Storm Management, the agency which scouted Kate Moss when she was 14, has signed its first hijab-wearing model. Shahira Yusuf is a 20-year-old from London who has broken ground by becoming one of the first hijabi models to be signed to a major agency, following Vogue Arabia cover girl Halima Aden, who joined the IMG family last year. Yusuf joins Storm Management’s wide-ranging roster of models, which also includes Cindy Bruna and Alek Wek. The England-born beauty of Somalian descent, who was scouted at 17 (but didn’t pursue modeling until three years later) admits that although she grew up watching America’s Next Top Model and counts Iman, Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Liya Kebede, and Lily Cole as inspirations, she was never interested in joining the fashion industry until recently.
“Growing up, being slim and tall, I received the ‘you should model’ comments almost every time I met someone – I’m sure many tall girls can relate,” she tells Vogue Arabia. “I’d say modeling was something I did have an understanding of, in terms of what a model is, but I did not have a passion for the industry nor fashion itself. It kind of just happened for me.”
Despite renowned models like Iman, Yasmin Warsame, and Waris Dirie all hailing from Somalia, modeling is not a traditional career in Yusuf’s culture. Yet she says her friends and family have been super supportive. “I wouldn’t be modeling if it wasn’t for my friends and family constantly asking me to do it. When you have so many of your family, friends, and even strangers approaching you and asking you to consider modeling, it definitely does make you want to pursue it.”
Last November, the Somali beauty went viral on Twitter after posting a series of photographs sporting an oversized gray pantsuit paired with a neatly tied black turban and matching bum bag. “I ain’t [sic] no Kendall Jenner but I’m a black Muslim girl from East London that’s about to finesse the modeling industry,” she captioned it. The pictures garnered more than 57,000 retweets and 122,000 likes. Praise immediately began to pour in from users the world over. “So inspirational. I’m also Somali and from East London, so you’re very inspirational to me,” wrote one user. Another user quipped: “I will do whatever it takes to support you, you’re beautiful Mashallah.”
“I didn’t think the tweet would get that much attention,” Yusuf says. “Especially for it to be reposted so many times and get as much attention on other social media platforms like Instagram, too. I’ve received so much support and I’m glad I tweeted that because it’s very difficult to stand out in such a competitive industry.” Indeed, although the fashion industry has taken major steps to become more inclusive, the number of visibly Muslim models is limited. But Shahira is hopeful. “I do believe that it’s harder to make it as a hijab-wearing model as you have already filtered so many forms of modeling out. So for one, you have fewer opportunities. This is why I feel that it’s up to the fashion industry to create more opportunities for models like me. There is a huge modest fashion market, and more companies are starting to release modest fashion clothing lines.”
She is excited to represent Muslim womanhood in a way she rarely saw growing up. “I’ve become a model at a time when society is more accepting of people of different ethnicities and religions. It’s about time we had an equal representation and moved on from just the majority. We know that there are aspiring models from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, so there’s really no excuse for the lack of diversity.”
Though she has yet to secure her first big gig, Yusuf recounts doing a spread with Marfa Journal as a career highlight. Her biggest goal? “To be the first hijab-wearing model to land the front cover of British Vogue. That would be amazing. Another huge goal of mine is to walk the runway for my favorite designer brands, Chanel and Burberry, in the future.” But most important is keeping true to her values. “It’s so easy to get carried away with the extravagant clothes and makeup in modeling, but I want to make sure I remain true to myself. And in that way I can convey myself in the most genuine way. My portfolio is a reflection of who I am and what I stand for. I love modesty, so I want my work to reflect that.”
Whether she wants to or not, Yusuf serves as a beacon of hope for a more inclusive world, one that offers a seat at the table for everyone, and not just those who conform or blend in.
‘I grew up in a refugee camp, now I’m on the cover of Vogue’
BELFAST TELEGRAPH — Halima Aden is used to firsts. She was St Cloud, Minnesota’s first Muslim homecoming queen, and St Cloud State University’s first hijab-wearing student senator. She was the first hijab-wearing contestant to compete in Miss Minnesota USA — she wore a burkini in the swimsuit round — and the first to be signed to a major agency, IMG, the industry colossus that also represents Miranda Kerr, Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne.
And last week the 20-year-old became the first hijab-wearing model to appear on the cover of British Vogue. “It’s taken 102 years for there to be a hijabi model on the cover,” Aden says. “People are very proud of this moment.” Indeed, by the time the issue appeared on news stands last Friday, the cover had already gone viral.
Alongside Aden, a Somali model born in a Kenyan refugee camp, appeared other faces rarely seen on the cover of a mainstream, European fashion magazine — the mainstream European fashion magazine — including South Sudanese Adut Akech, Indian Radhika Nair, Korean Yoon Young Bae and mixed-race, plus-size Paloma Elsesser. “I think the cover really was true diversity,” Aden says. “Not a matter of ticking boxes but really people from different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, all thriving in an industry that has brought us together.”
Officially she works in this industry: she has walked Milan Fashion Week catwalks for MaxMara and Alberta Ferretti, and for Yeezy, Kanye West’s fashion line, in New York. She has appeared on the front cover of Vogue Arabia.
Unofficially she is also a full-time ambassador for her faith, and for the hijab. This is inevitable, as Aden observes, matter-of-factly. “I’m the first high-fashion hijab-wearing model. Automatically, I know there are a lot of girls looking at me. I need to be a good role model, a good representative of my faith, a good ambassador to my community.”
Being this in the hyper-visual, exposed and exposing world of fashion does, though, invite scrutiny — from within and outside her community.
Aden admits she recently cleansed her Instagram (where she has 577k followers). “I really wanted to explore a new look,” she explains.
“But I noticed that my younger followers were messaging me and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t stuff I can wear. You’re the only person in fashion that I can look to, and you’re wearing stuff I can’t wear’. When I noticed that, I was like: ‘OK, it’s true’. I was still covered head to toe but I was trying out shorter dresses with knee-high boots. Those pictures got 60,000 likes but I wanted to stay true to my original followers. There are a million other models who can rock the same outfit but there’s not anyone besides me who can say, ‘I’m going to wear modest fashion’. I owe it to these little girls.”
Aden was born in Kakuma camp, in Kenya, in 1997. “I grew up in a refugee camp — there weren’t really many highlights,” she deadpans.
“I remember having malaria what felt like every other week. I remember scorpion bites and my mum having to apply Colgate toothpaste. It had a cooling effect.” She shrugs off any sense of victimhood. “I remember a lot of good things. When you don’t know ‘the other’, you tend to appreciate life.”
When she was seven her family went in pursuit of this ‘other’ life: Aden, her mother and younger brother were granted refuge in St Louis, Minnesota. “It was such a big deal,” she says. “A lot of Africans have the misconception that in America money grows on trees. But the neighbourhood we were in was very impoverished. You heard gunshots at night. The school I went to didn’t have an English language learners’ programme so I just went to school and listened and went home.”
After six months her mother moved the family to St Cloud on a word of mouth tip. There, teachers “would always help me, after school, during my lunch hour”. Her English is natural, her accent American.
“My mum made this quick call,” says Aden. “’I raised these kids, I went through hell and back for them, and I don’t want to risk them ending up in gangs, or in prison, or not getting a proper education’. It was really brave. African mums — I’m telling you,” she laughs.
Being crowned her school’s homecoming queen was “a big deal”.
“I’d never seen kids who are Muslim up for that, so I didn’t even think it was a possibility.”
And indeed, symbolically, it resonates: a prom is the gala event for the all-American teen experience, and she is a young Somali-American wearing a hijab.
She’s diplomatic about racial politics in contemporary, supercharged America. “Because Muslims are such a small number — one per cent in America — a lot of Americans never get to interact personally with a Muslim person.
“If you see horrible stories day in and day out on TV, you’re going to have this deep psychological fear of Muslims. It’s not right but that’s the hardest thing to show people — we’re not all the same. But fear is also human nature.”
She entered Miss Minnesota USA partly because there were scholarships up for grabs, but: “I also wanted to show other women in my home state that I didn’t conform in order to fit in. I wore a bathing suit — but it was a burkini.”
What happened next is one of those star-crossed fashion coincidences: Carine Roitfeld, former French Vogue editor, saw the pictures of her at Miss Minnesota USA and asked her to appear on the cover of CR Fashion Book, her new project and an influential countercultural industry tome. Roitfeld’s endorsement led to the IMG contract, which led to everything else.
Still, Aden was “shocked” to get the call from British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. “I met him at the British Fashion Awards in December. He was like: ‘I know we’re going to work together’. But I never imagined it being a cover story.”
For her portrait inside the magazine, Halima’s aesthetic is arch fashion: she slouches and pouts, staring down the camera in a mohair cape and woollen trousers — both Dior — and Altuzarra cowboy boots. She says it is “one of the biggest blessings that has come in my career” — though her favourite moment of the two-day shoot was off-set, shooting the breeze with fellow cover star Adut Akech.
It transpired the pair had been born in the same refugee camp. “We had a moment like The Parent Trap: ‘How old are you? What do your parents look like?’ And it was our first time meeting. Just imagine — these two girls from this camp, reunited for the first time on the cover of British Vogue. I can’t make that up.”
Supermodel Iman wants widespread education and earnest activism
INTERVIEW MAGAZINE — When Iman arrived in New York, in the fall of 1975, the photographer Peter Beard hosted a press conference introducing her at his friend’s apartment. The crowd was surprised to hear she could speak English. Beard, who had discovered the 20-year-old college student in Nairobi, had returned to the States with his roll of film and slightly dubious stories about an otherworldly African beauty the likes of whom no one had ever seen. As it turns out, Iman, the daughter of a Somali diplomat, spoke five languages and was as intelligent and self-possessed as she was beautiful. While she went on to become one of the most sought-after models of the ’70s and ’80s—a muse to scores of photographers and designers—Iman has always been a cultural force all her own.
Despite retiring from modeling in 1989, her legacy in fashion endures. In 1994, she founded her makeup line, Iman Cosmetics, which introduced difficult-to-find shades for women of color. With her husband, the late music legend David Bowie, she lent her time, her voice, and her face to dozens of humanitarian causes, from AIDS research to education. At 62, Iman continues to run her beauty empire while also raising her teenage daughter. To be an activist, as she tells her friend, the actress Rosario Dawson, you have to be active.
ROSARIO DAWSON: I want to start by saying how much I love you, Iman, and how blessed I’ve always felt knowing you. I’ve watched you start a cosmetics company that was inclusive, and I’ve watched you work to save children and highlight the issues of conflict minerals with the Enough Project. Where did the drive to help people come from?
IMAN: My father was a teacher, but he ended up becoming a diplomat in the Middle East because he was knowledgeable about the politics of Somalia at that time. When my mom and dad met, Somalia didn’t have independence. I was born into a family that was very politically active. Growing up, the house was bustling with people; my parents were holding meetings and discussions, so I was constantly aware of what was going on. There were no barriers between men and women because everybody was fighting for independence. My parents used to say, “To be an activist, you have to stay active.” It’s not something you can choose to do when you want to or when it’s trendy.
DAWSON: You’ve proven that over and over again. Education also seemed vital to you—so much so that when you were discovered as a model, you traded being photographed for college tuition. You were studying political science at the time, right?
IMAN: Yes, I was. I cannot stress enough the importance of education, especially for girls. When I started school—this is how I knew how important it was for us—my mom sold all of her jewelry to put me in the country’s best school. My father taught me there was nothing I couldn’t do better than my brothers. That instilled in me self-worth, which has sustained me all my life. When people know that you can say no and walk away from things that aren’t right, they see your power. They see that you’re powerful.
DAWSON: I thought of you this past year when I was in Liberia and Sierra Leone for a month. It was so fascinating. Even after Ebola and all of the different things that have hit these places a mudslide happened in Sierra Leone just as I left—there’s still so much infrastructure that was being built and development that was happening. You could see a lot of progress. I couldn’t believe how many people had cellphones! There’s still such a lack of awareness around what they’re doing to communities in the Congo.
IMAN: I remember my parents used to make sure we didn’t drink Coca-Cola. They were dumping all of this Coca-Cola into third world countries in the same manner as cigarettes. Nobody smokes more than people in the third world. And the same applies to iPhones and all of that. At the end of the day, awareness is the most important part. A lot of people, especially young people in Africa, don’t understand what’s going on with minerals used in smartphones and how they’re affecting places like the Congo. People are kind of loaded up on unimportant stuff nowadays. I’m so glad about what’s happening with the #TimesUp movement. When people are aware of what’s going on, true change happens. And it usually starts underground. It does not happen from the top down. It goes from down to up.
DAWSON: It feels like a shift in cultural consciousness.
IMAN: People really need to pay attention. I’m worried about the new generation of young people who are not fully aware of what’s going on. They’re tuned in but not for the right reasons. “Oh, I’ll be nude and I’ll put it on social media.” Well, what’s your point? What are you trying to say? I love social media because you can showcase what you want to say, but a lot of times it’s just noise. It doesn’t matter, and it goes so fast; five minutes later it’s gone, and everyone’s moved on to something else.
DAWSON: I think it’s unfortunate how nudity has so often been proliferated because of the male gaze. And it’s been about making it taboo or fetishizing certain aspects of it. I personally find it very empowering. I grew up around nudists. I heard a story about a teenage girl—she and her boyfriend were going to be intimate for the first time, and he freaked out when they got naked because she had a labia, and she had hair. In all of the pornography he had seen, there was no hair.
IMAN: [laughs] Yes, there’s no hair!
DAWSON: He was used to Barbies. So this moment that should have been really special between these two people who loved each other ended up turning into this crazy situation because we are so distanced from any kind of healthy exposure and acceptance and expression of our bodies and ourselves. I have been seeing a proliferation of art exhibits that are showing all different kinds of vaginas. I think that’s actually critically important. It’s not always perfect, but that’s what makes us human.
IMAN: That is art to me—showcasing what the body looks like, rather than posing and putting a filter on it.
DAWSON: I find how messy it all is actually kind of empowering.
IMAN: The world is messy.
DAWSON: There is no one right way to do anything. And what I’m just grateful for…Wait, my dad’s about to go on a 20-mile bike ride. [to her dad] I love you. Text me. Make sure you check in with me! I’m nervous. [laughs] Wow, what a great moment to interrupt.
IMAN: [laughs] The keyword is messy!
DAWSON: It is! It’s messy and complex. We’re seeing this as we’re getting more into #TimesUp and into #MeToo and understanding that it’s beyond people just telling their stories and healing—it’s work.
DAWSON: When you first started modeling, what was that like for you? You’ve joked about the fact that you were just like any other Somali woman. So how crazy was it to suddenly have to make all of these decisions about how to represent yourself?
IMAN: Somalis are actually considered some of the most beautiful people in the world—and we definitely think we are. [Dawson laughs] I was an average girl. Somali people still say, “If Iman can be a model, any girl in Somalia can be a model because we’re all that beautiful.” But for me, where I came from, beauty was secondary compared to your mind and your thoughts. I pushed myself toward education. I looked at everything in terms of politics. So when I came to the United States, it was all about the politics of beauty. When I first arrived, one of the top models was Beverly Johnson. At first, I had no notion that there was any competition between us, because I had never seen a fashion magazine in my life. But they actually pitted us against each other. I also compared myself to the white girls. They were paying white models more money than black models. I’d refuse to take those jobs. I’d say, “I’m providing a service. It doesn’t matter what color I am. My services should be paid the same as the white model.”
DAWSON: What are your thoughts about sexual and power dynamics in your industry, like the allegations against Bruce Weber and Mario Testino? How do we allow for body positivity within an industry that can prey on very young people? Where does the line get drawn around manipulation and freedom of expression?
IMAN: I stopped modeling in 1989, but I don’t think the industry has changed in any big way. In terms of being taken advantage of by a photographer, that never happened to me. But I can see how it happens, because it’s a power thing—because of the suggestion that if you are topless, it will make a better picture, and that if you don’t do it, somebody else will. At the same time, as you said, where does one control the artistic endeavor of the business? A lot of these models start very, very young. I started when I was 20, and I was clueless about what modeling was—but I was not clueless about life. I personally don’t know why anybody would allow their own children to go unchaperoned. It’s an adult business, and it’s very difficult to protect a child.
DAWSON: My very first film was Kids , so there were a lot of young people. I was 15 when I did the movie, and my parents worked, so they weren’t there for my first rehearsal. They let me go and spend quite a lot of time with a bunch of strangers, really. I was a very body-positive person. I was raised with nudists and with a lot of activism; I knew how to speak up for myself. I was very comfortable in my body. But there were moments when that was exploited. I don’t necessarily think my parents did a bad thing by not being more present; they trusted me, and that was really important to me. But there were times I felt taken advantage of. And that’s why I find this moment so critical, because it is complex. It is a full spectrum.
IMAN: When I was 14, I could also make a decision for myself. But I know a couple of young kids, my daughter’s friends, or even my own daughter, who I don’t think would be able to be in those positions. My daughter might not know that she has the power to walk away from something.
DAWSON: I love how travel is such a big part of your story. So many people in this country do not travel. They don’t travel city-to-city, state-to-state, let alone country-to-country. How do you feel that this is affecting the conversations that we’re having around everything? For me, travel is an education.
IMAN: I totally agree. There is nothing more educational than travel. The only way you will understand how other people think is by going to where they live. Somalia is a nomad country, so we’ve always been on the move. For me, moving is essential. Books are great, googling is great, but there is nothing that can replace traveling. I’m so surprised when I hear young people who are not really curious about travel. I started traveling when I was 9—without my parents. I went to high school in Egypt; I visited Beirut. I went to Syria. In my generation, we did the Peace Corps after high school. My parents always said, “You’ll have time in your adult life to travel to the west. How are you going to see Africa? You’ve got to see Africa before your 20s. You have to travel through Africa to understand where you came from.”
DAWSON: Your name means faith, right? My name means rosary. I feel like I worry about everything all the time. [laughs]
IMAN: It’s appropriate!
DAWSON: How has your name guided you?
IMAN: Funny enough, my given name, when I was born, was Zahra. Which is a flower of the desert. It’s an oxymoron: flowers and desert. But my grandfather changed my name to Iman, because I was the first daughter in six generations of just sons. I think if I were Zahra, I would be a totally different person. I am Iman. I am totally my name. I have big female and male parts in me. Iman in Somali is a man’s name; it’s not a woman’s name.
DAWSON: Rosario can be either-or, too. I’ve met a lot of male Rosarios.
IMAN: See, your name makes you. You’re outspoken and fearless; those are the qualities that they attribute to boys. When a woman gets a man’s name, they get that with it. I think if I were Zahra, I would be much more soft-spoken. I would be one of those feminine girls, which I’m not.
DAWSON: I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re all male and female. It takes a sperm and an egg to create a human, so we’re equally half. I remember I didn’t like my name when I was younger, and I’ve definitely grown to love it more.
IMAN: I was the same, because I was the only female with a man’s name in my country. I was the first girl Iman.
DAWSON: We started off with notoriety.
IMAN: All those things shape you. Tough things shape you, sweet things shape you, hugs shape you as much as tears shape you.
DAWSON: It’s women like you who make me excited about getting older, and hopefully one day also being able to proclaim that I’m wise. I’m not quite there yet.
IMAN: You will be.
ROSARIO DAWSON IS AN ACTRESS, WRITER, AND PRODUCER. SHE MOST RECENTLY STARRED IN THE FILM UNFORGETTABLE.
Muslim models take over runways at Milan Fashion Week
ARAB NEWS — DUBAI: From Somali-American star Halima Aden to lesser known beauty Amina Adan, hijab-wearing models and beauties of Muslim descent are taking Milan Fashion Week by storm.
Both models walked for Max Mara in the brand’s Autumn/Winter 2018 show on Thursday, alongside such fashion stars as Gigi Hadid and Cindy Crawford’s daughter, Kaia Gerber.
Aden sported a silky headscarf and skirt-and-trousers combination while Adan, who was raised in Denmark, showed off a grey checkered blazer paired with a black leopard-print scarf.
After the show, Adan took to her Instagram page to thank Max Mara for the experience, posting: “Thank you for this amazing experience, @maxmara.”
Far from being the only Muslim models to take Milan by storm, the pair were joined in the fashion-forward city by models-of-the-moment Gigi and Bella Hadid, both of whom walked in a variety of shows, including Missoni, Versace and Alberta Ferretti.
For her part, Imaan Hammam, a Dutch model of Egyptian and Moroccan descent, walked the runway for Versace on Friday, dressed in a figure-hugging, belted black mini-dress.
However, despite the two hijab-clad models and litany of international names garnering praise from pro-diversity fashion insiders, some critics are slamming Italian fashion house Gucci for outfitting white models with headscarves and turbans in the brand’s Feb. 22 show.
Actor and model Avan Jogia sparked debate on Twitter after he tweeted a photo of a white model wearing a turban, saying: “Yo, @gucci… I mess with you guys… but this isn’t a good look for you… could you not find a brown model?”
Meanwhile, fashion photographer Faiyaz Kolia told Indie magazine that “Gucci got to pick and choose from cultural imagery all the things that are aligned to their ‘fantasy’ narrative without any consequences, and then so easily put on white skin… What message does that send? That it’s ok to wear a hijab if you’re young, beautiful, rich, and white but not if you’re actually a Muslim or a person of color?”