Mariah Idrissi was born and raised in London, but she’s a citizen of the world. Daughter of Pakistani mother, and Moroccan father, at age 23, she would become one of the world’s most known faces within the Modest Fashion world, and the first hijab-wearing model to be part of a global advertising campaign. Mariah is a true believer that life is meant to be lived with a purpose, and that to achieve it, collaboration is key.
“My family is very liberal, only my mum and I wear hijab from my immediate family.” – She shares at the beginning of our conversation – “I started to wear my hijab when I was seventeen. I’m twenty-five now, it’s been almost ten years.”
Still a college student at the time, she soon realised that such commitment would imply a few lifestyle re-adjustments. “I wanted to get into film, as an actress. I soon realised that if I had a role where I had to kiss someone, it would mean that I would need to take my hijab off. I couldn’t do that anymore”.
Mariah ended up switching Drama for English and History as her majors, so she could still work in the entertainment industry, perhaps as a scriptwriter, or in voice-over, pulling strings behind the scenes. Parallel to her studies, she was also taking care of a children’s shop at Westfield’s Shopping in Sheppard’s Bush. Upon the conclusion of her degree, and looking to land her first job in the industry, a casual encounter would precede a serious plot twist into the narrative of her life.
“This woman came into the shop and said that she wanted to take a picture of me for her roster. I thought it was going to be some extra work” – she pauses – “I had no idea up until it came out.”
The mysterious woman in this story is actress Coralie Rose, that’s also a casting agent for global retailer H&M. Mariah became the first hijab-wearing model to be a global televised campaign, alongside the likes of Iggy Pop, American plus-size model Tess Munster and the founder of Singh Street Style Pardeep Singh. This campaign was her crash course into celebrity – and it goes without saying that being given such a cross-platform exposure didn’t come without criticism or controversy.
“I didn’t know if what I did was right or wrong. It was a very vulnerable time for me. The whole reason I wear hijab is not to draw attention to the way I look. Being a model, well, that’s about how you look.”
We are still living in a world that’s healing from the shadow left by the terrorist acts of September 2011. For almost a decade, Muslim public figures presence in the media has been reduced to react to, or comment on specific occurrences, mostly associated with warfare.
“When you see a Muslim woman in the media, and she doesn’t wear hijab anymore, it’s almost as if she’s a rebel. For whatever reason, is almost as if she has ‘broken free’. My story is entirely different.”
The way Muslim’s have been portrayed in the media has substantial social repercussions and has impacted how we perceive and connect with one of the largest, globally widespread religions, and all its followers. Mariah took her time to listen to the conflicting inner monologue left by the campaign, before delving into how to use her big break to give a voice to her community.
Modest Fashion isn’t a one-season trend, friends. The concept has been around for millennia. Dressing modestly is a lifestyle choice and lends itself to your personal interpretation of what ‘modest’ is. It became highly popular within the Muslim community, as it is the first fashion movement that allows combining traditional loose-fitted Islamic garments with 21st-century trends. From ‘Austere Attire’ to ‘Haute Hijab’, Modest Fashion pushed emerging designers to get creative with garments that we all already have in our wardrobes. Turtlenecks, scarves, tunics, maxi dresses, flared skirts and palazzo trousers are some of the pieces of apparel that are being re-designed as we speak.
“There is Islamic dress, and there is Modest fashion. I know the conditions of the hijab, and I know that I don’t always fulfil them totally. I can wear a leopard print scarf and a blue eyeshadow – but that’s just my personality.” – Mariah replies when asked about her personal interpretation of ‘modest’.
Starting mostly as an online movement, the concept has now fully blossomed into a movement that has two fashion weeks of its own, in London and Dubai. This year’s edition of London’s Modest Fashion Week has gathered 40 different labels and emerging designers from over twenty countries. The trend has also been championed by luxury brands such as Gucci, DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and Dolce Gabanna and, mass retailers such as Nike, Marks and Spencer and Macy’s.
As conversation develops, Mariah shared why she opted out runway shows, and her intention to use her a career as a model combined with visual storytelling element of fashion editorials as a strategic vehicle for social change.
“I can’t justify walking down a runway just to be looked at for wearing something that wasn’t meant to attract attention to me in the first place. With magazines, when you see a captivating picture, you immediately want to understand what it is. These pictures are always associated with a written or broadcasted interview where I can pass down information about myself, and my culture.”
Even though she has only been in the public eye for three years, she has already racked up sizable merits, adding her voice to a much-needed global conversation. She has delivered a keynote on ‘Changing the Face of Fashion’ for online platform TED, and another keynote ‘Faith and Fashion’ at the American music festival SXSW. In the UK, she was part of ITV’s online segment ‘Young, British, and Muslim’, panellist for Women for Women and worked alongside Islamic Relief. She was also one of the very few speakers to be invited by Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to celebrate this year’s Eid Festival at London’s Trafalgar Square…. and she’s not stopping here.
As our conversation draws to an end, Mariah shared how her career has gone full circle in a short period of time. “The fact that I can be a model proved me that I can be an actress. But, instead than waiting on an opportunity, I decided to do it myself. I’m producing my own film” – She exclaims conclusively – “I want to put my message out to the world, but I’m also aware that I’m not here to change it. I’m here to be part of it.”
Words by Catarina Ramalho