As the years go on, although there may be a long way to go yet, diversity is being encouraged, and individuality celebrated, more and more in the fashion industry through its choice of models. But few have landed on the runways, aged just 18, and turned the fashion world’s perception of beauty on its head in the way Alek Wek did, when she hit the catwalk back in 1995. At almost six foot tall, with her long limbs, cropped hair and the flawless ebony skin, high cheekbones and piercing eyes characteristic to the Sudanese Dinka people from whom she came, Wek was a bold breath of fresh air. The first model of colour not to fit into the Caucasian aesthetic that dominated the catwalks, standing out proudly amongst a sea of bouncy-haired, fair-skinned supermodels, and impossible to ignore.
Hailing from the South of Sudan, where she grew up in a two bedroom home alongside her eight brothers and sisters, without running water or electricity, her beginnings could not be further from the life she now lives in Brooklyn New York. She was forced to flee civil war with her family at age 14, coming to the UK as a refugee, and settling into a new life in Hackney, East London. Not long after, Alek was spotted by a model scout, going on to sign with Ford Models where, as a relatively new face, Ralph Lauren cast her to open and close his runway show and the rest is history. She has since been the face of Moschino, Chanel, Donna Karan, Alexander McQueen, Dior, Givenchy to name but a few, as well as slaying in her stint as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, and becoming the first African model to appear on the cover of Elle magazine.
Her success has been celebrated by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, who spoke of wishing she had grown up in a world with models like Alek Wek on the cover of magazines. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o famously thanked Wek for allowing her to see a reflection of herself in fashion magazines as a young girl, and helping her to “have a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far-away gatekeepers of beauty.”
Wek herself has quoted her mother as being the driving force behind the confidence and inner beauty that shines through with that killer mega-watt smile. She talks of how women are celebrated in Sudanese culture, how she was raised to believe whole-heartedly that she was beautiful both inside and out and never considered her look unusual or novel as many labelled her after her modelling debut. “I never thought I was ugly,” she said, “it never even crossed my mind.” Besides throwing the Western ideal of beauty wide open and paving the way for other African models such as Grace Bol, Ajuma Nasenyana and her niece Ajak Deng, Wek also proves her superwoman credentials as a humanitarian. She now advises the US Committee for Refugees Advisory Council, travels as a missionary for World Vision working to combats AIDS, as well as devoting time to UNICEF. True to her own idea of beauty, on which she says, “Real beauty is born through our actions and aspirations and the kindness we offer to others. Beauty should not be culturally relevant… It should be universal.”
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