Covered up for Vogue Arabia

Bella Hadid (above) and her model siblings Gigi and Anwar have huge numbers of followers on social media.
Bella Hadid (above) and her model siblings Gigi and Anwar have huge numbers of followers on social media. PHOTO: REUTERS

The choice of Palestinian-American supermodel Bella Hadid for the cover of Vogue Arabia is likely to spark debate

LONDON • The September issue of any fashion glossy is the biggest of the year, often the most profitable and influential, with a front cover designed to pack political and cultural punch. So far, this year is no exception.

Take the furore spurred by one of four September covers released by American Vogue earlier this month, shot by Annie Leibovitz and featuring Jennifer Lawrence in a red satin slip with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Amid accusations that the photo deliberately glamorised the subject of immigration, debate raged online.

W magazine chose to fuse print and digital via augmented reality for its September cover, which was released last week. A reader can bring Katy Perry to life - reciting the work of Albert Camus, no less - by using a special app to scan her face, as the pop star stands alone, brooding, on a darkened Paris street.

This week, the latest September issue to have a grand unveiling is Vogue Arabia, a high-stakes bilingual foray into the hearts, minds and wallets of women in the 22 countries of the Arab League introduced by Conde Nast with great fanfare in March. It, too, looks set to cause a stir.

For one thing, the star chosen for both the Arabic- and English-language covers is Bella Hadid, 20, the Palestinian-American supermodel of the moment. The decision comes just months after her sister, Gigi, appeared on the cover of the magazine's inaugural issue in a custom-made jewelled veil. That choice prompted allegations of cultural appropriation and a missed opportunity to feature a non-Western model, charges that may now resurface.

Bella was photographed for the September issue by designer Karl Lagerfeld in a series of head-to-toe looks from the Italian fashion house Fendi, of which he is the creative director.

In one shot, Bella, her hands outstretched, wears a high-neck scarlet silk dress with billowing sleeves and matching pointed-toe leather boots. In another, she wears a black jacket with a PVC collar and fur-trimmed sleeves. Her hands are sheathed by sheer polka-dot gloves and her black pixie crop is covered by a fascinator. Her gaze comes from behind a netted veil.

Bella Hadid is on the cover of the September issue of Vogue Arabia. PHOTO: VOGUE ARABIA/INSTAGRAM

The attire in both cover portraits is modest but not explicitly Muslim, in keeping with the values of the majority of the magazine's readership as well as encapsulating a major trend on the runways of the fashion capitals.

Mr Manuel Arnaut, editor-in- chief of Vogue Arabia, who was appointed after the abrupt departure of the original editor, Ms Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, in April after just two issues, praised the pairing of Bella and Lagerfeld. He called the September cover "a momentous occasion" for the magazine. It goes on sale on Aug 30.

"Bella Hadid is one of the most celebrated models of the time, plus she has a link with the region, being half-Palestinian but also a Muslim," he said in a telephone interview on Monday. "She is the perfect fit for Vogue Arabia."

Some observers have suggested that in the past year there has been a subtle rebranding of Gigi and Bella, and their model brother, Anwar, from West Coast beauties to more cross-cultural Palestinian- Americans - and at a time when political tensions have flared.

Others suggest that like many young people, the siblings are on a path of self-discovery in which they feel more comfortable openly discussing their upbringing and their faith.

Thanks to their high profiles and huge numbers of followers on social media, they have also become powerful weapons against Islamophobia. Their father, who was born in Nazareth and raised in Syria and Lebanon, raised his children to be observant, they have said.

"He was always religious and he always prayed with us," Bella said in a recent interview, opening the door for fresh debate about representation of diversity as it exists in the Muslim community. "I am proud to be a Muslim."

She has been open about her opposition to United States President Donald Trump's travel ban, attending a rally in New York in January.

"There is no question that Bella and Gigi Hadid have become very popular with millions of young and aspirational Muslims, who love that they have celebrities of that stature with whom they can relate, despite their more liberal interpretation of how to practise the faith," said Ms Shelina Janmohamed, vice-president of Ogilvy Noor, an Islamic branding consultancy.

She noted that some local publications are attempting to brand the family as "the Kardashians of the Middle East".

"That said, there is also a question around authenticity for Muslims, which will likely prove challenging for the sisters," she said.

"Bella Hadid's everyday wardrobe is hardly modest. A more conservative audience, when thinking about what a Muslim woman should look like, will inevitably pose questions about how they connect to their heritage and whether they live out Muslim values. When Halima Aden graced the cover of Vogue Arabia, there was never any suggestion that her identity and motivations fitted in with the region." Aden is a Somali-American model.

As the modest fashion movement continues to spawn commercial interests, brands entering key markets in South-east Asia and the Middle East are faced with a decision neatly encapsulated by Vogue Arabia's September issue: Do they continue with the original conception of a brand, centred on Western ideals, or should a brand strategy shift to both localise and diversify as the cultural expressions of the regions become ever more dominant?

For Mr Arnaut and Vogue Arabia, walking a fine line between the two appears to be the answer.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2017, with the headline 'Covered up for Vogue Arabia'. Print Edition | Subscribe