struggling with racism or with their looks or skin color,” she says. “There aren’t many Arab models. As a North African Arab model, I’m trying to open doors for more Arab girls.”

Vogue Arabia Imaan Hammam

Imaan Hammam wears coat and dress by Hermés. Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier and styled by Paul Cavaco for the April issue of Vogue Arabia, 2017

Whether the door to modeling is one that Arab girls want to walk through is another matter altogether. In recent months, photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber have been blacklisted from the industry in response to escalating reports of sexual harassment. This boycott signals a significant shift in power from established photographers to models. However, it will do little to comfort nervous parents whose daughters (or sons) are keen to start a modeling career. Arab parents’ opinions matter – long after the age of majority is reached. In an effort to regulate on-set behavior, Condé Nast International’s latest code of conduct, released January 31 of this year, states that all models used by its publications must be 18 years old. Among other stipulations, a private dressing space is to be provided to every subject on set. How likely this will count to families where women who reveal their faces on camera is strictly forbidden, is to be seen. Unlike Maghreb countries, Arabia does not yet embrace the notion of Arabian models. When Saudi Arabia is only now inviting women into its sporting stadiums and behind the wheels of cars, does it matter? Absolutely. Women crave visual contact with other women. It’s human nature. If one woman sees another with similar features and a parallel background and upbringing exalted in the pages of a fashion magazine, she will aspire not just to dress like her but to excel like her. Travel the world, go to school, get a job. Become a contributing and valuable member of society. “Being photographed comes down to a question of personal choice for many women in this region,” says Sheikha Madiyah Al Sharqi. “I think it’s fantastic that an increasing number of women in Gulf communities are happy to be captured on camera. However, some women are more conservative and prefer not to be photographed. As with everything else, it’s about a woman’s personal choice.”

Gigi Hadid in custom-created Brandon Maxwell. Photographed by Inez and Vinoodh for the March issue of Vogue Arabia 2017.

Gigi Hadid in custom-created Brandon Maxwell. Photographed by Inez and Vinoodh for the March issue of Vogue Arabia 2017.

In the meantime, the world is reacting to the demand for Arab models by casting those professionals who are available. Just last month, pictures of the SS18 campaign for Linda Farrow were released featuring a fresh-faced, 54-year-old Jnifen standing by a pool. Rabih Kayrouz cast up-and-coming doe-eyed Tunisian Azza Slimene in his FW18 ready-to-wear show. Saif Mahdhi, president Europe of Next Models Management, has high hopes for Slimene, calling her the “archetype of the modern Arab woman, independent, smart, and beautiful.” Of 49 international fashion magazines surveyed for The Fashion Spot’s 2017 diversity report, Vogue Arabia came out on top for most diverse covers. While editors maintain an eye on the outside world – above all – they aim to create content that Arab women strive to be a part of, and fashion images that the wider society deems to be pictorial testimonies of its thriving era.

Originally printed in the March 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.

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