The world’s first hijab-wearing model dramatically quit the fashion industry last year, now she’s back and doing things on her own terms
Halima Aden was at the top of her game strutting her stuff on the runways of Max Mara, Tommy Hilfiger and Yeezy as the world’s first hijab-wearing supermodel when she sensationally quit last November.
The Somali-American Muslim model, who was discovered in 2016 after winning Miss Minnesota USA, was the first to wear a hijab on the cover of a US magazine for Allure and became the first to feature on the cover of British Vogue. But she felt her success in the fashion industry came at the cost of her beliefs and that she had “lost touch” with who she was. “Not even for $10 million would I ever risk compromising my hijab ever again. You will catch me working at McDonald’s before I ever ever walk runway shows or travel for fashion month… I’m guarding my hijab unlike ever before,” she wrote on social media at the time.
Signed to juggernaut modeling agency IMG, Aden’s career was on the ascent but she felt increasingly uncomfortable with the way her hijab got smaller and smaller – sometimes showing her neck and chest – and at times fetishized. The final straw was a shoot for a fashion magazine which pictured Aden on the cover and a “fully naked man” inside. “I was just so disturbed, perplexed and extremely offended that they thought it was acceptable to put a Muslim, hijab-wearing woman on the cover and then that on the very next page. I could have sent a copy to my family and that would have really you know,” she tails off, “I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”
As a trailblazing hijab-wearing model she had hoped to open the door to other models like her, but was dismayed to discover they often weren’t treated with respect. As part of her contract, Aden stipulated that she must have a private, blocked-out box in which to get changed during fashion shows and shoots, but others were not given the same opportunities. “They told the other Somali hijab-wearing model to go find a bathroom to change in if she didn’t want to use the public changing space. I was like ‘who is your agent? Who are you working for?’ This should have been taken care of before she even stepped foot into shoot.”
As a hijabi woman myself, I know some sectors are less accepting so I ask her if she thinks the modelling industry has become more inclusive. It’s come a long way in trying to be more diverse and inclusive, she says, but there is also a whole lot of tokenism. “You know – there’s only one Halima… One this, one that,” she says. “I used to be sensitive to all the comments but now I’ve learnt not to care because there will always be that one per cent – you can’t please everybody. I’m starting to find a balance between the two worlds of not being so strict that I begin resenting my hijab but also not being too lenient that my hijab loses its meaning. I want to be a good role model to my Somali community, to my refugee community, my Muslim community and even for the women who struggle with their hijab.”
To do this she has joined forces with Modanis, the world’s biggest modest fashion brand, as their first global brand ambassador and on a 46-piece collection of jersey and chiffon hijabs and turbans which come in 10 nude shades and was inspired by Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty. The idea for her range, she says, “came from a selfish place because just like Rihanna was able to create 52 shades of foundation from the deepest skin tone to the palest, [I thought] why don’t we have a collection of hijabs and turbans in nude tones for different skin types?” Her favourite shade is a deep chocolate brown with “maroon” and “warm undertones” that makes her “skin pop”.
The launch is Aden’s first venture since quitting the fashion industry and she wants people to see that it is possible to be in control of one’s career. “I think change is good and sometimes taking a break is good. That’s what I want girls to know – that I didn’t just give up and throw away my career, I took a break and set my boundaries clearer than ever and I know my worth.
“I feel like I’m not in the backseat of my career anymore, I’m steering the wheel, but none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t spoken up for myself and walked away. Sometimes walking away is exactly what people need to know their worth.”
It’s also a financially savvy move; the modest fashion industry will be worth $400 billion globally by 2024. “With or without mainstream fashion,” she says, “I’m going to be just fine.”