Lifting The Veil: Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

BY Alex Aubry / Feb 15 2016 / 16:33 PM

One day after walking in Chanel’s spring/summer 2011 Haute Couture show in Paris, Tunisian model Hanaa Ben Abdesslem returned to her homeland to volunteer at a refugee camp during the Arab Spring. Alex Aubry meets the woman changing the face of Arabian beauty, while Bazaar photographs Hanaa in the season’s most coveted couture

Lifting The Veil: Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

In 1935, Bettina Ballard, then a young Paris-based fashion editor for American Vogue, recalled attending a Madame Alix Grès presentation at the couturier’s cramped salon on Paris’s Faubourg SaintHonoré. Keeping her audience waiting as she pinned together her last dress backstage, Madame Grès’ show finally began with the appearance of her favourite model, “a beautiful Indo-Chinese girl who would weave into the room, draped skintight in jersey.” Since couture’s earliest days, Paris designers have been known to pepper their intimate presentations with a host of exotic beauties. Long before the advent of jet travel, such models imparted a certain polish to their creations, while alluding to a cosmopolitan world far beyond the walls of the couture salons. In the 1920s, exiled White Russians were much in demand for their reed-thin frames and aristocratic allure. While the 1950s saw the emergence of feted mannequins such as Alla, a Eurasian beauty with soaring cheekbones who became a star attraction at Dior’s shows, in addition to Balenciaga and Givenchy favourite China Machado, whose blended Portuguese and Chinese lineage was captured by Richard Avedon in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.

Relegated to the margins of fashion history until recently, the presence of these multi-ethnic models at the Paris couture houses points to the fashion world’s early fascination with the culturally (and some might add racially) ambiguous; one that endures today, despite the continued debate surrounding the lack of diversity on fashion’s catwalks and in style publications. The evening before presenting his autumn/winter 2012 couture collection, lights blaze through the windows of Jean Paul Gaultier’s headquarters at 325 Rue Saint-Martin in the Marais. Inside, moneyed clients and jaded editors alike must pass an inscription heralding the FUTURE OF THE PROLETARIAT on their way up to Gaultier’s couture salon, a reminder of the building’s previous life as the home of the French Socialist party. Upstairs, the couture workrooms buzz as the house’s petite mains work late into the early morning to complete a number of half-finished gowns. In the middle of this tiny tempest stands Gaultier, calmly conducting a final fitting on Tunisian model Hanaa Ben Abdesslem who is wearing the wedding gown that will close his show. Pinching at fabric and adjusting the dress, the designer steps back to examine the dress on her, all the while carrying on multiple conversations with the heads of his ateliers, consulting sketches pinned on every available wall surface, and reaching for a nearby table piled with a profusion of glittering jewels, gloves and headpieces.

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem wears veil and dress, both Armani Privé. Platinum and diamond bracelet with 54.95-carat aquamarine and four spinels totalling 7.12 carats, from Cartier’s Dépaysement collection presented at the 26th Biennale des Antiquaires

The model beams as the designer perches a skeletal top hat of ivory satin on her head. “That was a big moment for me,” confides Hanaa, seated in a crowded café in Midtown Manhattan a few days after Gaultier’s show. “It was a huge honour to be picked as the bride, especially since Gaultier was one of the first designers to use me. He’s very down to earth and funny backstage, and it’s his ability to engage with people that makes working with him so enjoyable,” adds the gamine model, who first captured the fashion world’s attention when she took a turn down Givenchy’s spring/ summer 2011 catwalk in the autumn of 2010. At the time, few of the editors or photographers in attendance could guess the androgynous beauty’s background, let alone her name. When she first began working in Paris and New York people often assumed she was French or Spanish. “I would tell them I was from Tunisia, and very few would have heard of it or could point it out on a map,” recalls Hanaa, who defies Western assumptions of what an Arab woman should look like.

Translating more naturally to an international audience, her hard-to-pin-down looks earned her a coveted beauty contract with Lancôme. Her universal appeal also serves to highlight the diversity of skin tones and features found throughout the Arab world, the result of a cross-cultural mélange that has been going on for centuries. Yet Hanaa’s appearance on international catwalks has also sparked a debate within the region surrounding local beauty standards, one in which she often didn’t fit in to. “I was very aware that I looked different from a young age. Especially being tall and skinny in a culture where having voluptuous curves is considered beautiful,” she says, pointing out that modelling gave her a sense of confidence and empowerment.   While working in Beirut’s fashion industry early in her career, she also observed an approach to beauty that differed considerably from its Western counterparts. “When I first began modelling in Lebanon, the girls tended to be heavily made up and it was always this extreme notion of beauty,” says the fresh-faced model, who prefers to wear very little make-up. “There seems to be this perception that in order to be attractive you need to wear a lot of make-up. But I think the fashion world has a responsibility to show young girls that there are different ways to be beautiful, and that there shouldn’t be one standard to go by,” she adds.

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

Dress, Atelier Versace. Shoes, Dhs3,600, Jimmy Choo. White gold, black lacquer and diamond bracelet; platinum ring with two triangular-cut diamonds of 3.20-and-3.03-carats and 14 baguette-cut diamonds totalling 4.70 carats; platinum and diamond earrings, all Cartier

Although the decision to chop her hair into a Jean Seberg-esque bob helped catapult her career into the limelight, Hanaa struggled with parting from her long locks. “I was by no means the first Tunisian woman to cut her hair short, and there are plenty of women there today who continue to wear their hair that way. But I was initially hesitant because since childhood it’s been engrained in us that to be beautiful, Arab women must have long hair,” says Hanaa, who hasn’t looked back since her career took off.   “I remember asking the hairdresser to cover the mirror. I didn’t want to watch the process, but when I finally looked at myself I was very happy with the results. It was very elegant and androgynous at the same time,” recalls the model who found an unexpected fan in her mother. “Although she was absolutely in tears when she first found out I had cut my hair, the irony is that she’s now grown to love it. When I walked Gaultier’s recent show, all the girls had to wear long wigs and she told me she preferred my shorter hair after seeing pictures of me on the catwalk,” she continues. That Gaultier should have picked the 22-year-old from the Tunisian village of Nabuel to close his couture show came as no surprise to those who have followed his career over a 30-year period.

Considered one of fashion’s most influential (and original) thinkers, he has long been inspired by subcultures that have encompassed British punks, Mexican surrealists and Paris’ North African immigrant communities. His fascination with the other also extends to his choice of models, frequently prodding and questioning prevailing notions of beauty by casting a diversity of ages, genders and ethnicities in his shows. Amongst his long-time muses is the French-Algerian style icon Farida Khelfa, who was recently tapped as the new face of Elsa Schiaparelli. During the 1980s she frequently appeared in Gaultier’s shows and ad campaigns before becoming the directrice of his couture salon; a powerful position that afforded her access to both the clients and ateliers. As far back as the 1930s, the Paris couture establishment included a number of Arab personalities within its ranks. Amongst them was Madeleine Vionnet’s Egyptian manager, who presided over the couturier’s Art Deco salon at 50 Avenue Montaigne, ensuring that her creations appeared on the best dressed women of the day. This tight-knit circle of couture devotees also included a number of clients from the Middle East who frequently appeared in the society pages of top fashion magazines, such as the dark Egyptian beauty Madame Elouy-Bey as well as Madame Henri Pharaon of Beirut.  

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

Dress, Stéphane Rolland. Platinum and diamond necklace and matching earrings, both Cartier

Although there have been rare instances of young women from the region breaking into the modelling business over the decades, their stories seldom surfaced in the mainstream media. Lebanese-born Mona Ross was one of the few to have pursued a successful career in the early 1970s, modelling for the likes of Dior and Balmain in Paris, as well as Oscar de la Renta in New York. For Hanaa, who spent her childhood leafing through French fashion magazines in search of faces that resembled her own, there were few tangible examples of a successful Arab model. “There weren’t any role models that I could single out to show my parents that modelling could be a viable career choice,” recalls Hanaa, who came to admire Farida Khelfa long before the two eventually crossed paths during a chance encounter after Chanel’s spring 2011 couture presentation. “I went up to her after the show to tell her how much I admire her, and she asked me where I was from. She couldn’t believe that an Arab girl had made it to the Chanel runway,” says the model of her icon, who invited her to dinner shortly afterwards.  “She asked me about my dreams and what I would like to do after modelling. I told her I wanted to take everything I had learnt from this experience and channel it into something positive back in Tunisia,” continues Hanaa, who went on to tell Farida about the many talented young Tunisians she wanted to expose to the world.

Their conversation that evening inspired Farida to create a documentary about the role played by Tunisia’s youth in the country’s regime change. Une Jeunesse Tunisienne captured a moment in their lives, a snapshot taken exactly six months after Ben Ali fled the country. With the help of Hanaa and her older brother Walid, who also appear in the film, Farida was able to tell the stories of young artists, photographers and dancers who became cyber-activists in their bid for positive change. “I was very inspired by her can-do attitude, and it made me want to do more for my country,” Hanaa adds. Not content with her new-found fame as the first Arab face of Lancôme, the Tunisian-born model has also been using her growing influence to bring attention to humanitarian causes in her homeland. “I wasn’t with my family in Tunisia when the revolution took place, and because of that I felt a need to give back to my country in some way and take part in its transformation,” says Hanaa.

Hanaa Ben Abdesslem

Fur jacket and dress, Jean Paul Gaultier couture. Platinum and diamond pavé earrings with two blue oval-cut spinels; platinum necklace with 236.27-carat aquamarine, 6.68-grain natural pearl, aquamarine beads and baguette-cut diamonds, both Cartier
One of the ways she decided to give back was to volunteer at the Ras Jdir refugee camp by the Libyan border, where 25,000 people were seeking refuge from the civil war. For Hanaa, who had flown in the day after modelling couture on the Chanel catwalk, it was a surreal experience travelling to another world in the span of 24 hours, where thousands of tents stretched into the horizon. “It wasn’t just about distributing food to families, but the simple act of listening to them. There were so many mothers and young girls who had made the journey on their own, and what they needed more than anything at that moment was a sympathetic ear,” she explains, adding that the experience opened her eyes to the possibility of using her own connections to the fashion world to improve the lives of others in her country. “That’s why I decided to join Esmaani (Listen to Me), an association in Tunis that provides a network of resources for people in need, from hospital care to food. It’s not about waiting for the government to provide these resources, but taking the initiative to do it oneself. I realised that, being a model with an international audience, I have a responsibility to bring attention to important causes in my country. If my voice and presence can help in some way then I will do it,” says Hanaa, who would also like to help Tunisia’s burgeoning fashion industry by collaborating with students at ESMOD, the fashion school established in the capital in 1988.
Hanaa Ben Abdesslem
Top, skirt and shoes,  Dior couture
For a small country hugging North Africa’s Mediterranean coast, Tunisia has had a long relationship with the fashion world. Its picturesque towns and desert oases have been used as a backdrop to countless fashion shoots, while Paris has attracted a number of Tunisian-born talents over the decades. Among them is the late designer Loris Azzaro, whose glamorous beaded evening gowns, featuring daring cut-outs, came to defi ne the decadent 1970s. “I let myself get carried by the atmosphere of the country of my childhood with its spiced odours, colours and perfumes… a country where my preferred colour is everywhere, azure of the sea and sky,” recalled the designer who counted Marisa Berenson, the era’s ‘It’ girl and legendary model, amongst his fans. Ironically, Berenson’s grandmother, the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, was often inspired by traditional Tunisian dressmaking techniques, which she would later interpret into some of her most iconic designs.
Having first visited the country as a child with her father, later in life Schiaparelli purchased a house in Hammamet, spending much of her retirement travelling between Paris and Tunisia until she passed away on November 13th, 1973. Leila Menchari, Hermès’ legendary creative director, is another Tunisian transplant who has made an impact within Paris’ fashion circles. Since 1977 she has been concocting the whimsical window displays at the maison’s Faubourg Saint-Honoré premises; earning her a retrospective in 2010 at L’Institut du Monde Arabe. Leila was introduced to the fashion world by another fellow Tunisian, Azzedine Alaïa. Through him she met the couturier Guy Laroche, who hired her as an in-house model. Considered a master amongst Paris couturiers for his deep knowledge of garment construction, Alaïa has earned the respect of fashion editors and models alike, who clamour to wear his innovative body-contouring knits and expertly tailored suits. “I’ve always wanted to work with Alaïa. He’s a true artist,” says Hanaa who, like the talented Tunisian-born designer, is leaving her imprint on the fashion world.
Hanaa Ben Abdesslem
Dress, Dhs65,000, Valentino. Platinum and diamond ring with 17.13-carat cushion-shape yellow sapphire and onyx; platinum and diamond ring with 24.46-carat cushionshape sapphire from Ceylon, onyx spots and nose, emerald eyes, both Cartier
Despite her success, the model is quick to point out that challenges still exist for Arab and Muslim girls looking to break into a business that rewards exhibitionism over modesty. “You grow up very quickly in this profession. I remember when I first began, I would encounter girls backstage at the shows who were much younger than me yet seemed a lot more mature. I had to be strong early on and not compromise my values. Most of the designers, photographers and publications I work with respect my decision to not pose nude,” says Hanaa, who has been photographed by the likes of Mario Sorrenti, Terry Richardson, Mario Testino, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. “I’ve been lucky to have worked with some visionary editors and photographers over the years who have helped nurture my career,” adds the model, who also dreams of posing for Steven Meisel and Paolo Roversi one day. “When I was growing up, there weren’t any fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar Arabia that offered an alternative platform for fashion and beauty in the Arab World. It is one of the reasons I was excited to work with this publication,” adds Hanaa, who has also grown as she continues to learn the ins and outs of the business. “Modelling is very much about character building. When you find yourself having to use the subway in a foreign city or ask for directions, you become self-reliant very quickly. Being independent is probably one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt in the last few years,” says the model, crediting her manager and modelling agency, IMG, with creating a support system that has helped her grow professionally.
Raised within the comfort of an extended Tunisian family, there was always a brother, uncle or cousin available to lend a hand; a level of security Hanaa had to do without as she began travelling around the world on modelling assignments. “In a sense my agency has become my second family when I am away from home. Whether I am in Paris or New York, I know I can always stop by their offices if I need anything. Sophie Galal, my manager who is originally from Saudi Arabia, has also been incredibly supportive. Because we share a similar cultural background, she understands where I’m coming from and some of the challenges I face,” explains Hanaa, who is also changing perceptions within the fashion industry; especially in a post-9/11 world where misconceptions about the Muslim and Arab World persist. “People I’ve encountered often assume that being Muslim means one is extremely conservative. There is also a tendency to look at the Arab World as one big monolithic entity with little variation from one country to the next, when in fact there is a rich diversity of ethnicities, cultures and even religions throughout the region,” explains the model who is also trying to shatter stereotypes about Muslim women.  “In the West there seems to be this fixation with the veil, and journalists often ask me if I wear a burqa when I’m back home. Little do they know that women in Tunis were one of the first in the region to discard the veil, and that many progressive laws were passed over the decades to protect their rights,” says Hanaa, who is proud of these accomplishments. “I try to explain that the veil isn’t simply a part of the region’s traditions, but also a choice women have in the way they choose to express their cultural identity. Within a single family one can find a mix of generations who choose to go with or without the veil, and respecting that freedom of choice is important,” she adds, noting that recent events in Tunis and the region have had the unlikely effect of creating new opportunities where they may not have existed before. “Success in the fashion world is often based on being in the right place at the right time. Today the industry is ready and willing to listen to our stories, and a lot of it has to do with the changes sweeping through the region. But it’s important to remember that even if that door has opened, it can close again. It’s now up to us to keep prying it open in order to maintain our presence in the fashion world.” 

Photography: Michelle Ferrara at Pancho Saula Artist Management. Stylist: Elaine Lloyd-Jones. Stylist’s assistant: Lisa Corbett. Make-up: Yannis Soskos at Airport Agency. Hair: Stéphane Delahaye at B Agency. Photographed at George V Paris,