Despite all the bustle surrounding her runway debuts this year – opening for Marc Jacobs in a bespoke feathered cap, the first hijab-wearing model to walk for Fendi and Lanvin, Valentino couture – the breakout star of the 2019 runways takes it all in her confident stride. With her soulful, almost poetic face peeking out from under custom head coverings, she glided down the ramps with the poise and confidence of an experienced supermodel, sharing the limelight with Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek.
Couture runways could hardly be further from this month’s cover star’s start in life. Born in Kismayo, Somalia, at the height of the civil war, the infant Abdi and her family had to flee to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where they spent the following nine years. While living in the Unicef-run camp, the young Abdi didn’t feel like she was missing anything, saying that the family was grateful for being together and having friends, food, and shelter. She played games with her siblings and the other camp kids, with the experience of making the family even more tight-knit than before. “I have the most supportive and loving family in the world,” she shares.
They were eventually relocated to Iowa in the US–these at one of the country’s oldest Muslim communities, who arrived from Syria and Lebanon in the late 19th century. “I never felt like I was too different because I was living around fellow refugees from all across the globe,” she remembers. What was different, though, was seeing snow for the first time – something the Abdi kids couldn’t get enough of.
Abdi’s early career hopes were not of modeling – as a child, she was “obsessed with” turtles and wanted to work at a zoo. It was a fellow Somali refugee Halima Aden who showed her that modest Muslim women could also be high-fashion models. Two months after finishing school, while on a gap year to see if modeling was on the cards, Abdi was scouted on Instagram thanks to her carefully curated and tagged feed – not to mention that most coveted of model features: a face that shows nuanced emotion and just a hint of vulnerability. “I thought it was a scam at first,” the gamine model laughs. “I couldn’t believe how quickly it happened. Fast-forward a year later, and I’m living in New York with a dream job!”
The cover star credits her agency, Next Management, with helping her not only to walk in heels for the first time in her life but also to stand up for her modest style – something she says designers and photographers are happy to embrace. “ The hijab is a part of the person I am,” she says. “It gives me a sense of comfort to be myself at all times. It gives me a voice.” She’s been wearing it since she was 14, when she decided to emulate her mother. While some girls at her school made cruel comments, Abdi has found more open-mindedness and kindness in the fashion industry.
“I haven’t encountered any discrimination or people making me feel like an outsider solely because of my hijab,” she shares. “I’ve had instances where people would say something ignorant and that’s when I feel I have a responsibility to educate them. I think things are slowly but surely being understood about the hijab and why women choose to wear it but I nd that some people genuinely don’t want to be educated on it, which is why they believe in the back of their minds that we don’t have a choice to wear it. That’s something that has to change.”
Working with the late Peter Lindbergh on one of his final Vogue covers was an exceptional experience. “ There are so many greats in this industry that I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with. I look up to people who are wholeheartedly themselves, genuinely kind, and who embrace others.”
Not so long ago, Abdi was struggling to find role models who looked like her. Now she’s one herself, helping open up mainstream fashion in a way never seen before. “I’ll continue to model for however long it’s meant for me and my happiness,” she says with grace and confidence. And with that, she struts off, her lanky frame ready to make history.
Originally published in the October 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia