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Halima Aden on Navigating the Fashion Industry on Her Own Terms

Halima Aden on Navigating the Fashion Industry on Her Own Terms

“Everything I went through calls to mind the idea of the road less traveled.”

When Halima Aden first started her career in fashion, she was a singularity. Never before had a model with her background been afforded the same kind of overwhelming support: magazine covers, prime positions at the runway presentations for major fashion brands, and the ever-elusive advertising campaigns.

When Aden first got the call from IMG Models to join its roster in 2017, she was a 19-year-old high school student with braces from Minnesota. What’s more, she is a Somali-born refugee who proudly and unabashedly wears a hijab. In an industry that has the reputation for showing ample amounts of flesh and long, luscious locks to sell an image, her look certainly didn’t fit the bill. Still, she achieved the highest heights of her profession—and on her own terms too.

Aden’s ascension was part of a growing force in the media that demanded equal representation for all cultures and body types. Indeed, the industry has been known for promoting unattainable standards and, perhaps more alarming, disregarding large cultural groups who didn’t see themselves on billboards and commercials. The masses, tired of the waifish pixies and bronzed glamazons, rallied for diversity, and with their wallets backing them, fashion relented.

Now, models like Aden, those who hold fast to their Muslim heritage, are slowly but surely becoming mainstream. But just a few years ago, Aden was the only one strutting down the catwalk for big-name brands. She undoubtedly walked the road less traveled, paving the way for others to follow suit. It was Aden’s story and pioneering efforts that attracted the attention of BMW, the official automotive partner of New York Fashion Week who enlisted her, along with other industry professionals, for a content series that celebrates those who have strived for inclusion.

Below, Aden chats about her involvement with BMW, her career trajectory, and the one invite she hopes to get.

Why do you think you were enlisted for the “Road Less Traveled” series with BMW?

I spoke at the opening last year when they announced the partnership, when they were the official sponsor for New York Fashion Week. To be back this season with this content series has been incredible. I feel like I am someone who has taken the road less traveled in many points in my life, so it’s very fitting.

What was the experience like of taking the road less traveled when you started out in the fashion industry? What was the initial reaction you received?

It was really positive. A lot of people, especially in fashion, were ready for a new change, a new face. I never saw that kind of representation, a hijab-wearing model, before I came along. And to see all the changes in the short three years that I have been in the industry, like seeing a hijab-wearing model, has been amazing. This year, especially, I feel like every agency has a hijab-wearing model. We’re seeing so much representation, and it’s growing. It has surpassed me. It’s been quite the journey these last three years, but I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t have people like Carine [Roitfeld] believing in me and my agent. I think the industry had changed in order for me to come along and find success.

Why do you think this change happened fairly recently, especially when modest fashion has existed forever? Where did that change come from?

I have no idea. But I can tell you that change needed to happen on both sides. Individuals, like myself, needed to come along. Despite not seeing it, I wanted to take the chance and do something that was uncommon. It would have been easy for me to follow a more traditional path. I was living in Minnesota and was going to college. But I followed my heart, and when that call came from IMG Models, I went with my gut feeling and came on board. Before then, if you had asked me in 2015 or 2016 if I could have been a model, I would have told you no, that’s impossible.

Why did you think that?

When you don’t see something, it’s hard to visualize it. A career like that, for someone like me, didn’t exist. But I agree with you, modesty has been around for so long. It is the one of the oldest fashion staples. Modesty is in so many different cultures. It has stood the test of time. So it is confusing that it took until 2016 to go mainstream, but I am so grateful that it did.

Are fashion brands now making a concerted effort to be inclusive?

I think so. I hope that it’s not a trend. I hope that it’s always around and embedded in company culture and not just for one season. I hope it will be around forever, because it is beneficial from a consumer point of view. I think we all want to see ourselves reflected in the runways, reflected in the ads and campaigns. As a shopper, you want to see yourself represented. Now more than ever, people want to support companies that are doing the right thing, that are diverse, that are sourcing [materials] responsibly. All of these conversations are taking place, and shoppers today are much more educated and want to stay loyal to companies and brands that fit their values.

Now that you have recognition and influence in the fashion industry, what are you doing personally to encourage this change?

This year, more than ever, I am making smarter, more educated choices. I am being very strategic with the brands and organizations I align myself with. For example, being the face of Bottletop was very fitting, because I grew up in a refugee camp. I spent my formative years in the world’s largest camp. So to grow up there and now have this platform in fashion, I understand that I have the tremendous responsibility to do the right thing and partner up with companies that are empowering the communities that I come from. If you don’t know, Bottletop’s entire mission is to celebrate the UN’s sustainable development goal, and I am their ambassador.

It’s great that you’re doing this. And it seems that all you’ve achieved happened fortuitously. Were there any challenges that you faced along the way?

It’s always been great. Everything I went through calls to mind the idea of the road less traveled. When fashion called, I didn’t give up my life in Minnesota and move to New York. I decided to stay in Minnesota. A lot of people don’t know that about me. I didn’t want to give up the incredible community that I have at home. With fashion, I make it my own. I do it on my own terms, my own pace. If something works for you, it’s okay to do it a little differently.

That’s incredible. How do you think fashion as a whole can promote more diversity and pave a path that isn’t so less traveled?

It takes more than one person. We are a community, a global. It takes editors, models; everyone needs to come on board and really have conversations. It is above just one section or one group of people. The entire industry has to come together and make a collective choice to make diversity not a trend. The fact that I am able to have a career in fashion shows you how much it has changed. I was 19, with braces, straight out of high school, and I still chose to live in Minnesota. On top of that, I wear a hijab—and that’s never happened before. It took the entire fashion community to embrace me, wrap its hands around me, and to say that you belong without asking me to conform.

That’s amazing.

It is. And if you really think about it, five years ago, I wouldn’t have a place in fashion—not in the way I do today.

Where do you see your career going from this point?

Well, I did executive-produce my first film, I Am You, with Sonia Nassery Cole, and I am so excited about it. Part of my story is about overcoming what happened in my childhood. And I have to thank people like you, editors at magazines, for getting my story out there. This film is a visual tool for people to see how refugees aren’t just leaving for a better life. They leave because it is actually a matter of life or death. So I am super excited to come on board and work on a project that is so close to home for me. And hopefully, I could do more with film.

What else do you want to do?

I also want to go to the Met Gala this year. I’m putting it to the universe. I’m putting good energy out there. It’s been a great month, and it has already been the best year of my life.