Modest model leaves fashion

Halima Aden, one of the biggest Muslim names in modelling, took to Instagram earlier this month to express her frustration with the fashion industry. She spoke out about the pressures she felt during fashion photo shoots. A lack of understanding of her religious needs led to her making uncomfortable compromises with her hijab, against which she is now taking a stand.

Aden’s comments build on a conversation that has been growing recently around the insular culture within brands’ marketing, be it in house or from creative agency partners. These environments are often very cliquey and exclusive, which creates barriers – whether intentionally or from implicit biases – for diverse talent. Halima’s statements highlight that, without a proper shake-up, not only will the fashion industry continue to struggle for inclusivity, but it will also drive out diverse talent.

These issues come down to the infrastructure within brands, which lacks – or excludes – empowered diverse voices to bring the perspectives of different audiences. The current state of play by brands [to be more inclusive] is just a cosmetic touch, which comes across as tokenistic and shallow. Inclusivity efforts are being done clearly with public relations in mind, rather than authentic engagement, which results in efforts falling flat.

As part of brand campaigns I’ve worked on over the last two years, I had the opportunity to speak with thousands of Muslims. A consistently shared sentiment was that brands have executed lazy campaigns that come across as “money-making schemes”. Ramadan collections from many brands have failed to acknowledge the basic modest styling and fashion needs of Muslim women, especially for those wearing the hijab.

On one of Halima’s posts, she blames the fashion industry for the lack of Muslim stylists, but it also goes much deeper. The problem starts with poor campaign strategy and ideation, and not having the right people in the room to guide creative development to appreciate diverse fashion needs.

As Halima pointed out, slapping a pair of jeans or a T-shirt on her head, or an inappropriate interpretation of a hijab doesn’t cut it. I saw a good example of a better process earlier this month on the reunion special for [US TV show] The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They discussed how the all-white scriptwriting teams would often get the cultural nuances for black Americans wrong, but the cast had the space to interpret and adapt the script to make it work, which led it becoming one of the most iconic sitcoms ever created.

Fashion and other sectors need to take note from this, rather than assuming they’ve got it right and blindly following through with their assumptions. Halima’s statements received support and appreciation from Muslims all over the world, and influencers also shared similar pressures when working with brands that are ignorant of cultural and religious sensitivities.

It shouldn’t have taken a prominent Muslim name to leave the industry to raise questions. Still, in a time when team diversity is coming under the microscope, brands need to venture beyond and adapt infrastructures to foster relevant and authentic creative cultures, practices and environments.

By Arif Miah, Creative Strategy Director.