Fashion has long been understood as a democratic form of visual expression. At its best, it speaks to our politics, histories and desires. But it’s also inflected by our culture’s own narrow stories. It’s shaped by those with power. Or controlled, too often, by tastemakers who map its potential as well as its limits, decide who gets to belong. The acclaimed image-maker Justin Ridler and rising model Hanan Ibrahim are both known for challenging hierarchies. Ridler, through his inventive images for the likes of Off White, Dior, Prada and Vogue and new work at the intersection of the virtual and physical, combining photography with motion capture, animation and extended reality. Ibrahim for her work with the likes of Mecca and Armani Beauty, collaborations with The Iconic as well as her trailblazing advocacy and activism for Muslim women, modest fashion and a more equitable industry. For What-Else?,Ridler and Ibrahim joined journalist and critic Neha Kale for a conversation about how, despite the obstacles they’ve faced, they are inventing new possibilities for fashion – and re-imagining what it can do and be.
Neha Kale: Fashion plays such a powerful role in society and is central to how we understand ourselves. Can you share how each of you came to fashion?
Justin Ridler:When I was really little, maybe five years old we used to go to my nana’s house, which was a housing commission in Ascot Vale. The staircase was a storage area for all the magazines, so I used to sit [there] while my aunties got ready for wherever they were going maybe some fabulous Anglo-Indian ball [laughs]. My cousins and I would just chat and flick through the pages of magazines. I think my Aunty June was a seamstress at the time. She would also collect French Vogueand Italian Vogue and American Vogue. I remember just absorbing all of that. [Fashion] was part of the fabric of expression in my family.
Hanan Ibrahim:I remember when we moved here my mum was so interested in us dressing head to toe like we were going to a ball! I don’t know if you remember Coming to America, where there were dressed in the most extravagant clothing and walking down Queens. That was literally me and my siblings. I am one of ten siblings, so we would be dressed to the nines and other people would be wearing shorts and singlets.
I transitioned from that extravagance to simplifying our style to assimilate to the culture up until my late teens. And then I realised, I really do enjoy wearing colour and being bold and thought, screw it, I’m just going to show up and look extra!I’m six foot one tall so wherever I went, I was noticed. That is how I fell into the fashion industry – I was at a sustainability event and a designer approached me to walk. I had never seen anyone like me, a Muslim woman working in fashion. As a model, you are a coathanger – you wear what you are told to wear. I was saying, this is how I dress, this is what I will do and won’t do. Carving out that space has been difficult but also very empowering.
NK: How did your expectations differ from reality?
JR:When I first started taking photographs at university, someone thought that my work was too weird for standard portraiture. And one of my lecturers said, have you considered trying fashion because there is more room to move expressively in that field? So, it was really by happenstance that we had that conversation and I started to create images that were a bit more expressive. It was the nineties. It was the rave scene. The whole thing was completely lit. And there was an explosion of creative ideas, ideas around personal identity. I can see quite a lot of echo points between what was happening in the nineties and now.
HI:I wasn’t expecting my voice to come through in my work. When we speak on these things, like diversity and inclusion, the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s so much more powerful to have an image that also comes with a voice. Because then it evolves from just a moment in fashion to an actual movement that we hope to sustain and push for. When I first started rocking up to set, they would have dresses made with a hijab alongside it and my thighs were exposed. And then I would have to explain that I can’t show that part of my body, what a hijab and modesty means.
NK: There’s that real lack of cultural literacy. Fashion has such an important role to play culturally and politically. But in Australia, there is the perception that fashion is just about clothes. I’d like to get your thoughts about the role fashion plays here – do you think that it is not as culturally significant as other places?
HI: When you look at Australian society and the way that people dress, the majority of times people are comfortable just following trends. In Paris, you wouldn’t wear activewear to get coffee. There is something in the culture in Australia that makes people feel comfortable, which is important as well. But in terms of fashion not having as much [significance] in Australia, I agree with that. I think the people who are really trying to create change, show us that fashion is more than just dressing up, that it reflects culture and art, aren’t really in positions of power.
I personally think there aren’t enough diverse teams to make decisions about fashion and imagery and how certain things would be perceived by non-white audience members. You see things come out and you are shocked – how is this so tone deaf? It is 2022, there was nobody in that entire meeting that said maybe let’s not do this. This industry loves to throw around words like diversity but then what are they actually doing behind the scenes?
NK: There’s also a lot of talk about what can’t you do – but I think having new ideas and having different kinds of people means we’re not all drawing from the same pool of visual references.
HI: Definitely. I also think the invisibility of Muslim people, or people who are different, isn’t by mistake. It is by intention. It all happens because that is the way it was built, for the people that it was built for.
NK: In theory, it is one of the most democratic creative mediums – everyone has to get dressed – but it is also hierarchical. Tastemakers at the top define what fashion is and who fashion is for. How do you think these systems still shape fashion in Australia?
JR: I think they absolutely do shape what fashion is, but I think the shape of that hierarchy is changing. I think that is evidenced by the recent appointment of lots of different new editors of Voguesaround the world. There is a huge amount of impetus around championing voices that haven’t had the opportunity to take centre stage. I think for the last quite a while now the situation has been slowly bettering. I don’t know how it would be possible to change the systems of hierarchy within this industry. But I do think the way we can approach these systems with a degree of criticism is to have more textured conversations that are more permissive of dangerous topics.
To Hanan’s point, a situation in which a magazine’s directive is derivative of conversation that occurs in a room with no diversity is only going to produce the same results, including obliterating people with intelligence and critical rhetoric. That conversation is one of the turnkeys to a more interesting future in fashion. There is a counterpoint here that I’d love to hear Hanan’s take on. Because the dominant rhetoric centres around the championing of diversity and inclusivity through gender and ethnicity, I’ve noticed that there is a counterpoint to that emerging – and that seems to be a diametric opposite. I think there is space for that still, that divergent path of image-making. I wondered if you have any thoughts on that?
HI:I hear that, and I find that when the entire focus is on [diversity] it takes away from the art.
JR:That’s what I was trying to say!
HI:We have so many more interesting viewpoints that are outside of what we look like, which can be reflected in photography and art and fashion. I remember being asked to do spring fashion week a couple of years ago and all the models faces placed on place cards for the show. There was a photo of me with the words ‘diversity/inclusion.’ I was included in that show so they could tick off that diversity box. It was not about what I could bring to the runway or what clothes would look like on me.
JR:Hanan, I haven’t experienced those situations like you have, I can only empathise with them. I have been included in an event because I was the brown guy and didn’t know that until I had turned up to the event, which I’m not going to name. We have so much more to offer.
NK: How, then, do you think you’ve paved the way for new possibilities in this industry, despite this? I think you’ve each proved that what fashion would narrowly define as ‘difference’ is actually a source of imagination and strength.
HI:I think the biggest part of what I have to offer this industry is educating people about what modesty and Hijab mean, and how important it is to include an entire community who’ve never felt seen or heard in fashion. It opened up a conversation that was mostly unheard of in the Australian fashion industry. Being the first Hijabi model to walk a runway in Australia drew a lot of attention from both within and outside of the community. Many people couldn’t understand how I didn’t adapt to the expected standards of a model but was still working as one without having to change myself.
During fashion week, brands had hijabs specifically cut and made for me which they were then able to sell. I walked a show for Carla Zampatti where her team custom-made a hijab that matched the suit I wore on the runway, and that drew a lot of positive feedback from Muslim women, who felt seen as a consumer.
I’ve worked with incredible creatives in this space who have been imaginative and expanded their vision to include me, and it’s not hard. There’s nothing complicated about providing more material or even a different outfit for me and still making it look fashionable. Muslim women have been doing this for years. I think that’s one thing I want people to know. It’s so easy to include everybody in fashion, regardless of who they are and what they wear if brands are willing to evolve their thinking and shift their perspectives.
NK: Justin, your work is increasingly blurring the lines between the physical and virtual space. How has your time spent in other fields changed how you want to contribute?
JR: I think working in other fields has given me a voice in fashion. I think what I’m doing [now] is far more important than any of the work I’ve done in the past, because I’m influenced by other ways of thinking. That’s led into avatar creation and where do you go from there?There is a whole raft of ethics and aesthetics that go into creating representations of people in a virtual sense. My understanding of what is a fashion image now is wildly different to what it was before. At the tail end of my photographic practice, I was really struggling with being in the photographic container. Then we broke the whole container and now the ways we create discourse with our work is far more exciting.
The way I conceptualise my work and what drives me to continue is this notion of renewal. I've discovered that my ideal creative practice is something that I'm intentionally dismantling and rebuilding. I've always investigated imaging technologies that were on the peripheries of photography. I also enjoy working through methods that take some time to understand. Part of this is because the difficulty is a kind of filter. It allows me to create in a less crowded space. I have been making images with cameras for about 30 years now, which is a long time to stay in stasis with any medium, so I think moving towards a more intersectional practice was a natural and gradual opening up to the idea that I am evolving.
NK: What do you both hope for the future?
JR:I hope that if I have kids, they will be able to interact with images and clothes while feeling unencumbered by the indignities of the past. I hope for a creative culture that is much more permissive of ideas that come from a range of sources. I hope, also, that we are able to kind of check our own bullshit through that process and allow people their own modalities of self-expression. You have to push. I think every generation of artists, that’s part of their responsibility.
Recently my wife Sarah and I were commissioned to create a suite of images and films which ran in various iterations across all of the 2022 September issues of Vogue. As far as we know, this was the first time a series of fashion images using our unique production methodologies was published at that scale. It was an incredible moment for us to see the work out there in the wild and see what we've been working hard at gain some real momentum. I hope this moment offers some permissive gesture to other artists who see the world through a similar lens. It is interesting to us to breach the threshold of the gimmick in our medium and establish it as a credible part of the fashion lexicon. We are tired of the cliched aesthetic sensibilities which permeate the meta-visual landscape. We're determined to create work with a more human-hearted vision.
HI: [Last] November, I quit radiation therapy to model full-time. I am just so grateful to be healthy and alive. I hope that we move onto conversations that are interesting and not limiting. I think what excites me is working with different minds who are genuinely interested in creating something that hasn’t been done before.
In recent years, Muslim women both in Australia and globally have seen a huge shift [towards] being embraced and represented correctly. All over the world, from Korea to New York, Hijabi models have made huge waves. Major fashion houses from MaxMara and Dior to beauty brands such as Fenty and Maybelline proudly work with Muslim models and influencers and it’s amazing to watch.
The reaction to my modelling work has been so beautiful and uplifting. Anytime, Black or Muslim women send photos of themselves next to a photo of me in store or on a magazine, it reminds me why I got into this world. Because I never saw any reflection of myself or my identity anywhere, I’m grateful to be able to do that for young Muslim women. It means so much more than just modelling and consumerism. It’s the future not just of fashion but of Australian beauty standards and societal norms.