“Life, I trust you,” is the mantra of Mona M. Ali, the founder of Fiiri, a model and creative agency for people of color, who has been named editor of diversity and inclusion at Vogue Scandinavia.
Finding that trust in didn’t come easy. Born in Somalia, Ali and her family fled the country, and after relocating within Africa, Ali left her parents and moved to Sweden where she lived with her aunt, siblings, and cousins—12 children in all—in the small town of Norrköping. As a Black muslim wearing the hijab, Ali stood out and was bullied. It was years before she was able to reunite with her parents, with whom she went to live in Norway.
With a dozen children to care for, fashion couldn’t be an indulgence. But following one cousin’s lead, Ali took to sketching. And she worked diligently, saving her kronor to realize her dream of attending college, which she did at Regents University in London. She stayed on in England for a decade, working in hospitality and doing some modeling, and returned to Sweden with great hopes for a career in the fashion industry. She moved in with her aunt for what she expected to be a short stay that became extended when she couldn’t find work. When doors didn’t open for her, Ali built her own agency, called Fiiri (“Look” in Somali), envisioning it as a headquarters and safe space for a community of creative “people of color [who] feel like they have to work three times as hard or five times as hard.” Fiiri is a space where inclusion extends beyond race to include people of different sizes, backgrounds, and abilities. And the agency quickly expanded beyond models to other adjacent creative fields so that Fiiri models could feel safe on set.
Florence Ogbay, a Fiiri model, for Beckmans, spring 2021, ready-to-wearPhoto: Kristian Loveborg / Courtesy of Beckmans College of Design
Armand Mirpour, a Fiiri model for Our Legacy, spring 2021, ready-to-wearPhoto: Isak Berglund Mattsson-Mårn / Courtesy of Our Legacy
Kim Jolin, a Fiiri model, for Beckmans, spring 2021, ready-to-wearPhoto: Kristian Loveborg / Courtesy of Beckmans College of Design
With this leap of faith, Ali wants to explode stereotypes and showcase the diversity of Scandinavian talent. And she’s leading by example: “I really hope that I can inspire some young kids out there who feel lost,” she says. To show them there’s hope. “Just keep working hard and be good to people and you’ll get there.”
Here, Ali shares her story.Mona M. AliPhoto: Christabelle Beaudry / Courtesy of the photographer
Vogue: What is the root of your motivation?
Mona M. Ali: For the longest time I was angry. I felt sorry for myself. I felt, “Why me?” And I think I was like nine [when] I realized that having that mindset was just really hurting myself. Everybody has issues, so what can you do? I used all that anger as my motivation. I was like, I’m going to show everybody what I can really be. I’m going to show the world that I’m just not limited to being a Somali refugee. I celebrate that today; I’m proud of it. I’m proud of what I have, what my parents had to go through. I want to make them proud. My motivation is tackling everything that comes my way with positivity. I believe being a kind person is really important, and really trying to help other people.
The story of your graduation collection reads like a biography.
Everything I do, and think, and how I create things always comes back to the same purpose, and that is belonging and identity. When you’re a third-culture kid, you’re in between different cultures; you have no choice to be here, so you create your own home. So how do you do that? And for me, for a long time, I tried to fit in. I tried to be white. I tried to be more like a guy. I just hated all the things that I was and I tried to be somebody else, until I grew up. [Then] I was like, “Why do we have to pick and choose? Why can’t you just be all of them?”
So the graduation collection was an inspiration of merging two identities. It’s about someone who has their own way of being, somebody who is several things. And the collection was based on the clothes being functional, whether you’re in Somalia or you’re in Sweden. Everything [could be transformed into different pieces]. It was about creating a new identity, being able to wear the same look, but in different ways. [It was about] a nomadic and Scandinavian identity, really merging the two things that created me, and made me who I am.Ali's graduation collection.Photo: Courtesy of Mona M. Ali
What is the mission of Fiiri?
With Fiiri, the only thing I’m trying to do is showcase the people of color, the people that have been ignored and unseen, and showcase all the different faces really, not just the typical blond, blue-eyed [ones]. We’re trying to remove that stereotype and showcase all the amazing people that we have in Scandinavia.
What was the tipping point that led to Fiiri’s founding?
When I came back in 2019 [after a decade in London], I just felt like so much was still the same. I was hoping to wait at least a year or two before I started the agency, but coming back and not even being able to get a job, with my experience and my degree, I was beyond surprised. It was pretty crazy to me. I was like, this is people not seeing us. People are not hearing us. We’re not being able to get the space that we deserve. I just wanted to find all the POC creatives and everybody who works in fashion, including the models, to have this environment, a safe space to create and be exactly who you want to be.
Is Fiiri a political platform as well as a creative one?
For me, yes. Fiiri has to be unapologetic. We talk about difficult things, we try to solve problems, and obviously that becomes political. We are demanding change, and we are creating a safe space for our creatives to be able to vocalize those issues and [discover] how we can move forward from them, and how we can speak about these things in a good and positive way, and really see what real change looks like. It has to start from us; we are just doing the things that we’re supposed to do and people are following. It’s really exciting to see that.
What do you look for in a model or a talent?
The biggest thing for me is personality. When I look at their photo, I somehow just see that there’s something extra about them, and it’s like this sort of fire in them that I see.
Why did the agency grow to include talent beyond models?
Well, as we know, the issues don’t just stop when it comes to representation. If you’re going to be fully diverse, it’s not enough to just have a Black model or an Indian model and not have anybody else [on set] who looks similar to you. It just doesn’t work that way; you really need to think more than that. So that was always the idea, [to get] behind both [models and] talent, because if you’re going to be fully diverse, you need to have both.
Mona M. Ali, left, in RodebjerPhotographed by Beata Cervin
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.