Somali teen creates sassy, modest fashions

 American Fabric
By LAURA MCCANDLISH  |  October 2, 2013

A NEW LOOK Designer Sahro’Uji Hassan (center, in silver mirrored metallic dress) is joined by female
friends modeling her fashions and male friends, Lewiston High School soccer stars, who volunteered
as ushers at the spirited event in Dufresne Square during Friday’s Lewiston-Auburn Art Walk.

All along Lisbon Street, downtown Lewiston pulsed with energy Friday night. It was nothing too out of the ordinary for a monthly art walk — until the music at the brick Dufresne Plaza switched from low-key Americana to R&B and the voice of an Indian-American MC, narrating as a half-dozen Somali girls strode down the catwalk, in sleek, vibrant patterns. They all sported the handmade creations of designer Sahro’Uji Hassan, 17, a Lewiston High School senior who juggles soccer, work with the non-profit Lots to Gardens and babysitting for her seven younger siblings on top of her fledgling business.

Her affordable “Fashion Uji“ designs straddle the sexy teen/obedient Muslim line. Participating in a Young Entrepreneurs Academy through the local chamber of commerce last spring helped Hassan draft a business plan she then pitched to investors for $1100 in start-up funds. She’s an honor-roll student working to boost her SAT scores (in the 1100 range) to study fashion, hopefully at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Eventually, Hassan plans to take New York City’s runways by storm.

“I want my girls to dress modest, but be confident, be creative and be strong,” Hassan says.

She wore full-length mirrored sequins, as friends modeled Vietnamese silks, African safari prints, ’70s-style neon garb, and masked Mardi Gras ensembles. Hassan made colorful hijabs to match each outfit. Fabrics were recycled or from Walmart, where her father works 12-hour shifts. Lewiston High men’s soccer stars ushered. Sitey Muktar, who traveled with Hassan to Los Angeles for a youth summit this summer, supported her friend as model recruiter and manager.

Standing out in the audience was former Lewiston mayor Larry Gilbert, who in November challenges incumbent Robert Macdonald, who also made a brief appearance. Gilbert made a point to sit with Zam Zam Mohamud, Lewiston’s first Somali school board member, and stressed a message of tolerance. “Why should you leave your culture at the door?” Gilbert says.

Noticeably absent, though, were the proud parents of the Somali teens. “They still have one foot in the old culture,” says Barbara Benjamin-McManus, who taught these girls back in middle school. “But the parents are getting more permissive. So the girls are running track and playing soccer; they’re allowed to overnight camp, which they didn’t do about two or three years ago. They’re getting there, but it takes time.”

Hassan is stepping out thanks to Tree Street Youth, which sponsored the show. She learned to sew through the grassroots center, an oasis for Somali youth in Lewiston’s poorest neighborhood. Tree Street’s executive director is Julia Sleeper, a recent Bates graduate whose own ancestors immigrated to Maine from Lebanon and Italy.

“Sahro really represents someone who’s not afraid to take that extra step further, while at the same time being very reverent and respectful towards her old country, where she comes from, and what her parents have taught her,” Sleeper says.

A New America Media Women Immigrants Fellowship supports contributor Laura McCandlish’s reporting on Maine’s Somali community.

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