It is difficult to articulate exactly what makes a great model, but somehow you feel Imaan Hammam has “it”. Perhaps in part, “it” is sheer energy. On the Style photoshoot, she is moving non-stop: bopping to Dizzee Rascal, swirling in the Savoy ballroom under flashlights — she did ballet as a kid and it shows. When the photographer pauses, she drops to the floor, lies down on her back and starts cycling her feet like a dynamo whirring down. Earlier, she had walked a catwalk show for Next (she’s the face of its new campaign), equally effervescent: bouncing down the runway, all springing curls, crooked grin. Naomi Campbell once complimented her walk; Hammam told the supermodel that she learnt it from her. “Naomi was, like, ‘Good!’” she chuckles. “That was pretty dope.”
Just 20, Imaan (pronounced “Ee-men”) has been modelling more or less since puberty. She was scouted at 14, spotted outside a train station in her native Amsterdam. She remembers a woman running over to her: “I was, like, ‘Oh, God, what’s wrong?’” It was an agent desperate to sign her. A week later, she was doing her first test shoot; 18 months after that, she walked her first show — Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris couture.
“In the beginning, my friends thought I was just having a good time,” she grins, “but I work hard every day. You have to be in shape, you know. You really have to be ‘on’.” Her big break came at 17 when she opened the Givenchy show as an exclusive, a distinction that launched the careers of Lara Stone and Joan Smalls. “I did fittings, hair and make-up, then on the day of the show, I went to another refit and Riccardo [Tisci, the creative director] was putting on the clothes and said, ‘You know you’re opening the show?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’re opening the show and you better f****** kill it.’ I was, like, ‘OK!’”
It was all the more surreal because Hammam was at school sitting exams the following week. Since then, she’s walked in 116 shows, including Victoria’s Secret in 2014. She says she trained every day, kickboxing, running, skipping, consuming “vegetables, smoothies and plenty of water” in the run-up to the show, which she watched obsessively growing up. Even now, the juxtaposition of watching television and starring on it shocks her. She is ambivalent about having started so young, travelling alone and becoming alienated from her teenage friends at home. But, she says, she enjoyed the independence. “You’re so young, you’re near puberty, trying to figure out what you’re like. For me, modelling really helped.”
Now she says she gets support from having a boyfriend in the industry, fellow model Naleye Junior. The pair were photographed together for Vogue by Mert & Marcus earlier this year; they live together in Williamsburg, New York, with their toy-poodle puppy, Jazzy.
Hammam was born on the edgy east side of Amsterdam, one of six siblings; her parents were immigrants, her mother from Morocco and her father from Egypt. “Our house was always full with family, my cousins, my sisters — there was always someone at home,” she says. She was studying fashion at high school when she was scouted, an interest inherited from her mother, who makes traditional Moroccan clothes. Her dream is to design a range of trainers. She owns 60 pairs. “When I studied fashion, I had to do presentations about stylists and the industry, so working with them now is just so sick,” she says, her Dutch accent softened by an American twang from years spent living in the States. “I was scared in the beginning: I’m going to meet Anna Wintour! What do I do? Do I kiss her? But she was so cool and really interested in knowing where I was from.”
At home in Amsterdam, Hammam was influenced by her parents’ cultures, cooking traditional food and speaking Arabic (she also speaks Dutch, English, Moroccan and Egyptian), though as she told Teen Vogue, “Sometimes people call me Middle Eastern, and I’m, like, ‘No, I’m black.’” As a child, she was teased for her naturally afro hair and, initially, it was always straightened by stylists. It wasn’t until a shoot with American Vogue in January 2014 that it was kept natural. Now stylists leave it big. “Something about that just feels really good,” she says, “like the real me.”
She has heard stories of racism in the fashion industry, but hasn’t experienced it personally. “I have friends who couldn’t get jobs or on magazine covers because they were black or Asian, but I’ve never been in that situation,” she says. In fact, last August, she and two other black models, Aya Jones and Lineisy Montero, featured on Teen Vogue’s cover under the strapline “The new faces of fashion”. “When I started to really work, diversity became more of a thing and it wasn’t all white girls,” Hammam says now. “Everybody is embracing different cultures now. Ten — or even five — years ago, it wasn’t like that.”