Afef Jnifen, Kenza Fourati, Hanaa Ben Abdesslem, and Farida Khelfa photographed by Tom Munro for the October 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Afef Jnifen, Kenza Fourati, Hanaa Ben Abdesselem and Farida Khelfa have all incited a seismic shift in the global perception of Arab women. Here are women so free that their liberty gives flight to others. Four designers share stories of the luminous beauty and strength of character of the Arab women who did it first.
Giambattista Valli on Afef Jnifen
“I heard of Afef Jnifen a long time ago. I can’t recall exactly when, but Afef is one-of-a-kind in Italy. Ten, 15 years ago there weren’t that many Arab women living in my country. Afef brought glamour back. But she also shared an important multicultural message: Italians discovered, through her, Arab culture. I remember learning of this innovative beauty arriving in my country before even meeting her and becoming friends. We started to cross paths at parties and dinners, and then, a few years ago, we became closer through the late Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani. We were both good friends of Franca’s and we all became family. The real family, for the rest of your life, is the one you choose.
Afef represents the kind of woman that is an obsession for me. She is like a tomboy in that she has the attitude of a boy but in the divine body of a woman. She’s so feminine, but practical, effortless – in the way a boy can be. I can see Afef jumping into a dress and going out to a party without spending hours getting ready. I love that kind of spontaneity. Speaking of clothes, I love many looks on her. In the summer, a T-shirt and jeans; in the winter, an oversized sweater and a pair of ski pants. Something comfortable. I also love her in red carpet evening looks. She has the ability to wear chiffon in such a splendid way. She looks fantastic in this light fabric and in bold colors. Red is perfection on Afef but also pastel or smoky colors like pale gray. And she looks amazing in men’s tailored trousers, high heels, and an ultrafeminine blouse. Afef is so sensual. I love when women are more sensual than sexual.
Her hair – long, curly, and wild – is the perfect frame for the perfect portrait. It’s her signature. I remember this Diana Ross concert in Central Park. It was ages ago; in the early 1980s, I think. She arrived on stage in a flame-colored chiffon cape with this incredible hair and started singing under the rain. That’s Afef. She is so secure, so comfortable with herself. Perhaps in the past, she was searching – ‘Who is Afef ?’ – but now, she really lives in her mind, brain, and body and this is why I say that she is effortless. She knows what suits her and what she likes and doesn’t like. But she’s not afraid to experiment in life. This is a big asset of an intelligent woman. She stays curious in a healthy and beautiful way.
Afef is always inviting me to come visit her in her native Tunisia and I always say, ‘I’m coming! I’m coming!’ I know Tunisia well. Italians go often. It’s our summer escape. It’s almost like the relationship the French have with Morocco. She has a house in Sidi Bou Saïd, which is one of the five most beautiful places in the world, by the way. I adore it. Her two favorite spots are Sidi Bou Saïd and then Portofino. Afef is an amazing host. I’m from Rome and I recognize her inner beauty that belongs to the Mediterranean. She hosts as though her house is my house, her life is my life. This way of receiving friends is very Latin but also very Arab. What’s wonderful about Afef is that she manages to blend her two cultures together. Her Arab one and her adopted Italian one. There is such a balance of the two in her. You can see the beauty of both cultures in her and this is stunning. It is also very rare in Italy. In France there are women – like Farida Khelfa – who represent a great mix of two cultures. But in Italy, Afef is the one. The icon. Hers is a beautiful message to Italy. With all the political strife today, she represents what it is to be an international person and showcase the best of every culture. Although Afef is a very generous person, she is also very private. In a way, we are very similar in that regard. We’re both picky and we are not open to everybody. But the minute that we are, there is no limit. In our world, we know everyone. Then you get to a certain point in life where you choose and if you love, you love deeply.
Reem Acra on Hanaa Ben Abdesslem
“A friend of mine, Ghazy Feghaly, spotted Hanaa Ben Abdesslem in Tunisia in 2010. He looked at her and said, ‘She looks like a model.’ From that moment, he took her under his wing and helped her, and convinced her to participate in a reality show related to fashion. In no time, she started to get recognized, and almost immediately, she was signed to IMG. When Hanaa came to New York for the first time, she was brought to me straight away. ‘She is the new girl in town. A Tunisian. We would love for her to walk your show.’ The industry was buzzing. When I saw Hanaa for the first time, I thought, wow. What a face. She was so new. I was looking at someone born in the Middle East with that Middle Eastern look. There are beautiful women from the region but she was like a newborn. Her pixie hair was so modern. She has beautiful cheekbones and the longest legs you will ever see. I knew immediately that she had the figure of a model. She was so stunning that we booked her instantly. The Spring 2012 Reem Acra show was her first in New York, and her American debut.
If you look closely at Hanaa, you will see a sort of resemblance to the profile of Isabella Rossellini – her jawline and those rosebud lips. Perhaps Lancôme also saw this similarity because she was hired in 2012. When you sign with a big brand like this, it is generally exclusive. You know, she was the first Muslim spokesmodel for the house. When I heard the news, I was so excited for Hanaa. Nothing comes easy when you pave the road and I am sure that she had to push hard to make this opportunity happen for her. The following year, she again made history when Steve McCurry shot her – the first Arab model – for the iconic Pirelli Calendar.
A few years later, we launched the designer competition Fashion Star in the Middle East and we called on Hanaa to be a judge with me. We trained her to speak the language – Tunisian is different from the rest of the Arab dialects. She loved it and it was so much fun to see her blossom and become the woman she is today. A woman of her own. Now, when I look at Hanaa, I see someone who is very confident. I admire her so much because she represents the region in such a glamorous way. A proper way. She is a class act. When she started out, Hanaa was timid and shy. She was shadowed by other people and wasn’t settled. Now, she’s become her own person who won’t have anyone tell her what to do. She knows who she is, what she wants and doesn’t want. Her choices prove that you can be a model and still do what is right for you.
One day, her mother came to visit on set and after filming we had dinner together. The relationship Hanaa has with her mother is beautiful. You can tell by watching them that there is a strong mother-daughter connection. It is wonderful to see one generation that is so different from another and the respect between the two.
Hanaa, at only 27 this month, is still a young woman with so much ahead of her. She really loves young talent – the next generation. She puts in every effort she possibly can to educate them to understand how women want to dress. She speaks with them one-on-one and explains, ‘This is what I would wear and how I would wear it.’ She gives the point of view of a model and that’s really necessary for a designer; to understand how things fit. Hanaa knows her body very well. She likes contemporary, simple clothes and structured, non-embellished looks. Things that are very straightforward but with a twist and in simple colorways – earth tones. The young designers are lucky to have someone like her. With Hanaa, it’s not about judging, but mentoring, too.
In the second year of the show, Hanaa became a little more laidback. She is fun but in a restrained way. In fact, she is someone who is very restrained. But she is a loveable person with a pure heart. I think Hanaa realized at an early age that for the most part, the life span of a model is very short. She knew this from the beginning of her career and was always exploring other ways to see what else was in store for her future. She took her career to another level when she started the TV show. She devoted her time to help not just herself, but others, too.”
Jean Paul Gaultier on Farida Khelfa
“My friend Frédérique Lorca told me about Farida Khelfa – this beautiful girl that I just had to meet. The first time I saw her, it was a shock. Her beauty is so strong, so different. She has this nose, like an arrow. And a full mouth that falls in a way on the sides. Her wild hair styled in a roll and frizzy in the back. Extraordinary. She was everything that I considered beautiful and she made such an impression on me. At that time, she was not as thin as she is now; she had more shape, which wasn’t necessarily in fashion, but that didn’t matter to me. She was tall. I couldn’t ask Farida to walk like a model – not that she would have done it anyway! Yes, she already had her personality. Just the way she moved when she advanced towards me was impressive. She had something dignified, even royal about her. I thought of her like an empress, like a queen, imperial. She also knew how to dress. I remember once we were at the Parisian nightclub the Palace, where she worked, and she wore a black turtleneck sweater with a patent-leather belt, tight ski pants, black boots, and large, gold hoop earrings. Her lips were painted red. She showcased her superb silhouette in an elegant and simple way. She was absolutely magnificent. She didn’t look like a typical Maghreb woman. Hers was a unique beauty that I wanted to show. It was love at first sight.
At that time, in the 1980s, the models were Swedish, all blond. Some were beautiful but they didn’t have this force that Farida had and still has. Her personality charmed me. I was intimidated by her. Her presence demanded respect. She was very natural, but she spoke precisely and almost with authority. When I think about it now, she had power. It was fascinating. But she also had humor. She is so funny! Full of joy. How many times did we burst out laughing…
Farida always kept a distance between herself and the world of fashion. I think that she was somewhat impressed by it, not that she ever showed it. She never wanted to be a ‘model.’ She didn’t like the idea of being told what to do. In those days, women’s roles were perceived very differently. It was the time of Brigitte Bardot and if you were beautiful, you were not considered to have a brain. I think she totally refused that. She didn’t think of herself a model. She thought of herself as ‘Farida Khelfa.’
I remember we did these monumental campaign photos in front of the Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. They represented my idea of ‘the new France’ and she told me that afterwards, she had a meeting with the artist Jean-Paul Goude. I said, ‘You will see. He will adore you.’ I had the certitude that he would love her. I wasn’t wrong. The relationship went even further than that of appreciation and work. I really admire Goude, and his feelings towards Farida gave me even more confidence in myself, in my choices; that someone like him, with such talent, would also appreciate her. Of course, if he hadn’t, I would have continued to work with her.
Farida is also one of the rare women who remains friends with models. There was never a problem between her and other women. No jealousy. She is very loyal to her friends, like Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. They met modeling for Azzedine and for myself and became very close, even before Carla became First Lady of France.
Over the years I saw several revolutions happen in Farida’s life. I’ll never forget when she said, ‘I will stop doing shows and I will cut my hair.’ Drastic haircuts always have a rapport with major life changes. Her hair was really part of her signature. Goude immortalized it when he photographed Farida with her curls displayed like Arabic calligraphy. When she cut her hair, it was a very natural moment; she just did it. Farida did a few shows afterwards, one for me, one for Hermès, and Tom Ford, I think… but she had gone on to do other things. Modeling wasn’t her profession anyway. It wasn’t long before she was asked to do film. Some movies she refused and some roles she didn’t like. And then she got behind the camera and started making documentaries. She did one on former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and also one on me. There were other people proposed to do my documentary and though Farida had never done something like that before, her intelligence, sensibility, and awareness meant that I had confidence in her. I said yes right away. She has the eye and the brain. She knows how to direct and put you at ease. She has a sense of analysis. She is very talented and she will continue to do many things. At Schiaparelli, in her role as ambassador, she did a wonderful job. She recently exited the couture house, but when she finishes with something, it is only to start something else.
A few years ago, Farida got married and held her party at the Palace. When she first came to Paris, the nightclub was like a rebirth. That’s where she met many people and where she was first independent. The wedding was like another rebirth. The party location showed to what extent she is attached to her past even though she is a very modern woman. To understand and recognize your past and to be proud of it is rare – and she has every reason to be proud. Farida is someone who really mattered in my life and still matters very much to me today. I hope we will continue to amuse ourselves.”
Giorgio Armani on Kenza Fourati
“When Kenza Fourati started to work with me, she was still in the early stages of her career. Aside from her unique beauty, her personality made a big impression on me; she was both strong and gentle. During the years in which she modeled for me on the runways – for both Giorgio Armani and Emporio – I saw her grow professionally. I find that today she is a truly unforgettable woman. I see in her the charm of Arab women – a charm that makes them capable of seduction with just a look. Women who do not like ostentation at all costs, and who have a private and individual concept of elegance. The Middle East is undoubtedly one of the most important markets today, with a clientele that, in addition to loving elegance, is increasingly demanding and very attentive to detail. This is my ideal kind of clientele, as they appreciate quality and a refined, elegant style.”
Kenza Fourati on Giorgio Armani
“Mr Armani was the first designer who cast me in a show in 2003, and he continued to do so. His tailored silhouettes were sculptural and empowering. By keeping the makeup and hair simple, to the point of being almost austere, throughout most of his shows, the shy teenager that I was learned that femininity and even sensuality come in all different forms and styles. One day he told me something that has stayed in my mind ever since. When I started modeling in the early 2000s, I was the only model from North Africa and the Arab world on the circuit working in Milan, Paris, and New York, during fashion month. My agents had asked me to change my name from Kenza (“too connoted,” they said) to Maya and to say that I was from Paris, which I didn’t agree to do. During one fitting, Mr Armani told me in impeccable French, ‘La Tunisina, pull your shoulders back and stand proud, always stand proud.’ This still resonates in my ears today. Always stand proud. Proud of who you are and what you do. By observing Mr Armani’s work ethic, I understood something else. To be a master, you need to be an expert of each aspect of your vision. Mr Armani is one of the exceptional designers I have worked with who was there at every step; from fitting to makeup. I will never forget when one day, just before stepping out onto the catwalk, he took some tools and fixed my makeup himself.”
Today, Arab women are so modern and sophisticated. Their image has totally changed. They support the art of beauty. They are extremely feminine but at the same time, they are so powerful. Afef is very similar to other friends in my life – Amal Clooney, Queen Rania of Jordan – in that she is very honest and she stands up for important causes. Helping the less fortunate in Tunisia or going to Lebanon to offer her support to Syrian refugees at the Za’atari camp. I hope that in the future we talk of people in a cultural way, and not geographically. I don’t like and don’t want to speak about ‘an Italian’ or ‘an Arab.’ Afef is a cultural ambassador and a leader and women like her embody a message of freedom. She is a peacemaker. It’s no surprise that she is the daughter of an ambassador. Another such woman was Franca, and I can say that the moment that Franca passed, last December, it’s like a part of her inhabited Afef. They were very close.”
The October issue of Vogue Arabia is out now. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Models: Farida Khelfa, Afef Jnifen, Hanaa Ben Abdesslem, and Kenza Fourati.
Director and Photographer: Tom Munro
Camera: Stephen Kidd
Fashion Director: Katie Trotter
Make Up: Lloyd Simmonds
Hair: Seb Bascle
Nails: Christina Conrad
Set Designer: Samirha Salmi
Location: Rouchon Studio, Paris.
Colour Grading: Jamie Noble for Studio RM
Producer: Ricci Productions & Creatives
Film: A Bog Films production.