OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — “I don't like the word diversity. It makes it sound like you’re [unconventionally] different. What should we call it? Inclusivity? Not that either,” said Carine Roitfeld, the French stylist renowned for her provocative work and who was responsible, in part, for changing model Halima Aden’s life.
Aden was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, but became a naturalised American when her family made the move to Minnesota, when she was seven years old. She first made headlines in November 2016 when she competed in the state’s Miss USA pageant wearing a hijab and, during the swimsuit competition, a burkini. “That was a big no-no in my family and my community. But for me, it was a no-brainer to [enter] the pageant. Nobody should tell you ‘no’ because you’re the first,” said Aden.
Aden may not have won the competition, but she caught Roitfeld’s eye. “I was intrigued by her beauty,” the editor said, explaining that beyond her looks, she “was very different from other women.” The stylist has since become an advocate for Aden, featuring the 20-year-old model in issue 10 of her biannual magazine CR Fashion Book. Today, Aden is making history as the first hijab-wearing fashion model on the runways in New York and Milan.
Speaking in front of some of the fashion industry's most influential figures at VOICES, held in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, Aden described how the industry is starting to embrace cultural inclusivism: “A year ago, I couldn’t pick up a magazine and see someone wearing a hijab. The only time I ever saw someone dressed like me was on CNN. All the time we’re talked about, but we’re not given the opportunities to speak for ourselves.”
This is starting to change — in part, because companies are realising the Islamic market’s huge commercial potential. Muslim consumer spending is expected to reach $368 billion by 2021, a 51 percent increase from 2015, of which modest fashion will account for 18 percent. But Aden feels that the industry remains largely ignorant of her faith. “Modesty is not just for Muslim women. That’s the biggest misconception in the industry. A lot of you are dressed modestly today, probably because it’s cold outside, but that goes to show that it’s a global thing. Women should have choice.”
“We all need someone to go be the first, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be hard,” said Aden, noting that the fashion industry’s unique influence means that it has the ability to create change. “Every kid deserves to dream and that’s what I think I can do for them. I can show them I’m in fashion now, and it’s so different from where I used to be.”
“When you don’t know people [who are different from you] it might frighten you, because you don’t understand them,” said Roitfeld, ending with a nod to VOICES speaker Sinead Burke — an advocate and academic who stands at 3 feet 5 inches tall and said that despite fashion’s recent strides in diversity, it still isn't known for its accessibility. “She’s beautiful and she has so much charisma. I would love to do something with her.”