Fashion did not always come easily to Halima Aden. She creases with laughter as she recalls the clothes her mother sewed for her in Kakuma, the Kenyan refugee camp where she was born.
“She’s put me in some horrific outfits. Thank goodness I don’t have those photos!” she says.
Today, swathed in a royal blue wrap and with a chic tight black turban on her head, Aden, 21, looks every inch the supermodel. In less than three years she has gone from beauty pageant queen to major modelling contract to, last year, the first headscarfed Muslim woman to grace the cover of British Vogue in its 102-year history.
Aden’s family, who are Somalian, were granted asylum in the US when she was seven. They settled in St Louis, Minnesota, home to a large Somali population.
“We had two malls that sold more modest clothes,” she says. “But every shop in those malls sold the exact same hijabs. So the problem I faced growing up was showing up to school and all the girls were wearing the same things.”
When she entered Miss Minnesota in 2016, she was the first contestant in a hijab and burkini. Then Carine Roitfeld — former editor of French Vogue — came knocking. Aden “screamed for about a minute” when she got the call, she says.
A mix of Grace Jones and Kate Moss, Aden is blessed with classic model features: high cheekbones, wide eyes, a face at once distinctive and versatile. In one of her photos, in cat eye make-up and sultry monochrome, she oozes a young Sophia Loren. In her Nike campaign, she is tough-edge urban bad girl. On Aden’s head, the hijab is an accessory.
If you want to find an inspiring revolution in the Islamic world, look no further than the boom in modest fashion. The pioneers of this $250-billion-a-year industry are young Muslim women who are used to improvising. The top names all want a piece of their style.
“Designers love working with hijabs because they can go crazy and creative. The sky’s the limit,” she says.
Aden’s own fashion line, a collection for Modanisa, premiered at Istanbul Modest Fashion Week this weekend.
She is proud of the letters she receives from young Muslim women. “Our little girls need to see themselves represented.”