WHEN Mariah Idrissi pulls one of her many hijabs from a bag during photoshoots, stylists often mistake it for a skirt.
But for the British model, this piece of material is as important as her shoes, jewellery or make-up. It is part of her identity.
Four years ago she was the first Muslim woman to feature in a mainstream fashion campaign wearing a hijab.
In the wake of London Fashion Week being criticised for a lack of diversity, Mariah, 27, has told how she hopes to inspire others to help change the industry she works in.
In an exclusive interview with The Sun on Sunday, she said: “I feel so proud of my hijab. It is part of me. Being a Muslim is my USP.
“I’ve got two boxes of hijabs — I must have around 100.
‘I’M NOT SURE ABOUT THE BURKINI’
“I’m not sure about the burkini as a fashion item though, and you probably won’t see me modelling one.”
Talking about the fashion industry, she said: “I have not faced any racism in my personal life but in my career my hijab is a real issue to some people.
“It can either draw them in or put them off.
“The fashion industry needs more people from ethnically diverse backgrounds behind the scenes.
“Hopefully I can inspire them to think that it’s possible.”
Mariah, who lives with her parents in North West London despite jetting around the world, revealed that she was spotted in a shop by a casting agent just weeks before shooting her 2015 groundbreaking H&M ad. She now wants to offer a different take on beauty to that seen on Love Island.
Mariah said: “When people say to me as a Muslim woman that I’m oppressed, I don’t see that. I see I’m the most free.
“I’m not under pressure to get a bum job to show off in a bikini in Ibiza. It doesn’t apply to me.
“It’s a real shame that there are young girls who feel they have to change to fit in. It’s another side to beauty.
“I started watching Love Island this year and in many ways I love it.
“But it worries me what happens on that show and the pressure and mental health issues they face, especially as role models to young women.
“You should also be allowed to dress more modestly and still be seen as beautiful.”
Mariah was born in London and brought up by her mum, an accountant from Pakistan, and Moroccan dad, a chef in a private members’ club.
She said: “My parents were very laid back and encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be.
“My mum was conscious of her faith and I went to Islamic school on Sundays, from age four until 16.
“I did a GCSE in Islamic studies. I only started wearing the hijab properly when I went to college to study art. I felt it represented my faith.
“Modelling was never part of the agenda for me. I never saw anyone like me, a hijab-wearing Muslim, doing it when I was growing up. I never thought it was an option. It’s sad thinking about it, but growing up I didn’t even think, ‘this needs to change’. I just thought, ‘it’s not for us’. I would never have dreamed of seeing a woman in a hijab, or even a Muslim, in a fashion shoot less than ten years ago.
‘I WAS STUNNED’
“For so long, the only time you’d ever see a depiction of a Muslim woman was as the terrorist’s wife.”
After college Mariah studied English and History, hoping to follow a movie career, when she was spotted.
She said: “I was managing a children’s clothes shop. A woman called and asked if I wanted to go on her casting books. A few weeks later she called me back and said H&M wanted to use me for a campaign. I was stunned.
“I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t think it would be a big deal. My mum and dad just said, ‘that’s nice’.
“The shoot only took a few hours and I had no idea it was global.”
Three weeks later the image of her standing outside a fish and chip shop while wearing a hijab was broadcast around the world and viewed by more than 15million online. In one day, Mariah saw her Instagram followers jump from 20 to 20,000.
She now has close to 90,000. She said: “It was insane, and a real sign that people were ready for modest fashion. People would contact me telling me what an inspiration I was.”
Since then, Mariah has travelled the globe modelling for magazines including Vogue and designers such as Gucci.
She said: “I have absolutely loved it. It shows how far we have come that a woman like me can model in this way. That wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.”
‘TRENDY AND MUSLIM’
But Mariah, who prays five times a day, said she still faces ignorance in the industry. She said: “There’s a stigma attached to Muslim women being frumpy. But you can be trendy and fashionable and be Muslim.
“I’ve known that all my life and it seems people are realising it now. It’s about dressing modestly. I’ve had a 6ft blonde say to me, ‘I’m so happy to meet you, I can now tell people I don’t need to take my clothes off’.
“Once, I had a brand deal but then a stockist said it couldn’t be associated to me because it wouldn’t attract people of its image. I have had stylists not understand the hijab and think it’s a skirt, or say, ‘can we do one without the hijab?’ I’ve even been asked if I’ll wear a bikini. It’s down to ignorance rather than vindictiveness.”