'Take me as I am': Halima Aden announces comeback with a new direction
After a dramatic exit from the fashion industry last year, Somali-American supermodel Halima Aden announced her comeback this week, emphasising that she would be working on her own terms.
Speaking at a conference in Istanbul on Wednesday, the model announced that she is now the global brand ambassador for modest fashion retailer Modanisa, where she will design two new collections and be part of the brand’s marketing efforts.
In her speech in the Turkish city, Aden expressed her excitement and gratitude for working with a brand that respects her faith and values Muslim women - something she said needs to be the norm in the fashion industry.
“This is such an exciting time, and the global expansion of the brand has been remarkable,” she said.
“We want women to pursue their dreams and goals without compromising their beliefs. This is for stronger women and a stronger tomorrow,” she added.
The announcement coincides with the online retailer's 10-year anniversary, with Samim Surel, Modanisa’s vice-president of marketing and brand director, saying the partnership with Aden was a perfect fit, and that he would like to see Istanbul become the modest fashion capital of the world.
“Her creative energy and positive connection with young Muslim women from all backgrounds will be a fantastic asset for us as we drive forward with our global plans,” he said at the conference.
Speaking at the event, Aden advised any upcoming hijabi influencers, models and content creators to be mindful of the partnerships and business opportunities they accept.
“My message to anyone following this path would be that you don’t have to take every single job. I have turned away many jobs, so I would say you have to be very intentional with the partnerships that you choose,” she said.
‘Take me as I am’
In November last year, Aden put out a series of social media posts in which she said she would be cutting ties with a number of brands in the fashion industry, and declining partnerships she felt would force her to compromise her religion.
Aden - who rose to fame in 2016 following a Miss USA beauty pageant where she was spotted and later signed to the global modelling agency IMG - emphasised that she would now be very careful about who she worked with.
The posts resonated with Muslim women online, many of whom praised her for speaking out about being pressured to conform with mainstream fashion standards.
Despite quitting fashion and calling out brands and campaigns she felt uncomfortable working with because of a perceived pressure to alter her "traditional hijab", the model says she received widespread support from her peers in the industry, including from model sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid, designer Tommy Hilfiger, supermodel Naomi Campbell and singer Rihanna.
“Surprisingly, I got a lot of support when I quit. There were so many other bigger names that reached out to me and congratulated me for speaking out. Other models also experience similar issues, so lots of people told me they were glad I spoke out about it,” she told Middle East Eye, via telephone.
Since her decision last year, the model says she has been very selective with any events and partnerships that come her way.
“I was actually invited to the Met Gala this year but didn’t go,” she said. “I thought it would be too awkward running into everyone after I had quit,” she said, laughing.
Speaking to Middle East Eye, Aden said that her break from fashion last year was a surprisingly easy decision. “If a brand doesn’t respect my values or beliefs, it’s time to go,” she said.
Aden also said that moving forward, she wants to see some changes within the fashion industry. “I want to see more Muslim women stylists, I want to see diversity within the casting directors. I want to see diversity with the editors-in-chief.”
'I want to see more Muslim women stylists, I want to see diversity within the casting directors. I want to see diversity with the editors-in-chief'
- Halima Aden
According to the supermodel, within the industry, conversations about inclusivity tend to surround magazine covers. She believes the discussion needs to go beyond that, encompassing modelling behind the scenes, where she hopes to see more diversity.
When asked about her future in fashion, and how she is going to choose which brands to work with, Aden is clear.
“It’s very simple,” she said. “Take me as I am or we’re not partnering.”
Looking back at her breakaway from fashion last year, Aden says that she has learnt a lot from the experience and wants other hijabis in the industry to stay true to themselves.
“You have to know yourself, getting into the industry. You need to know what you stand for and know the boundaries that you want to set, because fashion loves pushing people’s boundaries,” she said.
The trailblazing model said that her advice for anyone pursuing fashion would be to go in with a firm knowledge of who you are, otherwise it’s easy to get lost.
‘Capitalising on modest fashion’
A growing topic of concern among critics in the fashion industry is the way more and more high end brands are launching collections targeted at Muslim women, with some arguing that it’s a quick way for brands to capitalise on Muslim consumers.
Often, some argue, the brands don’t consult Muslim women when designing the products, and any attempts come across as performative.
Aden says she has experienced this, to an extent.
“I’ve definitely worked with both sides where I felt like a brand was jumping on the bandwagon, and other brands where it felt like there was a genuine interest for modest fashion,” she says.
According to Aden, over the years of working in the fashion and modelling industry, she has noticed some brands trying to make a "quick buck" from Muslim women after seeing that it is trendy and profitable.
However, she also believes that a genuine interest is growing amongst some brands to support and represent Muslim women and consumers.
She also wants to see more support from them on issues relevant to their target market, particularly as women’s clothing choices are once again becoming a more contentious issue in some countries.
“I think brands who serve modest fashion have a responsibility to speak out against some of the injustices that Muslim women face,” she said. “Life is tough for visibly Muslim women, and we need to see more vocal support from mainstream brands who have modest fashion lines and make sure it’s not tokenistic or a matter of ticking a check box.”
Aden emphasised that she would like to see more brands giving credit to hijabi creators, as well as standing up for Muslim womens’ rights to dress modestly, particularly in the face of growing crackdowns and the policing of women’s clothing.
Earlier this year, the French Senate voted in favour of adding an amendment to the so-called "separatism bill" that would ban girls under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public spaces.
Although it has been illegal for students to wear a hijab in French state schools since 2004, the amendment would expand the ban to minors in all public spaces.
The news sparked shockwaves across social media, with many Muslim women using the hashtag “hands off my hijab” to express their disapproval.
Fashion needs 'Muslim women'
In her new role, Aden says she also wants to highlight to Muslim women that the traditional hijab should be something they wear proudly and that they should be confident in their own identity.
“Fashion needs Muslim women, never the other way around,” she said. “Once you have that in mind, you can navigate the fashion industry.”
Many bloggers and influencers say they want to reclaim the modest fashion movement, which originally stemmed from street style, and find creative ways to make clothing available on the market comply with Islamic guidelines.
One of Aden’s biggest concerns prior to quitting the fashion industry last year was the constant pressure to change her hijab, or compromise it.
She described times where she would go back to her hotel room following campaign shoots and cry, because she felt like it wasn’t authentic to herself or her faith
She described times where she would go back to her hotel room following campaign shoots and cry, because she felt like it wasn’t authentic to herself or her faith.
Over time, she says, the trendy, and ever-changing nature of fashion has impacted how the hijab has traditionally been observed.
Although there is not one form of hijab, and each Muslim intereprets it differently, there are certain Islamic guidlines that determine modest clothing.
“For Muslim women, it’s not just a trend for us. It’s a lifestyle,” she says.
“It’s definitely concerning when I see, for example, brands who put on head coverings resembling hijab, but they show skin, like ankles, or use models wearing hijab but then there’s a high slit with leg showing,” Aden says, referring to the fact that covering the body as well as the hair is part of the modest dress associated with the hijab.
The issue of modelling agencies, stylists and photographers failing to understand modest fashion, and the needs of Muslim women in hijab, is long-standing.
To combat this, some have taken it into their own hands. One such example is London-based Umma Models, which launched in 2017 after its founder, Shannie Hammouda, noticed a gap in the market for an agency that understands modest fashion.
The agency communicates with the brands, informing them on behalf of the model of their needs - for example, if a model chooses not to show arms, or if a skirt length is too short.
Model, activist, humanitarian
Halima Aden’s return to fashion has also come with different roles, and a new direction she wants to pursue.
“I grew up in one of the largest refugee camps in the world, so activism will forever be a part of who I am. It’s part of my DNA,” she said. Kakuma, the refugee camp she grew up in, is in north-west Kenya. As of July 2020, it had a population of 196,000, most of whom, like Aden, came from Somalia.
At the moment, the supermodel says she is in the process of deciding what she wants to do in terms of her activism, and how best to serve and support refugee communities.
As well as humanitarian work and partnerships, Aden wants to start championing other causes, such as mental health awareness.
“I think there’s such a stigma around it, especially for our community,” she says.
Despite the challenges Aden and other practicing Muslim models face, she remains excited about her comeback to the industry, and about collaborating with partners who accept her conditions.
“It feels absolutely incredible and so exciting,” she says.