It’s hard to believe that Halima Aden, one of the fashion industry’s biggest pioneers at the moment, is only 21 years old; since Aden, who was born and raised in a refugee camp in Kenya before moving to the U.S. at age seven, became the first model to walk a show during New York Fashion Week wearing a hijab in 2017, she’s somehow tirelessly continued to make history. Even apart from all that, she would have been deserving of the Daily Front Row‘s breakthrough model of the year award, which she accepted last week; the speed at which she’s established herself in the industry is impressive enough on its own. (Shortly after her runway debut at Yeezy, she was signed to IMG and became a go-to for heavyweights like Rihanna and Riccardo Tisci.)
This season, too, Aden has been everywhere, whether front row at Tory Burch in Brooklyn or on the runway in Harlem for Zendaya and Tommy Hilfiger. As for how she keeps up her energy, well, this time around, it might have something to do with her jumpstart to New York Fashion Week: a panel discussion—or, as Aden put it, “basically a girl chat”—with Noor Taguori, about the inspiration and impact that comes with being a “first” in the industry. For Aden, it also marked the start of her partnership with Fashion Week’s new official sponsor, BMW, which the model considers to be yet another career milestone. Here, she shares why and opens up about some of her favorite fashion “firsts.”
What’s the best part about being such an important “first”? I think it really does inspire especially the young women in my community, but I’ve also gotten so many messages from women all over the world who aren’t even Muslim or Somali or identify with being a refugee. So many of them tell me they found something in my story that they can relate to, which is always so nice. For example, I get messages from young girls from all over the States—especially the midwest—who look nothing like me, who tell me things like the fact that I haven’t moved to New York shows them they can still be in Wisconsin and still have a career in fashion. It’s been so nice to see how different people relate to different things in my story—I think that’s so cool.
Why did you decide to partner with BMW? For me, given my background especially, I’m always striving to partner with brands and companies that are socially aware and all about innovation and reinventing themselves. Driving change is very much part of my story and who I am, so it was a natural fit to work with them and share my story.
What have you been most looking forward to this Fashion Week? One of my favorite things is always the mixing and mingling. I meet so many new people and make so many new friends—I think fashion is the one industry that brings the entire world together.
What was the first time you were really starstruck? I feel like I always am, but the first time that I was like Ohhhh my god, this can’t be happening, this can’t be life, was definitely when I walked in Yeezy season 7 and met Kim Kardashian backstage. I think I scared that woman half to death.
What was the first show you ever walked? Yeezy season 5—and I almost didn’t get to be in the show. When I first went to the fitting, the outfit that they’d picked out for me didn’t work with my modest wardrobe requirements, so I just went back to my hotel. I was so bummed. I was like, Nobody’s going to believe that I had this opportunity—my friends are gonna be like, Yeah right. But what was so amazing is that hours later, some time during the night, I got a phone call and saying, “You have to come back—we have something for you.” And sure enough, it was that beautiful long full fur coat, and my black hijab and some beautiful shoes. That was the first time when I was like, See? I don’t have to change who I am; I don’t have to conform. Designers and people in the industry are willing to work with my wardrobe requirements, and they’re willing to have me for me. It was a very pivotal moment in my life, and kind of set the mark for what my career was going to be like.
What was the first time that you sat front row? The most memorable one would be Stella McCartney. Talk about being starstruck: Oprah Winfrey sat just a few people away from me. I was probably the first to sprint her way afterwards. I got my little selfie and shook her hand and was like, I can’t ever wash this hand again. Believe me I have, though, no worries. [Laughs.]
Who was the first person in the industry to really inspire you? Carine Roitfeld—she’s kind of like my fashion fairy godmother. She gave me my first-ever professional shoot, which also ended up being a cover. And then she put me on the runway and always thinks of me for projects. She was the first to tell me, “You are good just the way you are—always stay the same.” And I also have an all-women team at IMG that does so much for me. It’s so nice to have amazing, strong women all around me, because you kind of need a village to have a successful career.
What was your first major fashion purchase? I got a pair of black Alexander Wang boots about two years ago, and boy have I gotten every single dollar’s worth of them. I walk in those babies pretty much every single day. I wear them to the grocery store; I wash my dishes in them. [Laughs.] That’s the thing about luxury—you can keep wearing everything for a really long time.
Your looks—and the reactions to them—have been amazing this season. What’s your go-to outfit for when you’re off the runway or red carpet, and just running around Fashion Week? You can’t go wrong with black. Even just something basic, like a black jumpsuit, that you can wear to castings and run around doing meetings. And if you pair it with a nice heel or a bag or clutch, it takes it to the next level. So I think a simple wardrobe for running around, but then adding a clutch or a nice heel really elevates the look.
What do you always keep in your bag? Well, everyone at my talk saw how much trouble I was having with my hijab. So I always keep extra hair pins and an extra scarf, in case I need to make a quick switch. Anything can happen, so it’s good to be prepared. And then flats, like flip-flops, because heels are fun—they’re a moment—but at a certain point my feet are like, No no no, get me out of these.
Between all the events and shows, how do you make time for self-care? I try to give my mum a ring at the end of every day to just kind of fill her in. So much happens, and sometimes if I don’t update her, I feel like 10 other things are going to happen. And it’s so nice to have that family time; even if it’s over FaceTime, it always makes me feel good and puts me in a positive mental space. I also drink lots of water and do face masks, especially when I’m staying in a hotel. And no matter how tired I am, I always wash my face after every single event. No sleeping with makeup, ever.
What “first” do you hope is up next in your career? I would love to be the first in my family to own a BMW. I’m joking—though that would be amazing. [Laughs.] You know, I would love to get into acting and maybe write a book one day. I’m so open to trying out other firsts, but right now, I’m really just focused on modeling and my work with UNICEF.