At 60 something, Farida Khelfa’s influence on global fashion is ever evolving. An Algerian beauty born to Arab immigrant parents in Lyon who fled to Paris when she was a teenager, this accidental model was already addressing issues of diversity long before the word was even part of the industry’s vocabulary, forcing fashion to be more inclusive just by being herself. She says, “I started in fashion without having the slightest idea about modeling. I came from a suburb of Lyon where fashion was something totally inaccessible.” She would go on to become Azzedine Alaia’s muse, and, today, counts Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Louboutin as her close friends. Her story of becoming a supermodel made fashion look at Middle Eastern women with a fresh pair of eyes.
“Difficult to find yourself”
This summer, the model and muse released her latest project: “The Other Side of the Veil”, a film that looks to break down stereotypes about Arab women. In the film, presented over YouTube, 12 creative women from the region are interviewed. Among these women, Saudi artist and women’s rights advocate Ghaba Al Rabea, talks about how she is often asked, “How can you be an artist and wear a niqab at the same time?” Also featured is Algerian Fashion Designer Faiza Bouguessa, who moved from France to the Middle East to set up her brand and who tells viewers how Dubai was a “positive” and a “perfect” environment in which to set up a fashion brand that has proud Middle Eastern roots, yet is global in its outlook.
The filmmaker chose YouTube as her medium to ensure the film reaches a wide and diverse audience. Khelfa is very aware that social media has given a voice to many who may have gone unnoticed at the time she started her career, but she is also very aware that it has an ugly side too. “I think this generation is facing more difficulties than mine. It’s difficult to find yourself today. In my time we didn’t have social media, in a way it was easier,” she says.
She wants her docu-film to be a celebration of Arab women and encourages the world to look at the Middle East in a fresh light. She says, “When I see the way my movie is received, I believe things are slowly changing.” With the international press reviewing the film in such a positive manner, Khelfa has spurred on important discussions around modern Arab culture in the media.
Everything started when she visited Saudi Arabia in 2016 with the late, legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, Carla Sozzani. “I realized that the idea that we have about Saudi women was not right, so I decided to dedicate a film about women in the region,” says Khelfa.
Casting a wide net and covering women from different parts of the region in various professions, the film helps the rest of the world understand how rich the Arab region’s culture actually is. A seasoned filmmaker, the French-Algerian beauty has made documentaries on Jean Paul Gaultier and another about Tunisian youth. While the film talks to a lot of people, the interviews are kept short and concise so that the message of “The Other Side of the Veil” is never lost.
Underlining how fashion is now becoming more inclusive, her film continues a conversation that Khelfa began when she first stepped out on the ramp in the 1970s as one of the first Arab supermodels. Since then, she has paved the way for other women from the region and, now in her 60’s, she continues to be a trailblazer. For now, the model, muse, and actress is happy to be seen as a filmmaker, as she says, “Change is evolution.” There is no question that Khelfa is a constant changemaker.