California Girls: Meet the L.A. Influencers Taking Hijab to New Heights
Beautiful, talented, and fiercely independent—it’s no wonder Marwa Atik, Ayah Shehadeh, and Anisa Stoffel became friends when they met through the various mosques of their local Muslim community. Southern California girls through-and-through, they each exude a dynamic combination of West Coast chill and enterprising business savvy. We got a chance to shoot Marwa, Ayah, and Anisa on the streets of Los Angeles, and capture how they integrate hijab into their high-fashion streetwear—right down to their classic Vans and high-top Filas. While each of these influencers possesses her own unique style, they are all leading the charge for the modernization of “modest dressing,” and challenging false stereotypes about the power and conviction of Muslim women.
The Fashion-Brand #GirlBoss Entrepreneur
As the brains behind Vela, a cult line of fashion-forward scarfs and headwraps, Syrian-American designer Marwa Atik is all about diversifying hijab fashion. In 2009 she founded her company with the intention of building community and empowering other Muslim women through modern style. Discussing her love of L.A. and the history of hijab, Marwa shares what inspires her entrepreneurial prowess.
You were born in L.A.—what was it like growing up in Southern California?
MA: “I was born in Los Angeles, and then we lived everywhere from Riverside to Anaheim to Fountain Valley, and then back to L.A. We also spent a year living in Syria. All that moving definitely shaped me into the person I am today—a globetrotter.
“L.A. is like a huge playground! Especially when you’re young. I lived in an apartment complex with so many kids, including my cousins; it was a big community of Arab families. We would all play in the parking garage after school, or go to the McDonald’s on the corner. Most of our parents were working, so we all looked after each other.”
Where did the idea for Vela come from?
MA: “I co-founded Vela with my sister Tasneem in 2009. I was around 18 years old, in my first year of college. I was taking a lot of random classes, but found myself always sketching designs, and I started filling up notebooks with them. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in hijab design at the time, so things really picked up—within a year we were in the Los Angeles Times! Things are changing though. A couple months ago I was at Milan Fashion Week, and headscarves are a huge trend this fall season.
“It’s not just about Muslim girls though—Orthodox Jews have to cover up, as do Sikh men. So my goal for Vela is to create a community of people who understand one another's values, and one another's religious choice to adhere to their own sense of modesty, and to feel empowered by that choice!”
For those who don't know, what’s the difference between a hijab and abaya?
MA: “Abaya is the robe and the dress. Living in SoCal we generally wear our abayas when we go to mosque. You know how when Christians go to church, they get dressed in their best church clothes? It's like the same concept.
“Hijab is a head wrap that women choose to wear when they decide they have matured to make that choice. Modesty is about protecting yourself from the sexuality and commodification that the world puts on your body. Your focus instead is more on your personality, how you interact with people. Choosing to wear the hijab taught me to become the persistent and strong human being that I am today.”
What has your experience been as a female business owner?
MA: “I feel like all women maybe go through the same thing as business owners; we have to work harder. In many ways men heavily dominate the downtown L.A. fashion industry—the factories, the pattern makers, and the fabric manufacturers. So a lot of the time, I have to fight more for my deals.”
Something that's so incredible about your style is the way you take the idea of modesty and make it really high-fashion. What is that process like for you?
MA: “Oh man, it’s just like second nature to me now, I don't even think about it. Sometimes if I have an exceptional scarf that has a certain pattern to it, I love to style my outfit based off of that. I love the fact that fashion now has switched into a more comfortable zone. Girls no longer have to wear six-inch high heels and be hyper-feminine. Sneakers are amazing because let’s be real, as a women, I got shit to do! I got a business to run, you know? So everything is about comfort now, and sneakers can really be paired with any outfit.”
What's your favorite pair of sneakers at the moment?
MA: “Back in the day, the Jack Purcell Converse was the classic SoCal look. But my first pair of really nice kicks that I saved up for were the Nike Roshes—that’s when my sneakerhead addiction started. I’m also really into the Fenty Creepers. I love the vintage punk vibe.”
How has Instagram shaped your life in the last few years?
MA: “It’s completely changed things! It's amazing that I'm able to connect with so many different people, and we can all find that common interest. A person doesn't have to be Muslim or a hijabi to understand my sense of style, and vice versa. I love to travel and learn new things, which overall has allowed me to become very well-rounded person. Social media means I can create this real portrayal of myself in the world.”
The In-Demand Henna Artist
At only twenty-two, Ayah Shehadeh has a burgeoning business as a sought-after henna artist, and an effortless, sophisticated sense of style. Whether designing elaborate floral patterns on her clients, or perfectly pairing her collection of classic Vans with a cross-stitched top, Ayah weaves her Palestinian culture into all of her endeavors. Here, we had the chance to learn about her childhood “sneaker game” and her easygoing approach to fashion.
Where are you from in California?
AS: “I was born and raised in Orange County, and as a kid I was always hanging out in the Los Angeles fashion district since that’s where my father works. When I got older I loved running around with close friends, dressing up, and taking cute fashion pictures around the art district. There is always something new to see in L.A.”
What was your experience of growing up in the SoCal Muslim community?
AS: “I grew up with a lot of my family members—I literally had a street full of all of my cousins, so I was always around other Arab-Americans. It was pretty easy-going up until high school, which was a little different because I did go to a school where I was one of only two girls with a headscarf, so that was a little bit different. For the most part people were welcoming, but I would always have to answer questions about my hijab. I definitely had some girls always saying, ‘Why would you wear it though? You're so pretty with your hair out!’”
At what age does someone usually start wearing hijab?
AS: “You're generally supposed to wear it when you start your menstrual cycle, but I waited a little until I was ready, because it’s a really personal thing. I always wanted to wear it, but the transition is a harder in America, because you want to fit in with the culture and look pretty with your hair, since that’s a big part of ‘beauty’ here. Once I started to figure out my hijab style, I got much more confident with it!”
How would you describe your personal style? Is it influenced by your Palestinian heritage?
AS: “Laid back and affordable! I generally like clean lines—leggings, sneakers, and an oversized jacket. I do really love to incorporate lots of pieces with cross-stitching, which is a big Palestinian tradition. I definitely like to show off my culture in everything I wear.”
When did you start doing henna, and how did it progress into your work?
AS: “It’s actually kind of funny: When I was around ten years old I really wanted a tattoo. So my parents gave me a henna stencil, and they were like, ‘Here, this is the only tattoo you can get.’ So from there I would draw all over my legs and practice with henna. As a teenager I became really good at it, and started doing it for community events and fundraisers. Now it’s my actual business—I do a lot of weddings and social events. And looking back, I’m glad I didn’t get a tattoo!”
What’s your favorite sneaker memory from your childhood? Do you remember your first pair?
AS: “I actually grew up with sneakers because my father’s best friend owned a shoe shop—we were always updating our sneaker game! I got my first pair around six years old, some K-Swiss classics. I had a big collection of Vans growing up, which made me feel so cool as a kid.”
What is your go-to sneaker these days?
AS: “My go-to would have to be a Vans Slip-On! I’m always on the go, and can throw them on without thinking because they are so comfortable. I’m all about comfort, and I feel like Vans really can go with anything.”
When you’re getting dressed in the morning, how does your hijab come into play?
AS: “I usually pick out my hijab first, and try to see if I want to wear it turban-style or as a wrap. From there I will plan my outfit based on how I wrap my hijab. Styling hijab can be easy or difficult, depending on the day—it’s kind of my version of a good or bad hair day! My favorite part is definitely pairing shoes with my outfits. I have been wearing hijab since 2011, and I feel so happy and complete when I have it all together.”
Who are the women you get style inspiration from, aside from Marwa and Anisa?
AS: “There are three Muslim girls on Instagram that I really love following—Maria Alia who is in New York, Dina Tokio based in London, and Saufeeya Goodson [from North Carolina]. They all have incredible style.”
The Accidental Fashion Blogger
A pro at the high-low mix with a strong color-blocking game, Anisa Stoffel is the definition of L.A. street-wear chic. As an Instagram influencer, she documents her sleek hijab wraps and fresh-faced beauty all over the world, taking inspiration from her Indo-Arab heritage and classic tomboy style. Sitting down with us, Anisa talked island hopping, her love of Nike, and her accidental career as a fashion blogger.
How did you first get into fashion blogging?
AS: “It happened unexpectedly! I randomly posted some pictures, one of myself, and one of my sister and I back to back, and someone put them up on Tumblr, and from there they went viral on Twitter. All of a sudden people were pouring in to follow me—it was so out of the blue! From there, companies started to hit me up. I never thought in a million years I’d be doing this, but I jumped on the opportunity and it’s been really amazing.”
How do you know Marwa and Ayah? When did you meet?
AS: “I actually met Ayah first, at the mosque where she was doing henna designs, and then through her I met Marwa. We started talking, and found out we had mutual friends. We’ve all hung out and been cool since—it was amazing to get to do this shoot with them.”
How does the street-wear element of your look fit in with your hijab, which seems to have a feminine association?
AS: “I’ve always been something of a ‘tomboy.’ Growing up I loved big clothing—sweats or plain jeans, and white t-shirts—and with hijab it worked out perfectly. My younger sister was the girly one, so sometimes I would borrow her clothes when I wanted to experiment. Now it comes naturally in my head, matching those dope sneakers or that jacket with these jeans.
“Many people don’t know this, but hijab is not necessarily meant only for women, men in Islam have hijab too, but it’s not often talked about. It doesn’t just mean headscarf or veil, but it’s a larger concept that is not inherently feminine.”
What do you look for when you’re scoping out sneakers?
AS: “That’s a difficult one cause I’m all over the place! I love everything from slip-on Vans to Nike Cortezes or Air Force 1s. My current obsession right now is the vintage look of the Nike Outburst OGs. The classic shoes never really go out of style.”
Based on your Instagram you seem to travel quite a bit! What are some of your favorite cities for fashion?
AS: “Even though I grew up in California, I was actually born in Jakarta, my mom is Indo-Arab, and so we went back there all the time growing up to visit my mom’s family. Hopping around the different islands in Indonesia is still my favorite thing to do. In general I love traveling and feeling out the different vibe each city has—London and Paris definitely had me excited about experimenting with some different looks. I’m always saving up for my next trip.”
What’s something you’re frequently asked about as a Muslim woman?
AS: “I definitely get asked about the headscarf and why I wear it—the most common remark living in SoCal is always, ‘Aren’t you hot in that?’ Sometimes it’s relatively innocent, and sometimes you know they’re coming from a place of real ignorance. My identity is something beautiful and meaningful to me, and people should actually read up on things before judging in any situation (and check their sources too!) There are Muslims of every ethnicity and culture, just like Christianity. At the end of the day it’s all about being respectful.”
Who are some of your biggest fashion influences?
AS: “I love Aleali, Reese Blutstein, and Alyssa Wallace just to name a few. Some Muslim influencers I get inspiration from, besides Marwa and Ayah of course, are Imane Asry, and these two that I recently just found @the.blackpepper and @missbatmaan. I look forward to seeing what they both put out next and I love the sleek look of their feeds!”
The Go-To Kicks of These L.A. Stylesetters
More of the good stuff—a celebration of the people who inspire us and the classic kicks in their closets. See All Stories
Meet the Artist: A 23-Year-Old Photographer Whose Work Isn't Always What It Seems
What happened when we gave photography’s newest star her pick of classic sneakers.
See the Story
5 Sneakeristas Share The One Person They’re Style-Stalking
That girl you follow, whose style you’re obsessed with. Yes, her. Wouldn’t you love to know who she’s style-stalking??
See the Story
Paper Magazine x The_ONES: 10 Reasons We Can’t Get Enough Of The Skate Kitchen
This all-girl NYC skate crew rocks it out at east-coast skate parks, has singular style, and wears sneakers like a second skin.
See the Story