Representation matters. For GLAMOUR’s September digital fashion issue we wanted to celebrate the changing face of fashion, the people who are ripping up the rule book and those who are showing that fashion is for everyone.
At 22, Halima Aden has become accustomed to not only overcoming obstacles, but shattering them. Born in 1997 in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, after her family left Somalia, Halima arrived as an immigrant in the USA in 2004. She went on to gain worldwide attention for being the first model to wear a hijab in the Miss USA beauty pageant at 19 years old. She then quickly signed to IMG models and has never looked back.
After walking her first runway show for Kanye West’s Yeezy in 2017, Halima then made history by becoming the first Muslim model to appear on a Sports Illustrated cover wearing a hijab and a burkini last year. She was also the first hijab-wearing model to front British Vogue, Vogue Arabia and Allure and has walked for Max Mara and Tommy Hilfiger. As well as starring in multiple campaigns, including American Eagle and global sustainability brand BOTTLETOP and #TOGETHERBAND.
Her influence goes far beyond the fashion industry, too, and following the announcement that she would become an ambassador for UNICEF in 2018, Halima became the first former refugee to give a TED talk at a refugee camp, speaking from Kakuma at just 20 years old. If anyone is changing the face of fashion for good, it’s Halima and she has done it entirely on her own terms.
WATCH: Halima Aden on learning to survive in a refugee camp & her relationship with her hijab
When Halima signed to IMG Models she went in with a set of stipulations she would not budge on. Alongside stating that wearing her hijab was non-negotiable in her contract due to her religion, she insisted on having pop-up tents to change in when backstage at fashion shows, and that she must travel with her assistant at all times. This steadfast approach came to the fore again when she almost walked away from her first ever runaway appearance for Yeezy in 2017. When presented with an outfit that was too short, and compromising her faith, Halima pulled out of the show, only to receive a call at her hotel later that day to inform her they had a new option that was respectful of her requirements. If that isn’t an empowering example of sticking to your moral code – no matter what – I don’t know what is.
Now as Halima becomes the second person after Hani Sidow to wear a hijab on GLAMOUR UK’s cover, as the face of our September fashion digital issue, she opens up about the obstacles she has faced and her hopes for fashion’s future. GLAMOUR’S Josh Smith zooms into her home in Minnesota…
The theme of this issue is the changing face of fashion, which you have symbolised from the very beginning of your career. During your time working as a model, how far do you think you’ve seen the industry come in terms of reflective representation?
I think we’ve been through it all! At the very beginning of my career, I didn’t know much about the fashion industry, but I did know of the supermodel Iman mainly because she’s a Somali woman and one of the most successful models in history. I used to watch her interviews and she would speak about the challenges she faced in terms of inclusion, diversity and how she had to be a vocal advocate and fight for that. Then seeing my career, it just came at such an ease for me to get into the industry compared to what Iman went through and being the first hijab-wearing model. Yes, we’ve run into little obstacles here and there, but the industry has come so far along and we continue to go forward. So, I’m excited for 10 years time, when hopefully, young girls will be watching my interviews and being like, “Wow, we have changed so much.”
What was it about Iman’s story that really stuck with you?
First of all, the way that she speaks with such passion – I love that. I remember in one of her interviews she said this photographer tried to paint this picture of her saying, “we found this girl in the middle of nowhere in the bushes of Africa!” And she was like, “Um, no you didn’t. First of all I’m the daughter of a diplomat and I speak five languages.” She was going to college in Kenya when she got discovered on the street. It was just not the story that they were wanting to paint. I love the fact that she stood up for herself and was like, “You’re not going to paint me out to be somebody that I’m not. You can not use my story.” She’s very authentic and the fact that she is another Somali woman means I definitely look up to her.
Have you ever felt like you have had a narrative placed onto you?
I think mine is the complete opposite, thankfully. I’m blessed to have a great team that got to know me first and foremost before there was ever an interview published. Behind the scenes, they’ve already taken the time to get to know me, my story and where I come from. Even in my first meeting with my agency, it lasted four hours and we weren’t talking campaigns because at the time I couldn’t even tell you what Balenciaga was! We mostly talked about UNICEF and what we can do to do work with them. It was incredible because I feel like from day one I was not having anything placed on me and I could just be my authentic self. I think the best person to share your story is always going to be you. Nobody can tell your story the way that you can. I know that’s true for everybody, so I’m hoping that I can continue to have my voice and continue to inspire others to have their voice heard.
What obstacles have you had to overcome in the fashion industry and what have been some watershed moments in your career?
Oh, wow. I’ve had so many tearful moments where I have been very emotional. I think the biggest one is [in 2017] when Libby (Halima’s agent) and I were in New York City for the first time. That was my first ever trip to New York City with her to meet with the agency to do my CR Fashion Book shoot. We were at Times Square and looking up at all the billboards and I remember her telling me that one day I would be up there. And no kidding, Josh, like six months after that day, we were standing that very exact spot looking up, and there was this huge American Eagle ad that I was in. I was just so emotional and it just represents that anything is possible.
I was 5ft 5.5ins, I was wearing braces and wore the hijab. That was a big first for the industry. I still live in Minnesota so it’s not like I moved to a fashion capital. I was able to still maintain and still find success within the industry while still doing it my own way and paving my own way that works for me.
If younger you could have seen someone like you on that billboard in Times Square how much would that have helped you? What would she have said to you in that moment?
I would have just been shocked, because I grew up in a household where my mom was always very much like, “Focus on school. Everything else can wait.” I never saw Muslim women and women who wear the hijab represented in fashion magazines, much less on the cover, and to be that person now for so many little girls is so amazing because I know I missed out on that opportunity of feeling represented. I know because of that I probably wasn’t as confident as I could have been. I probably didn’t feel like I fitted into this society, because I didn’t see anybody who looked like me doing cool things and doing things that are admirable. For me, it was the opposite. When I saw women who dressed like me, it was on CNN or Fox News, and it was attached to narratives that was just so far from who I was and the women that I knew. I felt like, “Wow, what about our voices? What about our stories?” I am now doing all these amazing things while still remaining true to myself and wearing my hijab. I hope that I will give others the confidence to never let their hijab or the clothes that they wear hinder their success or make them feel like they can’t walk into any room or any given space and be their true best selves.
I think a big part of my success in the very beginning too is because people were not expecting to see somebody who looked like me enter these spaces. I know in a lot of ways being the first had so much attention to it, because it was like, “Wow, you did the pageant for the first time.” Then when I came back a year later, I saw seven girls just in Minnesota competing with a hijab and I thought, “So, I’m not a loner, this weird person who’s doing random things.” There’s true interest from the women in my community to do these things just like I did, but I never felt that before I competed. And then it was the same with modelling, people were like, “Wait. She’s a hijab-wearing model, what does that look like?” There is that fear of the unknown and what you don’t know.
I might have been the first but now there’s so many other young, aspiring models who wear the hijab. It’s not a weird thing or un-normal thing to see a hijab on the runway or on the cover of a magazine and I love that because it just shows you it’s not that hijab-wearing women don’t want to be involved in fashion – they do. But for a very long time, we never had a seat at the table so to be that person to inspire other women in my community to walk through those doors is just incredible.
It’s not about having just one seat at the table it’s about making your own table, isn’t it?
Yeah. I think so. I think even with inclusion when you think about the intersectionality of it all, you begin to understand that inclusion cannot be a checklist, something to fit in a box, to cross it off. It cannot be that way. It just needs to be embedded within our culture.
I also want to see a continuation of age diversity. When I look at the people who shop from some of these iconic brands it tends to be older women sometimes. Why don’t we see more middle-aged women? Why don’t we see women who are older also on the runway? It shouldn’t just be a bunch of models aged from 18 to 24. I love the fact that we have women like Maye Musk who’s 72 and still killing it.
You’ve shown that the hijab is such an amazing source of empowerment for you, why has that been important to you?
I didn’t want to politicise my hijab, because that’s not who I am. I have worn a hijab since I was a little girl and will continue to because of my mother and the women in my family that I look up to. It’s just part of my culture. It was as simple as picking out shoes to wear – it wasn’t even something to really think about. With modelling, I didn’t want to all of a sudden put the focus solely on my hijab, because I’m not the clothes that I wear. It’s just a part of me.
At the end of the day, I’m still Halima. I’m a Midwest girl. There are so many things that I’m starting to see people who follow me relate to even if they look nothing like me but it’s because of the things that I’ve shared, being myself in all my interviews, and all my campaigns that’s starting to help people to not just see the hijab, see the person who is wearing it and it’s making people realise it is a choice. We’re so much more similar than we are different, as cliché as that may sound and by being myself, I feel like it’s constantly educating people. You don’t need to be hijab-wearing refugee Somali-American to be like, “Wow, I look up to you as a role model,” or “This aspect of your journey inspired me in this way.” I’m hoping that people will draw inspiration wherever they see fit.
You have such an incredible platform but with that comes negativity too. What kind of every-day negativity do you come up against both online and in real life and how have you learnt to manage that?
I think for me it’s just understanding it’s 2% of people. Whether I kept my housekeeping job or continued to go onto college or stayed in St. Cloud, Minnesota my entire life, I would experience that reaction from the 2%. You will always, no matter what journey you go on, no matter what path you pick, come into contact with haters. Taxes, death, and haters – that’s three things in life that is an absolute! How you go through those journeys and how you decide to react – that is all in your control. I just choose to ignore it because that person clearly does not know me. I’ve also gotten to see the 98%, which is amazing support and love from people who show up for you. The good outweighs the negative always, through and through.
How do you want to use your platform as a catalyst for change?
When the pandemic hit, the very first project I got to work on was called Banding Together and I created an entire set of face coverings specifically designed with frontline workers who wear the hijab. As somebody who kept her housekeeping job at St. Cloud Hospital even seven months into my modelling career, I want to show up for that healthcare community. For every single piece that’s purchased, they’ll donate one to a frontline worker and I was like, “Sign me up. I want to donate my time. I want to show up for my health care community,” because in a lot of ways, it can be a thankless job.
In my first meeting with IMG I asked, how do we combine fashion and activism? I’m not going to lie to you and maybe it’s because I didn’t come from the world of fashion and luxury but clothes were as simple as, “do I have something on my back? Do I have shoes covering my feet?” It wasn’t really something that I ever really thought about so entering the industry, I wasn’t saying, “I want to work with Prada,” or “I want to have a Louis Vuitton campaign.” I would rather work with a brand like Vita Coco coconut water company that is doing so much on the ground for society rather than any other fashion shoot where it’s just like, “Hold a handbag, hold a belt and that’s the campaign done, bye, go home!” Instead for me, I think my partnerships have been very intentional and working with brands that are doing amazing products but also doing amazing work in bettering our environment. I sleep so well at night knowing that.
It should not be hard to combine fashion and activism and I do think we’re heading in a world where the industry as a whole is adapting and thinking of ways that it can be more sustainable. The fashion industry can be one of the world’s most wasteful industries, but it doesn’t have to be. It has always bothered me that some brands still continue to throw away or burn the clothes that have not been used at the end of the season. I just think, “Wow, as somebody who lived in a refugee camp for seven years, trust me, we will do something with it. Just frigging donate the scraps, donate whatever is left. We will make good with it.” So, I’m hoping that in the coming years, we’re also not seeing things as waste.
Modesty has become part of fashion conversation in a positive way, as well. How have you seen that conversation change during your career so far?
For a long time I thought modesty meant looking like your mom! But it can be cool, it can be edgy and it’s not specifically for Muslim women, it’s for everybody. You don’t need a specific story or background to embrace modest fashion.
What brands do you think are really nailing that modesty conversation for you?
One of the very first brands that I got to walk for was Max Mara. I just remember thinking, “Wow, this is modest but modern, timeless and so beautiful.” If I could dress like that every single day, Lord knows I would it just was never attainable for me in Minnesota. I’ll be honest, even now I’m probably going to go to the mall after our call and I already know it’s going to be a challenge to pick out modest looks, because it doesn’t come all packaged beautifully as it does when you walk in a fashion show. It is so hard to shop modest.
How do you see yourself as changing the face of fashion?
I give the industry so much credit, because before I could even be a hijab-wearing model so much change has had to have happened and so many conversations about inclusion had to have happened. We needed to get to a place in the industry where we were accepting and that is what we stand for: valuing differences and welcoming all.
If I could say anything it’s that amazing things happen when you believe in people and when you are given an opportunity. Because if I didn’t have that first opportunity, which was to compete for the pageant, nobody would have heard of me. There would have been no Carine Roitfeld reading my article and calling me up to be on the cover of CR Fashion Book. You need those people to believe in you to get to that place.
How did you feel stepping onto that runway for the first time? If you could go back now to that moment and tell that girl something empowering, what would you want to say to her?
I think I was trying to extra stretch my neck to add a little length and be as tall as I could. I just wish I could go back to that day and say, “It’s fine, you already made it to the point where you’re walking in the show, so just walk.” I wish I had a little bit more confidence in that first show but it was for Kanye West and it was my first ever New York Fashion Week show. I was extremely nervous and having never really walked in heels and having to walk in them in front of Anna Wintour was a little never-racking.
When you think of that girl now and the woman you are today, do you feel the most confident in yourself and in your skin? Do you feel the most ‘accepted’ you have ever felt?
I do and with every single campaign and shoot I get more comfortable and confident in who I am. It was tricky at the beginning because I had so many excited girls reaching out to me because we got to a place where we have a hijab-wearing model. But then they wanted to see edgier looks and wanted me to push the limits. Then I would try to do edgier things like OK, wearing thigh-high heels and making them modest. But I got to a point where I was thought, “I actually don’t want to stray too far away from me. I want to be fashionable and edgy to the point where my hijab is not even the focus and it’s no longer even a hijab and it’s just seen as a head covering. It just becomes a hat. It just becomes accessory.” I didn’t want to lose out on the faith part and also the identity part and now I realise I don’t have to push myself to the edge. I don’t need to be something that I’m not.
Halima is the face of luxury sustainable accessories brand BOTTLETOP and is a #TOGETHERBAND Ambassador for Global Goal 8. Global Goal 8 stands for Decent Work and Economic Growth, one of the 17 goals devised by the United Nations for a positive future by 2030.