Posted by Irene Ojo-Felix | May 15th, 2017’s ICONS
The stamp of a supermodel doesn’t come easy and Alek Wek’s courageous story shows why. As a girl, she fled from her worn-torn home to become the inspiring muse for girls who never saw her type of deep dark beauty in high fashion. Photographic greats like Irving Penn, Arthur Elgort, Herb Ritts, Patrick Demarchelier, and Steven Meisel have all called upon the icon to bring her inimitable presence to the pages of Vogue and Elle.

Not many models can attest to breaking boundaries yet since her industry debut nearly 20 years ago, the South Sudanese stunner has pushed the perception of accepted beauty and made way for countless women to follow her path of unaltered elegance. Beyond the glitz of the modelling world, Wek has tirelessly used her position to spread word on the refugee crisis in her homeland and has aligned herself with the UNHCR , UNICEF, and the H&M Conscious Foundation who have all committed efforts towards providing much need provisions to the masses. With this original story shot by Txema Yeste, we spoke with the supernova about her monumental career achievements, collaborating with the industry’s leading names, and what’s next on the horizon.

Photography – Txema Yeste
Stylist – Bernat Buscato
Hair – Lacy Redway (The Wall Group) for Jane Carter Solution
Makeup – Tyron Machhausen (The Wall Group) for MAC
Nails – Natalie Pavloski (BRIDGE Artists) for Dior Vernis
Set Design – Chad Dziewior
Photo assistants – Sergi Hernan and Robyn Schmidt

Special Thanks to Outpost Studios

Interview and text by Irene Ojo-Felix

What is it about modelling that has kept you going for so many years?

First of all, I enjoy my job and the business really does bring people together from all around the world if you think about it. Backstage alone, from the journalists and the beauty teams to the buyers and the models are from every country and city you could think of. That for me has been such a learning experience that I’m so glad I got to have that while I was young. I never grew up knowing about fashion or magazines. Putting on makeup and getting a story done; I really believe it’s team work and I feel that’s what really kept me going.

It’s wonderful to be able to follow your gut instinct. In the 90’s when I started, I didn’t really have any model that I could model myself after. People said “OK, you won’t be able to do commercial work. You’re too strong” and I’m thought, I’m normal! I’m 5’11’’! I can work! There was so much pressure to change myself. Steven Meisel said to me, “Alek… take this wig off! I just want you to be you.” It’s wonderful when it’s a project that has to do with wanting your personality. At least for me I always feel like if I can’t be myself, there’s no way I could fake it.

RIGHT: Wool jacket – JOLIBE. Slippers – Pierre Hardy (Courtesy of Albright Fashion Library)

It’s interesting to hear you talk about being yourself in the truest form because so many women have mentioned how revolutionary you’ve been in that respect.

I think it’s important. I feel that I have to tell the truth because at the end, that’s what’s going to save you moving forward. Feeling comfortable in your own shoes. I think it’s good to be able to say to a young person that you are enough. You can improve but it doesn’t take away who you are. Some people are loud, some people are shy, it doesn’t make them any better or any less. It’s all about how you look at things so for me I was really fortunate to have agents and I wasn’t getting sold shortcuts or in a derogatory way. So, that for me was a blessing. And my family, they kept me grounded as well.

Feeling comfortable in your own shoes. I think it’s good to be able to say to a young person that you are enough. You can improve but it doesn’t take away who you are. Some people are loud, some people are shy, it doesn’t make them any better or any less.

Did you realize you were changing the perception of beauty? You were one of the first successful North African dark-skinned models.

I didn’t think that I was controversial because for me growing up as one of five girls I always thought that we were gorgeous. For me I felt sad that there wasn’t any representation of young black models, just full of energy. I had just come out of South Sudan so I was grateful to have that opportunity when I got scouted. I went to London College of Fashion which helped me with how I managed my business because it’s not just about the looks. As a model you pay for everything. Food, travel, everything. I also didn’t want to go into a job that was going to degrade me. I’m glad that I stuck to my gut and what I felt was important to my integrity to be able to not just do things because they’re cool or because somebody else is doing it.

That’s why I think beauty shouldn’t be celebrated just culturally, because if we do we just get stuck. Young people should really see all sorts of representation. Kids need to be able to have that. They are marketing to open up diversity in magazines and that’s good! I mean it’s 2017 for goodness sake! I feel now that we’re getting there in starting to talk about this, in representing all types of women in general. That was my thing, you know? We should have fun with makeup, hair and clothes but most importantly we should embrace each other too. That’s something I feel that we need to do collectively.

Right: Robe – Vintage Donna Karan

Most definitely. Seeing diversity has a positive impact on us all.

And make it also a conversation! It’s not like before when people used to say “Oh it’s not going to sell!” You can’t be stuck in one way because the world is colorful. The smart ones are the ones that are cashing in now but I feel it has such a long way to go. I am so glad I can go to Paris and do Balenciaga. Meet the new generations of girls after me. There are Asian models and there never used to be Asian models on the runway. It’s a big market so why shouldn’t there be? Being able to be realistic too because going through the civil war really let me know that I could not have a chip on my shoulder. So for me, I’m like, if it’s not working out with a brand or photographer, understanding that perhaps we are not a match. It’s okay, I would rather have a healthy relationship than become bitter. So, I think we have a long way but it’s beautiful to be able to see finally some color.

What does iconic mean to you? Whether it’s your career or just in general from an existential viewpoint?

For me, career wise your success should be humbling because that doesn’t define who you are. Being iconic means inspiring change. I feel my parents raised us to be thinkers and good human beings the best that they could. I didn’t want to just model for the sake of the vanity, I knew that there was a bigger purpose, being able to shed light on important issues like the refugee crisis. We went back to South Sudan during the civil war and for three days we were barricaded, we had to go to the bush and the whole town was burnt down. It was the UNHCR in their blue vests giving out grains and milk because, there wasn’t anything that was cultivated.

Left: Dress – Vintage Helmut Lang. Slippers – Pierre Hardy. Right: Muslin dress and bolero – JOLIBE. Slippers – Pierre Hardy

And who are your icons?

For me, I literally got to work with such amazing folks. Irving Penn, we had genuine conversations and we were from such completely different backgrounds. Such respect and I got to learn about his work. He is Vogue – those beautiful black and white portraits of classic women. I got to work with him and Issey Miyake because they were friends for one of his ad campaigns and they were really great moments. Herb Ritts, again, he gave me all of these beautiful books that he signed at the time. The Pirelli Calendar was really awesome. I went with him to Paris to the Fondation Cartier (Pour L’art Contemporain) for the exhibition. The picture he took of me was on the cover and was in photo magazines so it has traveled all over. He had such a nice sense of humor. Some people found him difficult to work with as if he was strict but he wasn’t. He was a very thorough person and I’m humbled to have been able to work with him then. Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. I mean, he made me into a bride of Chanel couture. Diane von Fürstenberg for me is another women who celebrates other women in her designs and out. I could go on and on and on.

Being iconic means inspiring change. I feel my parents raised us to be thinkers and good human beings the best that they could. I didn’t want to just model for the sake of the vanity, I knew that there was a bigger purpose, being able to shed light on important issues like the refugee crisis.

When it comes to women, it’s a very female dominated industry and women are able to rise to power. How has it been being able to be your own businesswoman and make decisions for yourself?

I don’t take it for granted or hold it over people’s heads. I’m a team player. I always say to the younger girls all we have is each other. We are colleagues. So, it’s better that we can comfort each other or talk about things. We may not want to hear it but at least you can hash it out. I try, like any relationships you might not always see each other but whenever you do, it’s love. That’s why the Dries Van Noten (F/W 17) show was so magical – he was teary eyed, Amber (Valletta) was there, we’re cracking up and it was wonderful to again to feel celebrated as a woman. It was so nice to show that, oh models they don’t just walk up and down. They actually have an identity.

Right: Bolero – JOLIBE.
On another side, your philanthropic work has allowed for you to highlight the stories of refugees in your native South Sudan. With the current political climate, what do you think is important to understand about the global refugee crisis?

Being a former refugee from South Sudan there was so much bloodshed, I ended up seeking refuge in London. Refugees are just like you and I except for the fact that they have absolutely nothing. When you talk about desperation, this is what it is. They’re not criminals and there shouldn’t be a stigma on it. They’re part of the community. So, I feel really sensitive to the fact that families are not going to be able to be unified. If we are from a place where we built values on core ideals then we need to assess if we’re not going to be able to help other fellow human beings. Not having shelter, food, water, those are the things that the UNHCR provides. That’s why I continue to work with them as a goodwill ambassador and raise funds. The US government only gives, I believe, 20% to the organization so the rest is private donors. We did one fundraiser with Cate Blanchett, who became a goodwill ambassador in London. She did one in New York across the street from the Met. Ethan Hawke, Meryl Streep, Harvey Weinstein, were all there. A violin player from Syria and a pianist and singer from West Africa. She’s working on music projects over there with young people. So, it’s really positive things. Also, I get to collaborate with the H&M Conscious Foundation. They’ve donated like 27 million dollars for clean water, education, and women’s rights. The best way to tackle things of course is to take care of our little ones education and women globally. I did a project just before Christmas where people could buy a gift card and that helped raise up to 9 million.

But when the media debates, should we let refugees in or we shouldn’t? I feel that it’s a very sensitive subject that shouldn’t be idly tossed around. These are families with dignity and I feel that stigma needs to be taken out of it. People need to be educated. I’m constantly having to educate myself too because remember, I don’t live in South Sudan anymore but I want to be able to go back! People can go online to or UNHCR and see all of the policies and how they can contribute to the biggest refugee agency in the world.

Coat – HNDWVN. Dress – JOLIBE. Slippers – Pierre Hardy.

It’s amazing to hear your alignment with the H&M Conscious Foundation and of course the United Nations is something that’s definitely making a difference. I saw you were able to have boots on ground and visit South Sudan again. How was that experience like?

Yes! I went for the one year anniversary of South Sudan’s independence with the UNHCR and this was before this whole conflict just arose again. It’s truly tragic what is happening. I went to a refugee camp back during the rainy season and you could just imagine the dynamic but the resilience for them to be able to sit down and tell me their stories just brought tears to my eyes. It brought memories back. You would think that these would be the people who would be so angry and upset but they had such resilience and it really gave me something that I took away.

Left: Shirt, pants and sneakers – The Row. Right: Dress – JOLIBE. Slippers – Pierre Hardy
I know no one ever likes to think that they’ll stop working, but what is next for you? What have you not done that you want to accomplish? How long do you want to keep modeling in the capacity that you’re doing?

Well I’m definitely not doing all of the show circuits. That’s kaput! *laughs* I will do an appearance, pay my bills and get to see my colleagues but not everything. My personal life is already doing well but it’s definitely a balance. It’s not easy but the more I get older the more comfortable I am in my shoes. I love to be able to go out for an opening of a documentary. I love writing, poetry, I love playing more of my violin. I want to help more with the UNHCR and other companies like H&M Conscious Foundation that want to help the world and my people.

Jumpsuit – The Row. Trenchcoat – WANDA NYLON. Slippers – NEWBARK (Courtesy of Albright Fashion Library)

7 Comments to “Alek Wek”

  1. Matt says:

    Damn, Milex. You’re still trying to plug your shit on here by posting useless comments.

  2. BillyB says:

    Stunning pictures! She’s such an inspiring person, iconic indeed. We can never have enough Alek Wek in our lives!

  3. G says:

    How come not loving this inspiring and iconic Legend?

  4. I love your her passion! It’s make me don’t give up about nothing!!!

  5. Albertha says:

    Wow finally got to see who is Alek wek my adopted mother always says you look like her