Icons are rare. They are aspirational, unlike any other, and impossible to imitate. Breaking barriers, they represent a belief system that’s uniquely their own, leaving a mark on culture and history at large. An icon is a source of fascination. They make us believe in something or someone – they make us FEEL.
UGG has always been an emotional brand because of how it makes you FEEL. We open SS21 with FEEL ____, an ongoing series of stories that inspire us. A first in fashion and long-standing supporter of the brand, we feature icon Iman in our icons like the Classic Mini – personifying the feeling of UGG and the products that define us. In telling her story, we tell ours.
You need no introduction but introduce yourself and where we are.
My name is Iman, and we are here in New York City.
Describe a day in the life of Iman.
It’s kind of difficult to describe it now, since we have been in COVID and home sheltering for the past 10 months. I usually wake up early, at 6:30am. After walking my dog and having coffee, I usually listen to the news for a bit because nowadays the news is a lot. Then maybe I’ll go for a hike, come back to eat, and lo and behold it’s still noon – you’d think it would be 4 or 5pm by now. Then I do some business over Zoom, I’m back at home again at 6, eat dinner early, and then go to bed – maybe watch a movie or something.
How do you FEEL these days and why?
Since we have been sheltering at home in March 2020, I’ve felt anxiety. I’ve never felt anxiety before. It just feels anxious because you don’t know when the end is near. How long will we be able to shelter at home? But I’m one of those privileged people, I mean, I have a country house, so I’m able to leave the city and experience nature and don’t have to be at home every minute of the day. I’m lucky in that way, but it’s disheartening when you come to the city, which I love. I love New York. I’ve been here since 1975. It’s a changed city – resilient, but it has changed. It’s sad to see a lot of small businesses are not in business anymore. It just reminded me of 9/11 – when it happened, the city felt heavy. But I know we’re resilient. We’ll come through it.
What has kept you hopeful?
This year has been a year like never before. I’ve lived here since 1975, and I have never seen anything like it, with the exception of 9/11 – but with 9/11, we were able to recover in a couple of weeks. The sadness stayed for a while, but we were able to recover and move around and hug people and cry on each other’s shoulders. But this year, the isolation is what made everybody feel lonely. People were not able to see each other, and as an African, we love to hug each other and kiss people. So, that was kind of difficult.
And then the murder of George Floyd brought everything to the front that was not great about America – specifically systematic racism. It brought it to the front. The Black Lives Matter movement has really taken momentum, which I’m very proud to see young people being so involved in it and not just black young people, White, Asians, Native Americans. I mean, the whole young generation really took it upon themselves – which, because it’s their future, they really, really showed up. And then to see that it wasn’t just local, because you could see it happening in Europe – all over Europe, and in Asia, and in Africa you could see that momentum happening, which was uplifting. But then also we had the political upheaval that was going around, and so you were uncertain not only of the pandemic. You were uncertain about the future. You’re uncertain about our place in America, and it just felt like a never-ending assault every day. You wake up and there’s one more thing. You wake up and another kid has been killed. You wake up and another atrocity by police brutality happened. You wake up and there is something the president said that started another wildfire. Then there was a wildfire in California. It was an attack and assault on humanity day in, day out. That’s why I think consciously, collectively, we were all anxious. For the first time, we might have come to this country in different boats, but we were all in the same boat. All of a sudden, we were all feeling the same thing.
What inspires you today?
What inspires me today is that the millennials have taken over the baton of the social justice movement. For years we have been saying as older people, “We’ve done this in the sixties, and when are you guys going to get your act together?” They surprised us all because they really have organized themselves well, and not only organized themselves well. They had an agenda of making sure it was not just about demonstration, but also how to get people to the polls. They understood what voting now means. They understood, also, that voting doesn’t stop with presidential voting. You have to vote on the Senate, the Congress – everybody. So, we are all very proud of the young generation of how they really showed up this year. I think, if anything, we have learned that this year is the year of the millennial. They really, really showed who they are and how they’re going to take care of their own future.
Tell us what you remember from your childhood in Somalia.
I grew up in Somalia, specifically Mogadishu, which is the capital city. I remember when I was a young girl, my parents also were very young parents. My mom and dad married each other when he was 17 and she was 14. They fell in love instantly and eloped because they were so young. They were also activists in my country, so I have always been aware of what activism means. My father was a diplomat and we went from Somalia to the Middle East. He spoke Arabic very well. So, we ended up in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Both Saudi Arabia and Sudan didn’t have really great schools for girls, so I went to a boarding school in Egypt. Then in 1969, Somalia had a coup, a military revolution. The military took over, everybody came back home from abroad, and political people were being either assassinated or put in jail. So, my mom one night decided we’re leaving the country. She woke us up in the middle of the night, put us in a van, and took us to the border of Kenya. We crossed by foot to enter Kenya and innocently, we became refugees. That was in 1972.
How did your experience as a refugee shape who you are?
I can never forget there were non-government organizations, NGOs, who were responsible to take care of refugees – either take you to refugee camps or find a place that you are safe. Host families take you in, especially young girls like me. I’ll never forget them because my parents were not with me in Kenya. They went to Tanzania and I stayed in Kenya because I wanted to go to Nairobi University. NGOs were very aware that girls could fall prey to rape or sexual assault – being so young, on their own, in a foreign country, refugees, voiceless. So, they became the voice for us. They found out that I spoke five languages, so they got me a job as a translator. They got me into Nairobi University. They also got me a job as a waitress on the side, but they checked on me three times a day – morning, mid, and then at night – to make sure that I was back in camp and I was safe. I have to tell you, if these angels were not there, I don’t know what my trajectory would be. I wouldn’t be here, because I remember a lot of young girls being raped and sexually assaulted. That always reminds me – as an immigrant story, but also specifically as a refugee story coming to America – this has been really my home since 1975, so I feel as American as I feel Somalian, because it was a place that gave me shelter and home. But I have a conflict with America all the time because of how they address what refugees are. And it’s not only America, but also just in the West. People don’t, most of the time, understand that a refugee is a person who had no other choice but to leave their own country. If you ask any refugee where they would like to live, they will all tell you home, because there is no place like home where you have a sense of belonging. So, that is my story.
You are passionate, convention-defying, and unlike any other. What empowers you, and what do you value most?
I have lovely memories from my childhood that sustain me through my adulthood. It’s the act of activism – since my parents were activists, I grew up around very political people. So, it just sustained me by reminding me that I do have a voice. I am not voiceless, and I do have an opinion as long as I am aware of what’s going around me. That is what sustains me and what makes me feel present in whatever situation happens.
I say to a lot of my friends who have never been in countries that were at war or had to flee or become refugees and stay in refugee camps and things like that – I always try to remind them that you should be aware of your surroundings. You have the power to change your situation by voting, by making sure that you understand what your what your rights are, and by speaking up.
As an icon, what makes something or someone iconic? Who are your icons?
I never understood the word iconic. The first time I came to the United States and there were articles about me in the newspaper, somebody asked me in the street for an autograph. I never knew what an autograph was, so I looked at them and they gave me a piece of paper. I still looked at them and they gave me a pen, and I had no idea what they were asking me. They said, “Sign your name for me, please.” And I said, “Why?”
The word iconic is thrown around so many ways these days. Celebrities are icons, politicians are icons, everybody’s an icon. I don’t understand it really, but if you can change somebody’s life, you will be an icon to them. That’s what I believe an icon is: somebody who can really change somebody else, the way they’re thinking. I like the idea of, “We can agree to disagree, but let me tell you what I think and just hear me out, because I might be able to change your mind.”
What advice would you give to someone who feels like the industry they work in doesn’t accept them?
Know your worth.
You are the founder and CEO of Iman Cosmetics, one of the first Black-owned businesses in beauty. Tell us about it, and why you wanted to build a brand for women of color.
So, I arrived in 1975 and my first job, three days after I arrived, was for American Vogue. I had never worn makeup, or heels for that matter. I walked into this shoot and there was another model at the shoot, Caucasian, and there was a makeup artist. He asked me, “Did you bring your own foundation?” Because he had no foundation for Black skin. So, he went and mixed and matched some things and put it on my face – I looked at the mirror, and I looked gray. From that day on, I started learning how to mix and match products so that I can create a foundation for myself, because my image as a model is my currency. I needed to learn how to be the master of my image because nobody’s going to say the makeup artist is bad; they’ll say the model doesn’t look good. So, I became an expert at that, and created Iman Cosmetics in 1994 – the seed was planted in my head that if I’m looking for a product that doesn’t exist, there are a lot of other women who want the same product.
You are CARE’s first-ever Global Advocate, supporting its mission to fight poverty and hunger. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important to you.
CARE is an organization that’s over 75 years old. It was established after 1945 after World War II, and they now work all over the world and specifically handle crisis, poverty, and hunger. The work I do with CARE is exactly of what was done for me when I was a refugee in Kenya. It is to really empower women and young girls to fulfill their dreams, because refugees are not just numbers of people, but they are people with hopes, dreams, and lives like us. It’s really pertinent to think of the world. Not just locally, but globally, because what’s happens over there – the plight of refugees, the plight of immigrants, women, and girls – it also happens here. When poverty and hunger happens globally, it also happens locally. So, it’s very important for us to think about the world, as we are a global community. There is no time for us to be separated, to think that we are different than each other.
You recently started painting. What has this form of self-expression brought you?
During COVID, one thing that really made home feel safe is that it introduced me to painting. My husband was a painter. My daughter is a painter. I have never painted in my life. So, just because I ran out of things to do, I took up painting and lo and behold, I just enjoy doing it. I started with charcoal – that is what I really gravitated towards, the simplicity of the lines. Then I went into oil painting. One thing I have learned through this is that I don’t have to be good at something to start something. I just have to not be critical of myself and just go for it.
Editor’s Note: A former muse of designers Gianni Versace, Halston, Donna Karan, and Yves Saint Laurent, Iman is a Somali supermodel, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. She’s the founder and CEO of Iman Cosmetics, a collection of makeup for women of color, and one of the first Black-owned businesses in beauty. Since September of 2019, she’s held the role of CARE’s first-ever Global Advocate, supporting its mission to fight poverty and hunger. A decade ago, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) honored her with the Fashion Icon lifetime achievement award – a special prize reserved for “an individual whose signature style has a profound influence on fashion.”