From The Archives: Hind Sahli On Raising The Profile Of Muslim Models

BY Emily Baxter / Nov 6 2016 / 16:59 PM

From Casablanca to New York, Morocco’s most lucrative export Hind Sahli speaks on the Arab aesthetic and following in fashion designers’ footsteps

From The Archives: Hind Sahli On Raising The Profile Of Muslim Models
From The Archives: Hind Sahli On Raising The Profile Of Muslim Models
Dress, Dhs13,300; bracelets, Dhs6,150 each, both Gucci
From The Archives: Hind Sahli On Raising The Profile Of Muslim Models
Fur jacket, Dhs30,850, Gucci. Bodysuit, stylist’s own

In February 2012 when Harper's Bazaar Arabia first spoke to Hind Sahli, the Moroccan ingénue was one of the modelling industry’s most intriguing new names – all mocha-hued skin, voluptuous rose-bud lips, lissome body and sanguine spirit. A fledgling in the fashion world aged 21, she had arrived in New York from Casablanca by way of Paris in 2011 and had already walked for the likes of Marc Jacobs and Kenzo. Over the last two years Hind has brushed up on her fashion knowledge, sharpened her linguistic skills, added Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, Phillip Lim and Louis Vuitton to her runway repertoire, and can cite campaigns for Estée Lauder and Miu Miu. Growing up in Morocco, a country that back then only had one modelling agency, S&G, this is quite an achievement. Not only was Hind a regular school girl harbouring ambition for greater things outside the confi nements of Casablanca, she was also an Arab girl from a deeply religious family for whom her aspirations of being both an international model and ‘good Muslim’ were cause for concern. While her father, a policeman, begrudgingly supported her dream, it was her mother who quietly voiced her fears. To Hind’s mother, who wears a hijab and doesn’t work, religion is everything and the unknown is terrifying. “She’s very religious but very tolerant and nice to everybody. She’s never been to New York [where Hind now lives], so she thinks modelling is all about drugs and crazy stuff. But she will let me model because I’m her daughter and as long as I’m happy, she will be too. Although she never says it I know she’s proud of me, seeing her daughter on the cover of a magazine… But I also know she’d love it if I would go and live back home – and pray more!” she laughs.

Hind Sahli in New York

Top, Dhs3,500; skirt, Dhs17,050; boots, Dhs6,650, all Gucci
Hind believes that the Arab Spring of late 2010 is slowly but surely giving young Arab women like herself the opportunity and aspiration to push societal boundaries and question cultural restrictions. “I don’t think that [the Arab Spring] is necessarily doing anything right now, because it’s impossible to change everything from one day to the other, but it’s at least a step. If you don’t stand up for what you believe at some point, you’re not going to make it to the other level. I don’t think it’s now that the women are able to do more things, but I think for the I future it will happen. It’s an important step.” That step, for Hind, is about educating the world that being a model and a Muslim doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive – despite protestations from occasional social media ‘haters’. “Mostly people on Facebook send me messages of support but every now and then, crazy people send scary messages, or say that they’re not happy having an Arab model. But other than that, especially in Morocco, people are proud to know that there’s a Moroccan out there doing something different, because we don’t have many of our own people doing something internationally.” Hind, now 23, spent the first few years living away from home signing on to DNA and Elite model agencies and learning her craft. “I’ve always wanted to be a model since I was a kid. I used to wear high heels with my mum and pretend to walk like a model, but truthfully… when I started walking for shows, I had no idea what was going on! I didn’t know many designers and everything went super-fast. I was learning step-by-step. I had so many shows that first season [in 2011] but I didn’t even know how to walk back then and I was super-shy. I was just happy to be there – for most girls, modelling is a dream come true.” Wisely, she did “a lot of research. Every time the agency sent me something I used to Google it and see who the designer was. There are so many American designers so it was hard to know them all. Now I think, ‘how did I not know them?’ I was walking for these amazing names, and not understanding how well I was doing.”

Hind Sahli for Harper's Bazaar

Dress, Dhs15,450; boots, Dhs6,650, both Gucci

Part of Hind’s charm is this doe-eyed purity and innocence that comes from someone who’s been somewhat sheltered from Western conformity and ideals. But with it also comes a raw appetite to succeed, to put Morocco on the map and to be an ambassador for Muslim girls around the world. “I love the idea of being a role model for my country or any other Middle Eastern country. Everything is possible, and I’m proof of that. Before I didn’t know that I could be a model but somehow I tried and made it. You have to work at it. Just because I’m a Muslim girl, does it mean that I can’t also be a model? No. The truth is, we don’t talk about other religions when it comes to modelling, so why does being a Muslim have to be a ‘thing’?” Hind is aware that while her background gives occasional cause for contempt, it also affords her certain opportunities. Having a novelty such as your nationality can set you apart from the pack, she says. “I think the industry likes having its new ‘thing’ and every year there is a new face – they love that change.” Besides Hind, Hanaa Ben Abdesslem and Imaan Hammam, there are few well-known Arab models. “I don’t find the fashion industry uses many dark girls, which I hope will be different one day. In the shows, they mostly take white girls, probably one or two dark skins, one Asian… But I hope it will be different, because we’re all humans, no matter what colour we are.”

Now firmly ensconced in New York, has she learnt to marry religion and runways? “I do my work and I do my part of religion. I observe Ramadan but I also model and I’m very proud of what I do because I’m basically saying to people that no matter where you come from or where you’re born, you can do what you want. Modelling to me… Honestly, I just love it. I don’t enjoy every shoot I do but most of the time I love to do my work and I’m proud to do it correctly. It makes me happy.” Eschewing religious restrictions, Hind very much channels this ‘can do’ attitude. “I’ve decided to be open, to be easy, and to do what I believe I’m supposed to do. Everybody should do whatever they want as long as they’re happy.” Aside from modelling, what would make Hind happiest is changing people’s minds and altering their perceptions about the Arab world. “I would love it if people thought less that all Muslims were terrorists or some other thing. It’s not true. Like everywhere else in the world, there can be bad people and good people. In Morocco we have a lot of tourists and I always get asked if it’s dangerous. I’m like, really?! It’s one of the most open Arab countries and the people… There is nothing mean about them.” For now, Hind hopes to alter perceptions and elicit change using her voice as a Muslim model, but in the future through another creative outlet. “I hope one day to be a designer, as I love everything about fashion and the history of it, but I need to go to school and learn about it. Yves Saint Laurent was one of my favourite designers, he inspires me a lot, and I have met Jean Paul Gaultier who I absolutely loved. Marc Jacobs was also just amazing. He’s very professional, like ‘I’m not here to joke around’, but I love it.”

Hind Sahli for Harper's Bazaar

Dress, Dhs31,400; boots, Dhs6,650, both Gucci

As for future collaborations, Gucci and Chanel are next on her wish list. “I love all the Gucci campaigns – the colours and everything, gorgeous.” Back on home turf, it is Moroccan designer Said Mahrouf who gets her seal of approval, “I like his designs and him as a person,” she says, and the 2013 beauty campaign for Estée Lauder Middle East that brings her the greatest satisfaction. “Somehow representing the Middle East, it also represented me, so I was happy to do that.” Her take on Arab beauty is candid. “In Morocco we are mostly dark skin but we also have a small part that has blonde hair and blue eyes. I think Moroccan women are beautiful but sometimes it doesn’t translate into the pictures. They are generally a little bigger too but not super-tall. In the Arab world in general, women use a lot of make-up, which is their thing. Me, personally, I don’t. Especially during the day, I try my best not to wear any make-up. Beauty is on the inside. Obviously every woman likes to be pretty but wearing make-up isn’t going to change anything. Most important, it’s about being confi dent with yourself.” Of great importance to Hind is the more human side to her industry. She deeply admires Audrey Hepburn for her elegance, but more for the late actress’ strength of character and dedicated work ethic. She knows that models don’t get to the top on good looks alone. She also seeks personal motivation from her peers. “When I was younger I had so many models that I really admired, but I loved Adriana Lima because of her dark skin and the fact that she was succeeding. And I also loved Linda Evangelista, who is the kind of person I would like to be. She’s been in the industry for forever and she’s still working; for me, that’s a real model.” Hind aspires to a 30-year-career à la Linda, but understands that it takes time to cultivate a reputation that assures such longevity. “At the moment I’m a model, but at some point I won’t be 100 per cent. There are so many things I want to do, like designing, or owning my own Argan oil brand. But what I would also really love to do is help women and children in Morocco – maybe one day I’ll have an association and be able to teach people that you can do anything you set your mind to.” As Hind says, she is the proof in the pudding. 

Styling: Sally Matthews, Photography: Bleacher & Everard, Make-up: Sae Ryun Song. Hair: Josue Perez for Tracey Mattingly. Manicure: Kayo for Defacto Inc. Shot on location at Penthouse Studio at Go Studios

From the March 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.

Click play to see behind the scenes of the cover shoot featuring Hind Sahil.