The thing with models is, they’ll mess you up.
It doesn’t matter if they’re backstage at Prada or behind you at a New York Pilates class—stare for one second, and the symmetry of their bodies might just stop your brain. The universe expands and contracts all at once in their faces, distilled in a perfect ratio of brows and lids, lips and lashes. And you, a cool, capable adult woman with a rich and full life? You may find yourself asking— fleetingly, futilely—“What if I were exactly the same woman…only instead, I looked like her?”
It’s with that unwelcome stab of “What if” that I’m dispatched to speak with Imaan Hammam during Paris Fashion Week. The 23-year-old runway star grew up in Amsterdam with Moroccan and Egyptian roots. She has happy eyes and wicked angles that dare the camera to pick a side, plus lush, dark hair that undulates when loose. A Versace muse and Moschino favorite, Hammam is also a global ambassador for She’s the First, a female education nonprofit. And she seems to be a truly nice person, because let’s face it, if you’re a bitch in fashion, everyone hears about it…and I say this as one of the bitches.
With her genuine smile and absence of industry dirt, I worry this will be one of those wet-noodle interviews where the model insists she was gawky and weird and eventually just “fell into fashion” as if it were a pothole. But Hammam is (a) awesome and (b) totally done with that game. “Does outer beauty matter? Sure,” she says candidly. Her soft accent combines a Dutch lilt with a topcoat of kindness that warms all her words. “Look, I’m a model. I am beautiful. Now what? Can I do something good? Can I give a platform to other girls? Then it actually matters.” If other models stumbled into their jobs, Hammam took a page from Alice in Wonderland: She made a choice, took a leap, then tumbled straight into the madness. “I was scouted at 13 and trained until 17. I had all these test shoots and walking classes—for real! Then I’d wear my mom’s heels around the house to practice. I studied pictures of Naomi Campbell and Anja Rubik. I looked in the mirror and tried all these facial expressions. It was very America’s Next Top Model. Now I look back and I’m like, ‘Damn, girl! You were serious.’ ”
When she hit the ground running (in heels, of course), it was first at Gaultier, then Givenchy, then dozens of shows where she was often one of just a handful of black models. “When I first started, nobody knew what to do with my skin or my hair,” she says. “I stressed out before every show; it was actually pretty awful. Now I’m happy [to report] there are great makeup artists and hairstylists who know what they’re doing…. And I feel more empowered to speak out about the way I was treated sometimes backstage. Modeling has gotten a lot better. But you know what I want to see next?” she asks. “More female photographers! It’s still a bunch of men backstage! We also need more people of color in casting, and we need more designers of color…and I’m hoping to be one of them.”
As a kid, Hammam spent her small allowance on second-hand clothes she could rework. “We didn’t have much money back then, so I couldn’t buy what the other girls at school were wearing,” she says. “So I made my own stuff. Once, I sewed the sleeves of an army jacket onto this white fake-fur coat. It was definitely a look!” she says, laughing. This past February, Hammam took her skills to the next level, creating a 20-piece collection for Frame, the cult line famous for its cool-girl denim.“Do you know what it’s like to finally use what I’ve learned from Donatella Versace, and from Stella McCartney, who sets such a great example with sustainability?” she says. “Designing is like a dream. I’m in love with the process.”
As for being in love with a person—like maybe Drake, who was photographed leaving her apartment building during New York Fashion Week? Honestly, she’s unbothered—if seemingly a little annoyed—by the tabloid speculation. As a rule, she doesn’t Google herself—and tries to stay above the media fray. “All kinds of people say bad stuff about you [on the internet],”she sighs. “People are always gonna talk. I can’t give them any energy. I’m too busy for that.”
But not too busy to read her DMs. “I do check them all the time,” she says. “I love getting so many messages from young girls asking for advice! But then I get random guys asking to buy me stuff.” (Her epic response: “I have a job. I buy my own stuff.”) What’s more complicated, she admits, is a flirty message from someone familiar. “Sometimes it’s a message from someone I know, or someone whose music I like….” she says, then catches herself, because again: tabloid speculation. “Anyway, I believe relationships are better face-to-face.”
Hammam’s next face time is with a recording studio. “I’m going to start making music!” she says excitedly. “I’m inspired by Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian singer from the ’50s. She was an icon in the Arab world, and she’s always inspired me to sing. Now I’m taking guitar lessons…. Actually, not right now, I have to go back to work,” she says, laughing. Specifically, she’s headed to Alexander McQueen’s stunning fall 2020 show, where she’ll wear Look 16—a leather crisscross dress paired with Chelsea boots and a magnetic gaze. “You know, some people were not very nice to me in the beginning,” she says before heading backstage. “I used to hear a lot of ‘Oh, her hair is too big, her body is too athletic’—like, what does that mean?!” she sighs. “I had to let go of the idea that everyone would understand and embrace every type of beauty. Thank goodness I did,” she says,“because thinking like that could have really messed me up.”
Hair by Hos Hounkpatin for Dove; makeup by Frank B at The Wall Group; manicure by Erika Conde; produced by Kristen Butler at Talented Friends.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of ELLE.