"To be honest, I never really thought I had a place in the world of fashion," Halima Aden says. "I didn't grow up seeing women dressed like or who looked like me in magazines or on television or [on] advertising billboards." Yet, in just a few short months, the 19-year-old model has certainly found that place.
In February, Aden became the first hijabi to be signed by IMG Models; in the subsequent weeks, she went on to cover the 10th edition of Carine Roitfeld's CR Fashion Book, make her catwalk debut for Kanye West's Yeezy Season 5, and walk for Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti in Milan. Social media went into a frenzy, similar to, say, the response H&M received for its size- (Ashley Graham), age- (Pat Cleveland, Amber Valetta), and gender- (Hari Nef, Andreja Pejic) inclusive presentation for AW16. The idea wasn't crazy or far-fetched: It was, however, outside the "norm." And though it's a bit funny to think that adding even a shred of diversity (a.k.a., 1-2 unconventional models) to a catwalk becomes global news, well, it's really just a reminder of how far the fashion industry has to go in terms of inclusivity.
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By the time Aden walked her first catwalk in New York City, however, she was already familiar with being the only hijab-wearing woman in the group. "I didn't know women who wore hijabs could be models," she said. "My first taste of the modelling world was competing in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant this past November. I entered the pageant because of the scholarships it provides young women, and the experience to step outside my comfort zone.
"In addition to the interview [portion], I had to model on stage in the evening gown and swimwear competitions. Throughout the competition I wore my hijab, and for the swimwear portion, I wore a burkini, a modest swimsuit that covers the entire body except the face, hands, and feet," she explains, noting that her choice to not compromise her religious or cultural beliefs actually ended up getting her where she is today. "It was because of my participation in the pageant that doors began opening in the modelling world. I think it's important to be diverse and I hope we continue to see that as a trend in the fashion industry."
Following the competition, Aden says, she was contacted by legendary editor Carine Roitfeld, an opportunity that would help put any young, aspiring model on the map. "[Roitfeld's team] reached out to the Miss Minnesota USA pageant organisers after the state pageant and invited me to come to New York City to shoot for CR Fashion Book's tenth issue," Aden reflects. "I had never been to New York, and having my first ever photo shoot be for such an esteemed stylist and fashion figure like Carine was wild. Not to mention, the photographer was Mario Sorrenti! The CR Fashion Book team has really taken me under their wing; they are like family."
Though shooting with Sorrenti and working with Roitfeld were dreams come true, for Aden, it was truly "surreal" to be interviewed by Iman. "We were able to open up to one another on another level," she said. " We are both Somali-Americans and Muslim, but practice our faith differently; that is what I'm excited for the world to better understand as you often hear people say that wearing a hijab is a sign of oppression. It's not — I'm choosing to wear this and dress this way. And, I have nothing but love and respect for those who choose to dress differently than me."
This strength, pushing herself to embrace her differences, rather than hide them, is something Aden has grown up with: Her parents fled Somalia in the '90s for a refugee camp in Kenya, called Kakuma, where she was born. "In our camp, there was a mixed population: Refugees from Somalia (where I'm from), Sudan, and Ethiopia came together to seek a better life," she says, reflecting on her time there. "I remember the constant conflicts that broke out in our camp — most of it was because people couldn't communicate, since so many were from different backgrounds. Eventually, Swahili, the main language in Kenya, became our common ground.
"As children, we were oblivious to race and religion," she adds. "I made friends with the kids in the camp, and even started embracing some of their cultures. I celebrated holidays like Christmas, and even believed in Ajuk (the Turkana people’s God). The other kids would embrace my culture, too, sometimes even praying with me. We would blend all of our beliefs, forming our own unique, multicultural environment."
When Aden moved to America at the age of six (first to Missouri, then to Minnesota), it was, unsurprisingly, not the easiest transition. "Back in Kakuma, all the kids played together," she said, noting how the children at her new school played in groups. "Gender didn’t matter, and one’s cultural background most certainly didn’t matter. And, I found myself secluded from the other kids due to a language barrier. I remember thinking Why don’t they understand Swahili? Swahili is the language that brings people together."
But regardless of how challenging it was to live in, and learn to adapt to, a country and culture that's different from ones own, religion, and how it played a role not just in her upbringing, but in the way she dressed and presented herself, helped Aden feel comfortable embracing her own look, rather than conforming to others. "Shopping for hijabs has always been fun for me," she said. "I was so excited to begin wearing a headscarf. I had always looked up to my mother as she wore hers, and I was eager to emulate her beauty, and the wonderful things she represented. I feel best when I am modestly dressed. It's a choice I make and am proud of; for me, I don't think I have to show skin to be beautiful. There is a misconception that young Muslim women are oppressed. That simply isn't the case. I choose to dress modestly and choose to cover my hair with a hijab; not all Muslim women make that choice and that's okay. We are all different!"
Despite its staccato-like tempo, the shift toward a more inclusive and representative catwalk arrives right on time, for what better time to protest the fragile ideas within and outside the fashion industry than when it's being challenged by the world's highest order? Whether she asked for it or not, Aden, like many other famous faces of diversity movements, serves as a poster-woman for a more progressive world — an industry that extends a seat to everyone, not just those who blend in. Her presence on (and off) the catwalk will hopefully act as the catalyst for casting directors and designers to continue including models of different backgrounds moving forward.
"I am so incredibly grateful for all of the moments I experienced during Fashion Month, she says. "It's humbling to even think that I have more than one moment to choose from. Carine was styling the Yeezy show and thought it would be a great fit for me to make my runway debut, and when Carine Roitfeld thinks an idea in the fashion world is good, I'll take her word for it. [Laughs] I then had the chance to travel to Milan to walk for Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti. I loved meeting the other models and again getting the chance to see the one and only Gigi Hadid. I met Gigi on set at the CR Fashion Book shoot, and she instantly took me under her wing. She is such a superstar and yet so kind, caring, and willing to help. She gave me tips on my walk in Milan," she said. If you haven't seen her walk yet, her strut at the Alberta Ferretti show is a must-see.
"It's important for me to show young women in my community and around the world that you don't have to change yourself or your beliefs to be successful in any avenue. Stay true to who you are and I think you will find that the key players in any industry and those who are out to do big things will have you back and support you every step of the way. Knowing that I have impacted and set an example for young women is what keeps me going."
Aden harnesses her confidence through fashion and the power of dressing. Even though something as simple — and beautiful — as a hijab can spark unwanted looks and conversation, Aden considers the accessory, and her modest wardrobe in general, a small part of her wardrobe's DNA. "It's powerful to know you can dress modestly and be beautiful. As I have grown up not dressing the same as, nor practicing the same beliefs as, many of my peers, it has forced me to be more outgoing. I really make it my mission to make sure people around me get to know me before they pass judgment. I think they are quick to realise that I'm actually a lot like them. I like to do a lot of the same things that other 19-year old teenage girls do. I think most first meeting me think that I am going to be very reserved and quiet based on my modest attire, but really I'm actually quite funny and have a good sense of humour, if I do say so myself."
Her confidence is something to take note of. Similar to other It girls on the scene today — who, these days, feel somewhat like model warriors than faces without names — Aden celebrates her unique qualities on social media (she's amassed over 114k followers on Instagram alone), which, in a way, makes her invincible. And it begs the question of, well, who wouldn't want to cast her? Her self-awareness, that stretches from where she's come from to the road that lies ahead, is the key to her success, and the foundation of how she dresses. (Think: an expansion to the rubric of that "model off-duty" trope.) In an industry that can often feel like one step forward and two steps back, Aden is intimidating in the best way — which, if you've followed the careers of any supermodel from the '90s to now, is key to making it big.