Modestwear pioneer Mariah Idrissi talks faith and fashion

A pioneer of the modestwear movement, British model and activist Mariah Idrissi talks faith and fashion with Hafsa Lodi

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Mariah Idrissi, hijab fashion model at Tania's Teahouse, Dubai.  Leslie Pableo for The National
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When you first look at Mariah Idrissi, in her oversized hoop earrings, double nose piercing and on-trend outfit – patterned blouse, mom jeans, sporty trainers and Saint Laurent belt bag –you wouldn’t immediately guess that she attended Islamic school for 10 years, or that her religion deeply influences her career. The 26-year-old, whose stylish ensemble is completed with a salmon-pink headwrap, is the epitome of the modern Muslim woman – one who effortlessly fuses faith with fashion. Idrissi is also famous for being the world’s first mainstream hijab-wearing model, after starring in a campaign for H&M in 2015.

The young model was in Dubai for work this week. In other words, she was flown in from the United Kingdom to dress up in fabulous luxury clothing for photo shoots and campaigns. But while she may have a jet-setting life as a model and brand ambassador, religion continues to ground Idrissi. Alongside modelling for the likes of Miu Miu and Gucci in Dubai, to shooting a Fenty Beauty campaign with Rihanna in California, Idrissi also works with charitable causes. Just a few months ago, she visited the West African country of Niger with Islamic Relief.

Idrissi, who’s mother is Pakistani and father is Moroccan, says that she wants to use her voice and her platform for a deeper purpose than just selling clothes. “As much as fashion is a very secular industry, my faith is what drives every decision I make,” she explains. “I couldn’t call myself a real Muslim if my day-to-day job, which I put so much time and energy into, didn’t have anything deeper. With everything we do in life, there has to be purpose to it, otherwise there’s no point.”

Many believe American-Somali Halima Aden to be the world’s first hijab-wearing model, but Idrissi’s debut in the fashion world occurred almost two years before Aden made headlines at New York Fashion Week in 2017. Idrissi also prefers to take on editorial shoots that feature her as part of the narrative, rather than branding herself as a runway model.

“I’ve always had a voice attached to every shoot I’ve done - they were also about my personality - whereas being on a runway you are literally there just to be seen, not heard,” she says. “I’ve stayed away from runway, because I feel I can’t justify being a hijabi on a runway – the purpose of wearing hijab, or dressing modestly, is you don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to the way that you look; you want the focus to be on you as a person. So even initially with modelling, I thought: ‘Does this make sense with that?’”

Modelling, in fact, was never on Idrissi’s list of aspirations before she was scouted for the H&M campaign in 2015.

Mariah Idrissi modelled for fashion retailer H&M
Mariah Idrissi modelled for fashion retailer H&M

“My background’s actually film; that’s what I wanted to do,” says Idrissi, who studied history and English literature in university. “I really wanted to work for like Disney or some sort of production company as a screen writer, and I wanted my specialty to be telling stories that have not been told about our people in the West. We’ve got Bollywood, but what about all the Asian, Arab and African people living in the West?”

Idrissi says that she came to terms with balancing modelling with her religious and cultural beliefs because she thought she could be a positive example of diversity in an industry that has historically discriminated against minorities, with media largely painting people from the East as terrorists or tokenised ethnic characters. Through her work as a brand ambassador and consultant, Idrissi helps fashion and beauty businesses target more diverse consumers. After her stint in Dubai, she’s headed back to the UK to participate in a panel with The Body Shop to celebrate International Women’s Day.

From dedicated modest fashion weeks taking place across the globe, to targeted modest capsule collections being introduced by international retailers, modesty is very much in the limelight. In fact, this weekend will see Dubai Modest Fashion Week taking place on the Palm Jumeirah, with a host of style-savvy designers and bloggers specialising in conservative clothing. However, while the modest fashion industry boom has seen brands such as Mango and Marks & Spencer create special “modest” lines in their stores, Idrissi’s advice for international labels is to hire brand representatives and spokespeople who have influence over modesty-conscious consumers, rather than simply labeling collections as modest.

“I think the ‘modest’ thing only works when it’s literally a brand that you know doesn’t [usually] make modest clothing. You need a brand representative of the people you’re trying to target,” she explains.

So what does the future hold for the modest fashion industry? According to Idrissi, the hype isn’t going to die down any time soon – instead, modest fashion will become more seamlessly integrated, rather than a buzzword that pops up around Ramadan and Eid. “You shine light on it, create a community around it, and it just becomes a part of the norm,” she says.