Though Yasmin Warsame has walked the runways of fashion’s biggest designers, her career in modelling was never planned. (She was discovered, in New York, at five months pregnant.) Now she uses her sway to support the African Future, an NGO that’s improving health care in Somalia. In Toronto, at the launch of the new 7 For All Mankind store at Yorkdale Shopping Centre (a fundraiser for the cause), she tells Globe Style how she negotiates the shift between haute couture and hijab.
As a top international model, you are known for wearing Chanel, Yohji Yamamoto and Dolce & Gabbana. But few know that, off the catwalk, you wear the hijab. What does it represent to you?
Clothing in general is a form of expression, whether it expresses your individuality or your religion. What you wear says a lot about who you are. I have been blessed to be in the company of great designers. But I have tremendous respect for my culture and religion. When I am among my elders, I dress accordingly.
You immigrated to Canada in 1993 at the age of 15, accompanied by an older sister, but your mom remains in Galkayo. How often do you go back to see her?
A: I have not been home since 2005, but lately I have visited other parts of Africa with my mother. Unfortunately, going home is not as simple as booking a ticket and bringing your passport. You must monitor the mood of the country. You must inquire about the fierceness of turmoil in the city in Somalia that [your family will meet you in]. You must make the choice of which family member they can take with them [in respect to tribal conflicts]. I’ve often had to cancel or postpone a trip due to the lack of safety, not just for me but also for the safety of my loved ones.
You were discovered in Toronto when you were 20 years old and five months pregnant with your son. Modelling, in other words, found you. Have you ever regretted it?
A: My career did not come without a sacrifice, but my motto is that nothing good ever comes without a pinch. It was very painful for me, especially at the beginning, to leave my son behind when I went away for work. I can’t tell you how hard it was when he begged me, “Mommy, please don’t go.” I know that’s a dilemma faced by all working moms. But I’m an international working mom. When I go away for work, I’m usually overseas for four, five or six weeks at a time. It’s better now because my son, who is 12, has made me make a deal with him: I’m not allowed to be away for more than a week. And I’m sticking to that.
Your charity, the African Future [TAF], gets medical supplies to Somali hospitals. Why did you get involved?
A: I wanted to work with a small organization that reaches the people directly, and TAF is welcomed into areas considered too dangerous for foreign health workers; we work with locals, and this allows us access to rural areas. At TAF, we say, “One hospital at a time, one family at a time,” and that’s exactly how the organization operates. Co-founders Abdi Ahmed and Hibak Kalfan, both of whom have professional jobs in Canada and the U.S., are extremely dedicated. I recently hosted the launch of the denim label 7 For All Mankind’s new store at Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto, where we raised dollars for The African Future, and that was a wonderful experience.
What is the biggest misconception people have about Africa?
A: People think that what we see on TV – war, AIDS and poverty – is the reality of every African country, but it’s not. It’s never as horrible as shown on TV. Second, people think that African countries have always been poor and troubled. Let’s read some history and dig deeper into that idea. Let’s really understand how Africa got to this point and how Africa has served the world and its many cultures.
When Michael Kors called you the next Iman, what did that mean to you?
It was a surprise and a compliment, because Iman is someone I came to respect and admire. Models like Iman and Waris Dirie broke barriers for the women of colour who work in the industry and others who aspire to be in it. But if he said it in reference to the look we share, there are thousands of girls and women who look just like Iman and me. Hopefully, one day, the world will see that the two of us are just regular-looking gals in our homeland.