Arab Models Rawdah Mohamed, Aouatif Saadi, and Nadia Khaya on Immigrating, Racism, and Finding Home Within
In the fashion industry, the winds of change are blowing fast and furious. Nepotism, colorism, and prejudice are pushed further into the stratosphere as three women – part of a brave army leading the new world – harness the power of their authenticity to light a true path for all to come.
Nadia (back left) wears dress, Rami Al Ali; belt, necklace, Bjorn Van Den Berg; shoes, Taro Ishida; earrings, Bibi Van Der Velden. Rawdah (back right) wears – dress, Ronald Van Der Kemp. Aouatif (front) wears jacket, pants, Ronald van der kemp; top, Roberto Cavalli; shoes, Taro Ishida; necklace, Bjorn Van Den Berg. Photographed by Julien Vallon
When she was six, Rawdah Mohamed visited a tailor in her hometown of Dhobley, Somalia with her mother, who had specific requirements for her Eid dress. It was a formative moment for the little girl who lived in a refugee camp – her family, including nine siblings, moved to Norway soon after.
Rawdah wears dress, headpiece, Del Core; polo neck, Falke; shoes, Taro Ishida; earrings, Bibi Van Der Velden; necklace, Van Gelder Jewellery. Photographed by Julien Vallon
They stayed in an asylum camp for 18 months until they obtained a home and were able to live together. In 2018, as her applications for retail positions got rejected one after the other because of the way she looked, she started posting her outfits on Instagram, swiftly becoming a model at Oslo fashion week. Now, with a degree in behavioral analysis and a background in healthcare, she also works with people of determination, and those on the autism spectrum. She is also mother to six-year-old daughter Sakina. A fervent activist, Mohamed started an online campaign against the hijab law in France, which went viral and was covered by media globally.
Dress, Anna Kiki. Photographed by Julien Vallon
“I want people to understand the individuality of hijabi women and the power that lies in being your authentic self. Hijabi women are fully capable of speaking for themselves and defending their rights to exist,” says Mohamed. “I try to do this by taking space in the places I deserve. I stand up for my rights and try to break barriers so that the next generation will have equal opportunities. The same way women before me paved the way for me, I, too, desire to pave the way for newcomers.” She has worked with Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Balmain, Max Mara, Prada, and Adidas, has been featured in magazine editorials, and is fashion editor at Vogue Scandinavia.
Dress, Anna Kiki; Bodysuit, Falke; headpiece, Marianne Jongkind; jewelry, Bjorn Van Den Berg. Photographed by Julien Vallon
“Through education and open dialogue with people in the industry, we can all grow. Understanding that my faith is not the norm and being patient with others while knowing when to walk away from a situation that isn’t ideal for my faith is also important,” considers Mohamed. “The future of fashion for me is one that is equally sustainable and inclusive, where the person with the most talent and interesting perspective is in a place of leadership,” she says. “It’s a future that is braver in terms of questioning the old and why things are done today,” she muses. “The future of fashion will celebrate heritage and innovative ideas and encourage new talents.”
Aouatif wears jacket, pants, Ronald Van Der Kemp; top, Roberto Cavalli; necklace, Bjorn Van Den Berg. Photographed by Julien Vallon
As a child, Aouatif Saadi always wanted to make her father proud. The patriarch was especially invested in her education and would open an Arabic-to-Spanish dictionary to teach her and her siblings new words for their new home. “Changing countries was exciting, but it wasn’t easy. I didn’t speak Spanish and I was the only Moroccan girl in school,” shares the 23-year-old, who moved from Casablanca to Asturias, Spain at age 10.
Dress, shirt, shoes, socks, Dior; jewelry, Bibi Van Der Velden. Photographed by Julien Vallon
“They immediately made me realize that I was different,” she recalls of her formative years. “I experienced a lot of discrimination, but I didn’t let them bring me down.” At 19, she left for Madrid to become a flight attendant, hungry for new experiences. “I love to travel, and this job would have been perfect,” she shares of her aspirations that were ultimately cut short as she was unable to pay for the school fees. Saadi moved to Paris to improve her French and soon became passionate about modeling, posting her photos on Instagram. After saving studiously, life seemed to finally offer her the dream of travel – but then Covid-19 hit and everything ground to a halt.
Dress, boots, jewelry, Schiaparelli. Photographed by Julien Vallon
“I’m also a woman who never gives up,” she assures, adding that during quarantine she started contacting modeling agencies, kick-starting her career. She was booked by Galeries Lafayette for a campaign shot by David Luraschi in May 2020 on her first day at her agency and has since appeared in editorials for Vogue Russia and campaigns for Sézane and Marni glasses. “Even today, I still can’t believe the twist my life has had,” muses Saadi. “In the end, the path that seemed impossible to me is now the one that is making me live incredible emotions and experiences.” She looks forward to a more inclusive future, where “everyone can feel comfortable in their own features and with their own background.”
Nadia wears dress, headband, earrings, Chanel; Corset, 0770. Photographed by Julien Vallon
“From what my parents tell me, I was like a tomboy, always in the middle of nature, playing and exploring. Let’s say that I was a little wild,” laughs 20-year-old Nadia Khaya, who hails from Lakhzazra in Morocco. When she was five, her family moved to Umbria in northern Italy, where she still lives today, studying economics and culture of food at the University of Perugia.
Dress, Del Core; jewelry, Bibi Van Der Velden. Photographed by Julien Vallon
“The most difficult part was integrating myself into school,” remembers the model. “I didn’t speak Italian at all; I found it hard to communicate with anyone.” She continues, “I was often excluded by my classmates when they played, or was made fun of for my incorrect pronunciation.” With the passing of years, and help from teachers, her classmates no longer paid attention to these aspects, which were a certain point of detachment between her and other students.
Nadia (left) wears dress, Del Core; jewelry, Bibi Van Der Velden. Aouatif wears dress, Del Core; jewelry, Bibi Van Der Velden. Photographed by Julien Vallon
Today, she is still asked questions about her country, culture, and religion, but points out that she is happy to engage with others which, in some ways, can make the process of integration lighter. Touting her smile “ready to be shared with anyone” as her standout feature, Khaya joined the modeling industry a year ago after submitting her portfolio to various agencies. She has since worked for Trussardi, Off-White, Ferrari, Max & Co., Napapijri, and has been featured in editorials for Vanity Fair. “Before I started modeling, I did several jobs – waiter, babysitter – as I was always trying to be independent from my parents,” shares Khaya. Now, as part of the fashion world, she values above all its dynamism. “It allows me to experience different things, to meet new people, visit different places, and open my mind to the news. The fashion world has been changing over the years, adapting to the needs of a constantly evolving world,” she remarks.
Rawdah (at back) wears coat, headscarf, Benchellal; shoes, Givenchy; jewelry, Bjorn van den Berg. Nadia (left) wears jacket, suit, Salvatore Ferragamo; headpiece, Chanel; shoes, Louis Vuitton; jewelry, Bjoorn van den Berg. Aouatif (right) wears Suit, Duran Lantink; top, 0770; shoes, Del Core; jewelry, Bjorn van den Berg. Photographed by Julien Vallon
Khaya believes that the future of the industry will be aimed at simplicity, originality, and respect for nature. “With every creation and project there is always the goal of communicating and transmitting a message that can help our society improve and open up to diversity, allowing greater integration in all its forms.”
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Originally published in the October 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography and art direction: Julien VallonStyle: Ellen MirckCGI Artist: Muhcine EnnouSenior fashion market editor: Amine JreissatiHair: Ilham MestourMakeup: Naïma BremerNails: Daniel SmedemanMovement director: Floor EimersCreative producer: Laura PriorProduction: Reverse Republic PhotographyAssistant: Florent VindimianDigital assistant: Lorenzo Du VigierStyle assistants: Marina Micuccio, Stephanie Van Bussel, Anneke Loyh, Valentina VerbeekMakeup assistant: Jimmy StamHair assistants: Marc Sew-Atjon, Bert Visser, Sarah SchaapModels: Rawdah at Idol Looks, Aouatif Saadi Jellouli at Select Model Management Paris, Nadia Khaya at Independent Mgmt