From the moment Halima Aden set foot on the runway at Fall 2017 New York fashion week, it was clear that the world had been waiting for a model that could break the glass ceiling on diversity. A model that has the power to represent inclusivity, understated elegance, and natural beauty in one turn on the catwalk. For Vogue Arabia’s second issue, the first hijab-wearing model seen on the international runway shares stories of her childhood in a refugee camp and muses on her meteoric rise to fame.
Unless you’ve been on a digital detox, the name Halima Aden will have streaked across your social media feeds numerous times. The fashion world is witnessing the meteoric rise of the first hijab-wearing model – and she’s helping evolve the industry one runway appearance at a time. Her debut at Kanye West’s Yeezy show in New York for Fall 2017 almost broke the internet, with Aden walking the runway in a fur coat, her hijab on display. Bookings at Alberta Ferretti and MaxMara in Milan soon followed.
“I never thought I’d be a model,” the Somali- American says. “I didn’t even think that door would open for me, to be honest. That’s why this has been a dream come true.” She speaks in dulcet tones, laced with a Midwestern American accent. “I think it has a lot to do with not seeing Muslim girls wearing the hijab and putting themselves out there.”
The first chapters of Aden’s life story could not be further removed from the fashion industry. She was born in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, an arid, desolate space that’s home to more than 160 000 refugees. Soaring temperatures, disease, and no means of generating income or agricultural enterprise make it a harsh place to live. Yet it’s also a multicultural melting pot, which Aden could appreciate even at a young age. “It was a very unique setting,” she says. “Not being able to speak the same language, not having common ground… and then I saw how everyone worked together to learn Swahili. That became our common ground. After that, life was easier.”
When Aden was six, her family was relocated to St. Cloud, Minnesota. Her ambition and work ethic were evident from the start (“I used to braid my neighbor’s hair for US$10. I always wanted to work.”) and culminated in a bold yet characteristic move in November last year: she entered the Miss Minnesota beauty pageant with photos of herself wearing her hijab. Not only did Aden become the first veiled contestant in the pageant, she made global headlines for wearing a burkini in the swimsuit category, and finished in the top 15. In truth, she won the ultimate prize: creating awareness about diverse beauty.
Aden is a catalyst for a long-awaited dialogue about inclusivity in fashion. (Her rise in fashion coincides with Nike’s announcement of its Pro Hijab, a high-performance athletic hijab coming out in winter 2017.) “I wear my hijab as my crown,” she says. “It takes time to grow into that. When I was younger, I was almost ashamed. People would bully me for not having hair; for looking like an alien. Having that taunting associated with wearing my hijab made me nearly want to pull away from it, but it’s my spiritual identity.” The 19-year-old’s openness is one of her differentiating strengths. “When I’m walking the runway I want people to see that yes, I’m wearing a hijab – but I’m also a million other things. I want us to get to a place where we just see women.” IMG Models took note and promptly signed Aden to its roster. The runway beckoned and her Instagram following skyrocketed to more than 110 000. “I’m stunned to see how many people this affects,” she says. “Hearing from women, young girls especially – even my little cousin – saying, ‘Thank you, for once I have someone I can relate to.’ That’s not something I had. I never saw a veiled model in magazines or on TV.”
When Aden walked for MaxMara Fall 2017 in a caramel coat and coordinating hijab, she demonstrated harmony of individuality and globally relevant style. Here walked a Muslim woman modeling a look with universal appeal:
“I wear my hijab as my crown”
Contextualise that with the political climate and you might just have a fashion phenomenon on your hands. No doubt, brands will experience increasing pressure from consumers to explore wider diversity – especially with Aden’s growing social media audience. If models can harness this level of community pulling power, they can command a center of gravity in the industry. After all, the Hadid sisters built their supermodel careers on their social media omnipresence.
Still, there remains a dichotomy between the modesty represented by the hijab and the notion of a veiled model on the runway being photographed. Aden is not oblivious to this friction. “By far the biggest misconception, I think, and the saddest one, is that all women who wear the hijab are oppressed, and that we don’t have a say in it.” She carries this social responsibility with impressive ease, and doesn’t dodge the tricky questions. “The fact that there are models who practice Islam and choose not to cover up – and who are killing it in this industry – should in itself break the stereotype.”
Aden’s strict rules on modesty make her even more noticeable. She sees it as an opportunity to redress the balance of exposure on her faith. This is something she has talked about with fellow Somali model Iman, who is no stranger to controversy and the nuanced politics of beauty. “People in my own culture have asked me why I’m modeling,” Aden says. “ They don’t understand my career. Iman told me not to listen to them.” Her tone gets noticeably bolder. “I’m doing this and I have enough self-confidence to stick to my own beliefs and not let anyone else’s judgments get to me.”
Vogue Arabia’s September issue is available now across the region and the globe. Subscribe to the magazine here.