feriel moulaï wants to represent all kinds of women
i-D spent an afternoon in the company of the Belgian biochemistry grad and model to talk about the changing industry.
Photography Rosario Rex Di Salvo. Feriel wears Just Cavalli spring/summer '19 Resort.
If there was a word with which we'd like to use to define the contemporary fashion industry, it would be "diversity." We use the conditional here because there is still a long road ahead to reach true inclusivity, but it's nice to see that things are changing (even if very slowly). On the catwalk we no longer see all the same kinds of model, and editorials put more and more on emphasis on types of beauty that go beyond our pre-established standards.
One area of particular interest is so-called "modest fashion," with brands, stylists, and models giving more attention to the style of Muslim women. One of the most fascinating and fresh faces of this movement is Feriel Moulaï, a young Belgian model who made her debut on the catwalk a few months ago during Paris Fashion Week.
i-D went to meet Feriel, so she could tell us more about what it’s like being a model wearing the hijab in 2018.
When did you decide to become a model?
The first time I thought I wanted to be a model I was about five or six years old, but it wasn’t so much a dream, but more a goal I had set for myself. Then over time I put that goal aside because I thought it wasn’t the right thing for me. So I graduated in biochemistry and pharmacology, but I kept thinking about how it would have been to have become a professional model.
Then, about two years ago, I realized that the modest fashion industry was growing more and more. I saw all these fashion editorials in which the models were photographed with the hijab on, only to find out that in everyday life they didn’t actually even wear it at all, and often they weren’t even Muslims. So I thought to myself, why couldn’t it be me in those editorials, seeing as I wear the hijab everyday. It was exactly the kind of woman I wanted to represent, because that was normal for me.
So I started thinking about it more seriously, until I decided to build a portfolio and introduce myself to some agencies. Everyone told me that I could become a model, so I tried it out and it went well. I went to London from Brussels, because it's a city where anything is possible, especially if you're not the classic Caucasian girl with blond hair and blue eyes, but your features are clearly Middle Eastern.
I think it's important to tell your story, because it's the perfect example of how, nowadays, the industry is trying to open up to other cultures and religions. If you are in this world then it means you can initiate new conversations. When you told your family that you'd become a model, how did your parents and other relatives take it?
They are all very happy for me because they always knew that it was my dream to be a model. Now that that dream has become reality, they support me, especially my mother and my two sisters.
Going back to what you were saying before, I think fashion is really becoming something for everyone today. It's a question of representation: finally even a Muslim teenager who has decided to wear the veil can see a girl in advertising campaigns exactly like her, and this allows her to realize that this accessory can also be part of the game, just like all the others .
When it comes to women's collections, it is essential to take the fact that there are thousands of different ways of being a woman into consideration. Stereotypes and preconceptions are the order of the day, and people often think, for example, that by wearing the hijab you are not really free. In reality, things are not like that and you are showing people that: you wear the veil, you have taken your professional decisions by yourself and your family supports you. Seeing you on the cover of a magazine could make other girls realize that it is also possible for them to follow in your footsteps, and that their religion is absolutely not an obstacle.
You are absolutely right! I am proud of this. I decided to wear the veil, it's a choice that I took, as well as that of becoming a model. As long as you respect yourself and others, you can do whatever you want. Religion is not the decisive factor in this sense: yes, I am Muslim. Yes, I am a practicing Muslim. Yes, I wear the hijab, but my God is a God who speaks of love.
And yet, I am not just that either. I am a girl who loves fashion, and who often wears heels and expresses her femininity. I want to represent women, not "women who wear the hijab". My goal, and what I try to do every day, is to be myself. For me it is about finding a balance between interiority and exteriority, then if this gives me the possibility to help others, well then, that’s fantastic, but that only comes afterwards.
I am a European girl, I had the opportunity to travel, study and meet people from the most diverse cultures. And I happen to be a practicing Muslim too. In the past I often heard myself saying "you're beautiful, but too Arab". Today it doesn’t happen anymore, there are different models that reflect the diversity of our cities and our countries. Finally we can see steps towards inclusiveness in all environments, including that of fashion, and I am happy to be part of this movement.
During Paris Fashion Week, you walked for Koché, a French brand that chose you for your style, not because you wear the veil. Can you tell us a little more about this experience?
For me it was one of the best experiences of my life, because the founder of the brand, Christelle Kocher, is an incredible woman. When I was at her fashion house she told me that she appreciated my femininity, my sense of style, and not just the fact that I wear the veil.
She wanted me to go on the catwalk wearing her clothes because she believed I could best represent them, which is why I accepted. I am a woman, I am Feriel, and I am happy when I can represent myself, not just that Feriel. It made me proud of my work, because it wanted me, and not what I represent for my outward appearance.
You know, in the same way, when we proposed you for this project for Just Cavalli, we did it because your femininity and elegance was striking for us. The brand immediately welcomed our idea, because it is undeniable that your aesthetic sense combines well with their collections.
And for me it was the same, really! In the Just Cavalli collection I found clothes and accessories that perfectly reflect my sense of femininity, all of which I would wear in everyday life too. I think this is the secret to obtaining a good result, professionally speaking: always choosing projects that make us feel at ease and that go well with our perception.
There is quite a big Muslim community in Milan, and often when I bring my daughter to school I see mothers wearing the veil, and I always notice a certain elegance in the way they dress. The hijab matches their clothes, and not only can you see their attention to detail, but also the care with which they get ready every morning in front of the mirror. What do you think of the movements that, in the opposite way, try to discredit the hijab and the women who decide to wear it?
Honestly, I don’t worry about it. I try to feed myself with positive thoughts, and I don’t want to stop and think about these extreme ways of thinking, simply because they don’t make me feel good. I live following the philosophy of "if it makes me sick, then I don’t care". I know it's not that easy, but what really interests me is to focus on positive things.
You can think what you want, and I respect your opinions. After all, we live in a democratic country, where everyone can choose to believe in what they want. Only, I don’t see the world in this way and I don’t want to have anything to do with extremists, from any faction.
As you say, a functioning society is a society that respects, where its members have a profound understanding of the world. Also being a model, in its own way, is a way to create positive energy and inspire new generations. In short, we need more women like you in the fashion industry, and I hope to see you soon on the catwalks of Milan!
You know, the beauty of this world is that every fashion capital is unique and interesting in its own way. Milan, as I experience it, is the most feminine of the four, a city where you can be a woman, be sure of yourself and be proud of who you are. I consider it special because it represents the person I am well: feminine, decisive and independent.
I love the catwalk, and in Milan it's as if every street and every sidewalk are the catwalks of the women who walk there. There is a sort of mysterious halo that hovers around them, as if Italian women were made of fire: you feel their power even from a certain distance, but if you decide to approach them, you do so at your own risk.
And how are things in Brussels?
I understand who I am in this city, it's my home and it's the place where I feel 100 percent safe. Belgium welcomes everyone with open arms, no matter their what their origins are.
My family is Algerian and from the first day we were welcome in this country. We grew up feeling that we could become anyone we wanted, and so we did. Even though it’s small, Belgium has a huge place in my heart. Maybe I will move to another country, but I feel that it is, and always will be, my home.
What was your family’s experience when moving from Algeria to Belgium? You were three when you arrived in Europe, right?
We were refugees, but we immediately felt welcomed. Sometimes people ask me "where are you from?," implying that I couldn’t be Belgian, but I feel like that. This is where my friends live, I went to school here and grew up here. With my parents it was very easy actually; My father comes from a family of European culture, and we speak only French to him, while my mother speaks to us in Arabic, but my sisters and I respond in French.
Algerian culture is part of us, but has never played a decisive role in our life choices. No one has ever made me feel the contrast of being a Muslim woman behind closed doors and a European girl as soon as I step outside. My father is not particularly religious, so he never gave us very strict rules. I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t eat pork, but my parents have not imposed harsh doctrines on us. The veil, like everything else, was my choice.
Feriel, thank you for your wonderful words. We are at the end of our interview, and I would like to say goodbye to you with the phrase that best represents you in absolute terms. Do you have one?
Love yourself. Because if you love yourself, you will be able to love others too. You don’t need to be different from those who are going to be accepted by others, so focus on being happy about how you are, and everything will come as a result.
All girls must accept themselves as they are and love each other. If that happens, the rest won’t be a long time coming. Today it’s increasingly difficult to look at your body at peace, to respect it and love it, but it is essential. Thanks, Gloria!
Text Gloria Maria Cappelletti
Photography Rosario Rex di Salvo
Styling Giorgia Imbrenda
Feriel wears Just Cavalli spring/summer '19 Resort.