Halima Aden holds herself with the poise of a woman who, aged 23, had the conviction to walk away. ‘I don’t know if it’s self-sabotage but, in any career, I’m always ready to walk,’ says Halima, who rose from a childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp to make history wearing the hijab on the catwalks of Milan and New York, and appeared in a burkini on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Last November, she shocked the fashion world by quitting, leaving her contract with modelling giant IMG and turning her back on a career that others would covet. In an emotionally raw Instagram post, she explained that she could not reconcile her faith with the demands of the industry that had made her a star. ‘Being a minority inside of a minority inside of a minority is never easy,’ she wrote, before talking of leaving shoots sobbing because she felt so compromised.
She had told no one what she was about to do. As her finger hovered over the post button, she steeled herself as many of us might in such a situation: by tucking into a bowl of ice cream. The reaction was, predictably, instant and huge.
‘If I could go back and tweak things about the way I quit, I would. I was at my most vulnerable and honest,’ she says.
‘But the support was overwhelming – from the Muslim community, from the industry. People like Rihanna and the Hadid sisters, they had my back. And let me tell you something – I said I’m walking away and, no kidding, my emails flooded. I had offers from fashion brands, to do the cover of X-Y-Z magazine. And I turned them all down. Like, “Nope – you’re not going to use me now.”’
From the outside, it had seemed that Halima was changing fashion. Raised by a single mother who had fled violent turmoil in Somalia, she was granted asylum in the US with her family aged seven. She was spotted during a beauty pageant in her home state of Minnesota in 2016, mentored by Carine Roitfeld and was soon walking runways for Max Mara, Yeezy and Dolce & Gabbana. Brands believed that she was their gateway to a vast untapped market of Muslim women who want style without compromising their faith, just as mainstream fashion was also having a modest moment. In many ways she was able to forge an untrodden path for Muslim women in the fashion industry; clauses in her contract ensured her a private space to change outfits backstage, and she turned up to shoots with a suitcase full of hijabs and other modest accessories. She was branded the first Muslim supermodel, and touted as a sign that the industry was changing for the better.
Away from the spotlight, though, it was a different story. ‘In the first two years I had a lot of control, but for the last two years I was getting comfortable and trusting the styling team to put me in outfits and play with my hijab any which way they wanted to. Fashion is a very creative space so I don’t want to blame them. But I saw my hijab shrinking to something I didn’t even recognise any more.’
Looking back through Halima’s archive, the transition is clear. In the pageant and her early modelling days, when she was wearing her own hijab and styling herself, her head coverings are stylish but simple. In later images, they have been replaced by jeans, tulle or intricate jewellery – symbols of fashion, not faith. On set, she was the only Muslim, always bearing the burden of explaining to stylists and photographers what is and isn’t compatible with her faith.
‘I identify with a hijab that covers my neck, ears and chest. This is my unique way,’ she says. ‘But my aunties wear turbans, my mom wears the jilbab. The hijab is personal to each woman.’
Her epiphany about the industry eventually came from within her close-knit, traditional family. ‘My little cousin wanted to model; she was asking me to introduce her to my agency. And I said no, absolutely not, because of what I’d seen behind the scenes. So when I said no to her, I started to think, “Why am I in this industry?’ That was the tipping point. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.’
Ten months on, Halima says she has no regrets about quitting. And now she is coming back to fashion – ‘coming home’, as she puts it – with a string of collaborations with modest fashion houses that she has hand-picked. On the one hand, it is a great business move: the Islamic fashion market is booming and is projected to be worth $400 billion by 2024. On the other, it is a natural fit for a woman who has worn the hijab since she was six, and found herself becoming an inspiration for Muslim women, as well as a lightning rod for the interminable debates over what they wear.
‘Did I sign up at 19 to be a role model for Muslim women? I didn’t. I wore the hijab, it’s part of my culture. I’m grateful but it was certainly tremendous pressure,’ she says.
Her new approach to the industry is, she says, ‘simple: I’m not a prop, I’m a person. With modelling it’s all about being seen and not necessarily heard. I want to support brands that I truly believe in, where 100% our values align.’
Halima has had great poise from the start, of course – a luminous presence so absorbing on camera that her small frame, just 5ft 5in, is surprising when you meet her in person. She is still an enormous talent in front of the lens, but something has changed in her latest shots: she is smiling. Radiant, in fact; a broad beam of happiness shines out from her, a million miles from the stone-faced poses she was told to adopt during her years in mainstream fashion, which resulted in pictures in which she often found herself unrecognisable.
When Grazia joins her on set for Modanisa, a Turkish modest fashion house that has signed Halima as its global brand ambassador, she looks like the beautiful girl on the street. Several of the crew are also wearing hijabis, and the headscarf that Halima is wearing is once again her own choice. As she looks through her shots with the team, she leaps on one where she is laughing, mischievously, beneath the hood of an urban-inspired transparent cagoul.
‘Yes!’ she exclaims, delighted.
It is the smile of a woman who has seized back control of her life and career in an industry where models are too often left without agency over their own bodies.
Her decision to quit resonates far beyond religion: abuse scandals have been uncovered across modelling, where girls as young as 14 have been catapulted into a world where strangers have access to their bodies.
‘On Instagram it looks glamorous, but burnout is real. Young men and women who are sometimes at their most vulnerable are entering this industry. People come and touch you, fix you without permission. I had so many models, some of them even bigger than me, reaching out and saying thank you for speaking up,’ Halima says.
‘I think there has been change, for sure, but I would like to see even more change.
I was the first hijabi model; I had to take some bruises. I have to give high fashion some credit for still working with me.’
SEE: The World's Most Famous Supermodels' First Polaroids
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