This Somali teen fashion designer goes big with animal print hijabs

The World
Sahro Hassan (center) surrounded by friends and family modeling her designs.

Sahro Hassan (center) surrounded by friends and family modeling her designs.

Jim Walker

Sahro Hassan sticks out, which is hard to do when you're maybe five feet tall. This girl wears cheetah print on cheetah print. Her skirt's like a disco ball.

Sahro is a Somali immigrant, one of thousands who immigrated to the United States to escape the violence back home in Somalia.

Like many Muslim women, Sahro wears a hijab, a traditional headscarf, to cover her hair. But her hijab is bright orange and sparkly.

“I wouldn't go Lady Gaga extreme, but I like something that people look at it and think, oh my god, that's interesting. Like, what is she wearing,” Sahro says.

The high school senior lives in Lewiston, Maine, and she's mad for fashion, but the fashion scene in Lewiston isn't quite up to her standards.

“Oh god. Jeans. Sweatpants,” she says.

Lewiston is blue collar, an old mill town. Thought hijabs don’t stand out there the way they did when the first Somali refugee families began arriving in 2001. The city is now nearly 10 percent Somali, and the downtown crowds are a mix of lumberjack flannel and East African influences. 

Most hijabs you see, though, aren't orange and sparkly. That's all Sahro. At 18, she's already launched her own fashion line for young Muslim women.

“Growing up, we didn't have a lot of options about what to wear and how to express ourselves,” she says.

Sahro’s designs are modern, yet modest — something you won't find at the mall. Her signature hijabs come in neon, zebra stripes and more. Before she was designing hijabs, though, she had to fight to even wear one.

Sahro was born in a Kenyan refugee camp; her parents fled Somalia after civil war broke out there. When she was 10, they were resettled in Indiana. It was a difficult time. She and her younger siblings were the only Somalis at their school.

“One day I was wearing my head scarf and I was brought to the office and I didn't speak a word in English,” Sahro says. 

The principal pointed at her scarf and told her to take it off. The school wouldn't let Sahro and her sisters wear their hijabs because it had a "No Hats" policy.

Sahro says she tried to fit in.

“I started wearing pants and stuff, just trying to adapt and fit in with the kids there,” she says. “Because I didn't know the language, I tried to imitate what they were doing. And I would have lost who I am.”

Then Sahro's father heard about the growing Somali community in Lewiston.

“I felt like, man, I'm going to be lost forever,” Sahro says, “but my parents were like, we're moving to Maine.”

In Maine, Sahro put her hijab back on. With her clothing no longer a source of conflict, she threw herself into learning English. And a great way to learn a new language? Turn on the TV.

Sahro has become a diehard fan of fashion reality shows like “Project Runway” and “What Not to Wear.”

She says her mom watches too, though she’s kind of shocked by what she sees.

“They do bikinis and stuff. My parents are against that because that's not how they raised us,” Sahro says. “They're like 'no, that's literally naked.' I'm like, 'mom, they don't think it’s naked.'”

Her parents don't need to worry. She's not inspired by what she sees on the shows: bikinis, mini-skirts, crop tops. She's inspired by what she doesn't see.

“I feel like I have potential because I don't see Somali girls on Project Runway, designing and wearing her hijab, and I want to change that,” she says.

She's well on her way. She's already held two runway shows in downtown Lewiston featuring more than 20 original designs. And she's done her first photo shoot, with the help of a photographer in Lewiston who volunteered his services.

Her models are her sister, her cousin, her friends. They parade in front of the camera in wild combinations: a purple tie-dye tiger print skirt; turquoise sequins head to toe; a pink and black striped blazer over hot pink lace. And there are green, blue, red, black and cheetah-print headscarves.

“I love animal print, I just die for print,” Sahro says.

There's flash and glitter, but not an inch of arm, leg, or hair. These photographs are for her college application portfolio, and she’s already been accepted to some of her top choices.

“My biggest dream is to continue my line, but make it big that it’s known in the country, have my own store opened and even have a franchise,” she says. “I want to be the CEO of my company.

She's ready to show the world her unique vision — without showing too much, of course.