“Diversity isn’t a trend”: Nora Attal on fashion’s changing landscape

The model has seen first-hand how fashion attitudes are changing. She recounts her journey so far, while showing off the season’s most sculptural shapes

Nora Attal wears Dior mixed-fibre coat, £4,300
Nora Attal wears Dior mixed-fibre coat, £4,300 | Image: Marili Andre. Styling by Isabelle Kountoure

I grew up in the melting pot of culture that is London. I was born in Battersea, and moved from council estate to hostel to council estate as a child before finally arriving where I now live, near Wimbledon. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the struggle my parents faced as immigrants from Morocco, raising three children and moving constantly. I never comprehended the hardship they faced, and have grown a newfound appreciation for them as I’ve got older.

When I think of my childhood, I think of music: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Prince reverberating around the house on a Saturday morning. Sports were also an outlet for me. I competed nationally in the long jump as well as playing netball and doing gymnastics. As an awkward teenager I went through all the phases every girl does: bingeing on heart-throb series such as The Vampire Diaries or Game of Thrones and listening to true-crime documentaries, podcasts, series and films. I had applied to study criminal psychology and criminology at university before modelling took off.

I was 12 when I was first scouted in a shopping mall in 2012; an awkward lanky girl dressed in a hoodie and bright-blue Converse who didn’t see herself as a model. My parents thought it was too early for me to enter what seemed such a daunting industry. But it didn’t end there. When I was 14 a photographer held a casting at my school for the JW Anderson fashion campaign – a week later I was in front of a camera. From there I had the opportunity to shoot the cover of T Magazine, and at 16 I joined a modelling agency. I’ve been modelling full-time for two and a half years since leaving school. 

Nora Attal wears a Bottega Veneta techno-cotton dress, £1,045
Nora Attal wears a Bottega Veneta techno-cotton dress, £1,045 | Image: Marili Andre. Styling by Isabelle Kountoure

As a child I was interested in fashion, but it was a world I wasn’t familiar with. I would cut out fashion images and adverts by Steven Meisel and stick them on my bedroom wall. In class I would draw clothes on mannequins instead of writing my essay on Thomas Hardy. But I never imagined I would have a career in fashion. It didn’t seem to reflect the culture I grew up in, or a world I easily identified with. There weren’t any models that I particularly looked up to or related to, as there weren’t many people who looked like me. When I started modelling, there were still only a very few north African models at the shows or in the magazines I picked up.

Things have started to change though. Being on the cover of British Vogue in September 2017, alongside fellow British models, felt like I was a part of a changing landscape. And since the launch of Vogue Arabia in 2016, Middle Eastern models and models from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds have become more present throughout the industry. We are slowly creating a more diverse representation of the world we live in, and fashion is becoming more inclusive.

I have had the opportunity to shoot two Vogue Arabia issue covers and worked on other stories in British and US Vogue. More recently, I worked on a story for Vogue Italia with my extended family. Shot by Oliver Hadlee Pearch and Carlos Nazario, it was incredibly special to me as it was set in my family’s home town in Larache, Morocco. My family – parents, younger brother, sister and grandmother – were all in front of the lens and the story was photographed against the backdrop of my living room and in the Larache medina. It felt very intimate, almost like an insight into my family’s roots. Incorporating my heritage into my work is so special and important to me. My brother and I have started working together in the months since, and he has been signed as a model by my agency, Viva. I’ve also become an ambassador of Fashion Trust Arabia: it’s a way of supporting Middle Eastern designers and expressing our culture.

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The word “diversity” for me means a projection of the world; recognising individual differences including race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Fashion is everywhere, whether you seek it out or not, and it should be fundamentally representative of a range of different people. Diversity isn’t a trend. And while fashion is still stymied by systemic barriers to entry for non-white creatives and executives, we’re on the way to being more inclusive. It shouldn’t be the case that “progressive” people are “put” in senior positions to break the racial monopoly – it should be standard. I sometimes think people see models, a composed face on the catwalk or in a magazine, and they think of us as being slightly disconnected from real life. They forget we are people with identities, hobbies, talents and lives. I appreciate being recognised for the person I am both within and outside of the fashion industry. Both are important sides of me.

I’m not sure what the future holds. Eventually I would still like to study criminology, but at the moment I enjoy working and creating with the incredibly talented minds in this industry, creating different worlds and characters. Even more, I hope I can continue to contribute to an industry in which, regardless of their backgrounds, young girls and women open a magazine or look into a shop window and see people like themselves portrayed.

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