Halima Aden walking the runway during the Max Mara show during Milan Fashion Week - Feb 23, 2017 Halima Aden walking the runway during the Max Mara show during Milan Fashion Week - Feb 23, 2017

The fashion industry has been waiting for someone like Halima Aden to come along.

The 19-year-old initially caught international attention when she became the first Muslim to compete for the title of Miss Minnesota. She made it to the 2016 semifinals, wearing a hijab throughout and donning a burkini – cover-all swimwear – for the swimsuit portion of the pageant. She didn’t win, but many have claimed that her hijab was the real crown of that year’s competition. She has since graduated from contestant to judge, serving on the panel for the nation-wide Miss USA competition. And that’s nothing compared with how the fashion scene at large has embraced her.

The industry has been happy to trumpet her message of modesty hand-in-hand with freedom of choice. “My definition of modesty means a long skirt, or like a dress, so like, not wearing just pants, and my neck to be covered,” Halima explained to Allure. “And that’s something that’s different, you know, it goes from individual to individual,” she has emphasized, pointing out that not all Muslim women choose to wear a hijab. It’s a message that has resonated well throughout pop culture, even when the political backdrop includes, for instance, France’s recent ban on face coverings.

Her Miss Minnesota appearance caught the attention of Carine Roitfeld, editor-in-chief of CR Fashion Book, who put Halima in touch with none other than Kanye West. She made her runway debut at the rap star’s Yeezy’s Season 5 show in February of this year. The same Fashion Week also saw her dressed by Max Mara in an elegant camel trench coat and matching silk hijab, as well as a sophisticated head-to-toe black ensemble by Alberta Ferretti. Each of her appearances generated widespread media coverage.

Halima and others involved view the media buzz as an important means to an end. As Ian Griffiths, creative director of Max Maraput it simply, “If you walk down a top-end shopping street in any major city, you wouldn’t be surprised to see a Max Mara coat worn with a hijab. So why shouldn’t our runway reflect that too?” Halima takes a similar view: “I really would just like for all this to be normalized. Right now I’m getting a lot of press because I’m wearing a hijab, and that’s not something you see in the fashion industry. It’s new, it’s kind of shocking. We have to start somewhere, and I’m happy to be the first … Hopefully we will get to a place soon where a hijab in a fashion show is just as normal as anything else.”

Halima was raised in St. Cloud, Minnesota, but she was born in a Kenyan refugee camp. Her mother successfully escaped the Somalian civil war and, after an arduous application process, took her family to the United States when Halima was seven. As time went on, Halima found herself part of a wave of Somalian refugees during a period of rising anti-immigration political discourse.

As Halima explained, St. Cloud, “got diverse pretty quickly. It kind of just started booming, which caused a lot of conflict, miscommunication, and a misunderstanding of why we were there. So growing up, my former high schools were having protests and rallies, kids were not getting along.” It was a difficult situation to size up, but that’s exactly what Halima did – in her own way and on her own terms.

Before she became the first Muslim to compete for Miss Minnesota, Halima was the first Muslim Homecoming Queen in her hometown. “Back in high school, I didn’t ever see a Muslim homecoming king or queen – there was never even anyone nominated,” she told Cosmopolitan. “It just seemed for a lot of those events Muslim kids were not being included, and it was probably our fault too — no one was going for it but no one was trying to push us to do it, you know? So I was like, ‘Why not me?'”

Halima broke down barriers on the local level and the results were immediate. “[F]reshmen were coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to do this! How did you do it? How did you get your parents to agree?’ So I saw the conversations it was starting and thought, ‘OK, how can I continue this?'” For Halima, the answer was modeling, and the meteoric success of her career has brought the discussion to the international level.

The June 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia put Halima on its cover, captioned: “All Eyes on Halima Aden: The Runway Star Shattering Stereotypes.” It’s a message that Halima is dedicated to, and one that she is actively living out. As she told Vogue, “Always stay true to who you are – barriers can and will be broken!” Her challenge to us all: “Can you be yourself? Can you?” When asked what’s next for her, the aspiring United Nations goodwill ambassador responded, “As Muslims, we just need more positive stories. Period.” — jas