Change the game: supermodel Halima Aden reinvents modest fashion

ISTANBUL (AFP) – Halima Aden, the first supermodel to wear a hijab and pose in a burkini, has ripped up her lucrative contracts in an industry she feels lacks “basic human respect” and entered the world of modest fashion design instead.

For the Somali-American who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, it was a matter of preserving her self-worth and well-being in a fast and loose sector that increasingly clashed with her Muslim values.

“Since I was a little girl, this quote – ‘don’t change yourself, change the game’ – has gotten me through so much in life,” she told AFP in an interview in Istanbul.

“When I took the decision to quit, that is exactly what I did,” she said. “So I am very, very proud.”

Aden’s departure last November delivered a shock to fashionistas and Muslim influencers who have admired her trailblazing career.

Aden, who turned 24 yesterday, broke ground in Minnesota, where she became the first contestant to wear a hijab and a burkini – a full-body swimsuit whose appearance has stirred controversy on some European beaches – in a United States (US) state beauty pageant in 2016.

Fashionistas and influencers take pictures during an event in Istanbul. PHOTO: AFP

She posed in them again for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue when her fame was spreading in 2019.

But personally, Aden felt increasingly boxed in – sometimes literally.

“I was always given a box, a private place to change in, but many times I was the only one given the privacy,” she said.

“I got to see my fellow young women having to undress and change in public, in front of media personalities, cooks and staff, designers and assistants,” she recalled.

“To me, it was very jarring,” she said. “I couldn’t be in an industry where there is no basic human respect.”

Aden sounded liberated when she announced her decision to abandon photo shoots and catwalks last year. She is becoming a designer instead.

“Wow this is actually the most RELIEF I felt since I started in 2016. Keeping that in was literal POISON!” she said on Instagram.

She felt her traditions, starkly different from those of most other supermodels, were caricatured and turned into a gimmick by some brands.

One, American Eagle, replaced a headscarf with a pair of jeans on her head in a 2017 campaign.

“But… this isn’t even my style??” she protested on Instagram at the time.

“I got to a place where I couldn’t recognise my hijab the way I would traditionally wear it,” Aden told AFP.

Aden looked far more at ease in Istanbul, surrounded by Middle Eastern fashionistas while attending an event organised by Modanisa, her new home.

She will be designing collections exclusively for the Turkish online brand, which is one of the biggest names in the modest fashion industry, valued at USD277 billion in 2019.

It already makes up more than a tenth of the USD2.2 trillion global fashion industry, with plenty of room to grow, according to DinarStandard, an advisory firm specialising in emerging Muslim markets.

World capitals as diverse as Moscow, Riyadh and London have staged modest fashion shows in the past few years.

The trend is particularly strong in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.