Halima Aden on style, social responsibility and doing TED talks at the refugee camp she grew up in

The hijabi model talks to Grazia about her incredible journey
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Halima Aden on style, social responsibility and doing TED talks at the refugee camp she grew up in

The first time Grazia met Halima was in December 2016 when she became the first hijabi contestant for Miss Minnesota USA. “I wanted to inspire other Muslim girls who feel they’re not pretty enough or they don’t fit into society’s norms,” she told us at the time. Fast forward two years, in a swish suite at The Address Downtown in Dubai as the new face of Max Mara’s exclusive capsule collection for the Middle East to celebrate the new flagship at The Dubai Mall Fashion Extension, it’s safe to say she’s achieved that and much, much more.

“When I told you this, I didn’t even know what that would look like!” Halima squeals. “I would never ever have thought it would mean magazine covers, it would mean walking in fashion shows. I just meant in my local town, I wanted to make sure that Muslim girls knew they could compete for Miss Minnesota USA wearing their hijab if they wanted to. And to go back to my high school and tell the girls, ‘If you want to join the school swim team and you wear the hijab, you could still do that. There’s a burkini option. I had no idea it would lead to all of this.” Care to elaborate on that?

Two years ago, you told us it was difficult to find clothes that were cute, fashionable but also modest. Has that changed?

Absolutely! I’ve seen major changes. Even when I started in modelling, at my first show, I brought my own suitcase full of hijabs for them to pick out, and undergarments such as long-sleeve turtlenecks, and I still do. It’s a learning experience for them, it’s new to me, so I try to meet them halfway to make their jobs of styling a hijabi girl easier. The biggest change I’ve noticed is rarely now do I ever use my own scarves because the designer already has them, and they’re the right length and the right material. At my first Max Mara show, I brought my own scarf, and that’s the scarf I wore down the runway. I come back one season later, Creative Director Ian Griffiths had designed one. I remember saying, ‘This comes with the look?’ He said, ‘Yes, I specifically knew I wanted you to be in this show and I had you in mind.’ It was intended for me. I feel very special. I was kept in mind. You get loyal customers when you keep them in mind.

Two years ago I made that statement about not being able to find clothes that were modest but still beautiful and elegant, and here I am today completely covered, but I feel so confident and comfortable. I feel like this piece was made specifically for me and I know lot of girls will be shopping, and that’s the exact thought that will be running through their head. ‘This was meant for me, done with care and integrity.’ I wouldn’t be working with Max Mara it wasn’t the way they made me feel.

Logo silk stole, Dhs1,640. Camel coat, Dhs11,770. Logo pencil skirt, Dhs2,070

How important has it been to your career to you to have had the support of Max Mara from the beginning?

Major! I don’t even want to think about my career had Ian Griffiths and the entire Max Mara team not have given me the support that they did. Max Mara is the only show I’ve walked for every single season – no matter if it’s summer, no matter if it’s winter – and I think that in itself, to the women that follow me, it shows them this is not a one-season thing for this brand, it’s not a trend; they consistently have me in mind, and when they have my wardrobe requirements in mind for the runway, they have all their Muslim women in mind – all the hijabis, all the women who aren’t Muslim but choose to dress modestly, they have them in mind.

If I one day have a daughter, Max Mara is the closet I want to pass on to her. It’s elegant, it’s classy, it’s timeless. When I put on the suit, I feel like I’m ready to become a CEO. That’s the kind of confidence it gave me. It did the job of covering me up, but it also made me feel young, it made me feel like I’m my age – I’m still a regular 21-year-old – edgy, cool, but also elegant, and that’s difficult to come by. Not a lot of brands do that successfully.

How did you feel seeing so many covered models alongside you at the Max Mara SS19 show?

It was part of the look, honey! It’s a look, you know what I mean? I’ll never forget! Why shouldn’t they? It was classy, it was edgy. Everyone who had their headpiece looked absolutely stunning. Modesty is not just for Muslim women. I think it’s something that should be available for all women. At the end of the day, if it looks chic, why shouldn’t you wear it? And I loved helping the models backstage. For the first time, they were coming to me and asking, ‘Hey girl, did I tie it right?’ and I said, ‘Here, let me help you with that!’ Usually it’s me going up to them saying, ‘Hey girl, how do you walk? What pace are you going?’ There were lots of happy hijabis after that show.

What’s been your most important career achievement to-date?

I don’t think it will ever get bigger than being named Unicef ambassador. Since I was six, Unicef was always on my goal list, and I always wanted to work with the UN. When I met with IMG, our first meeting was four hours long. That’s what happens when you’re the first. It’s a learning experience for everybody. And we covered everything from wardrobe to always having my manager or a female from my team travelling with me in case it’s an all-male set. We talked about values, where I came from, and I explained to them, ‘I grew up in this camp. I know firsthand the work that Unicef and the UN does for children and families in need. It’s important to me to work with that organisation. And they made it happen right away.

Shortly after that, I went on my first field trip with them to Mexico, then last July, I went back to the refugee camp I was born in, in Kakuma in Kenya, did the first ever TED Talk in the camp that was livecast to the entire world, and after that I was named Unicef’s newest ambassador. It’s major. We need those stories of the kids going from the camp growing up, hopefully doing something good and coming back. It should come full circle, always. I always say, that’s what happens when the world doesn’t forget about you. Even when I was in that camp, I never felt forgotten about because Unicef was there, the UN was there, missionaries came. Now I’m working on how the relationships I’m having with people in the industry can bridge the gap between activism and fashion. The two worlds can come together. We all have social responsibilities.

Photos: Supplied