Alek

She’s the pi­o­neer­ing su­per­model whose con­fi­dence paved the way for women all over the world, es­pe­cially for one fel­low model. Young pre­tender Poppy Okotcha meets her hero

ELLE (UK) - - Wonder Women - Pho­to­graphs by LIZ COLLINS Styling by ANNE-MARIE CUR­TIS

It’s been 20 years since South Su­danese-Bri­tish su­per­model Alek Wek first ap­peared on the cover of ELLE. Wear­ing a cream jacket and a beam­ing smile, she’d only just been dis­cov­ered when she graced the US edi­tion in 1997. Her story was, and still is, like no other: born in Wau, South Su­dan, Alek was six years old when civil war broke out in 1983. At the age of 14, af­ter flee­ing both the gov­ern­ment and rebel forces, she came to Lon­don with her fam­ily as a refugee. It was here that, while walk­ing through a park with her friend, Alek was scouted by a model agent, and in less than a year she was rul­ing the run­ways, from Chanel and Dior to Kenzo and Calvin Klein, rack­ing up cam­paign af­ter cam­paign, cover af­ter cover. Still, Alek never for­got her jour­ney – she’s writ­ten a book about her story and has worked with the United Na­tions to help refugees. Celebri­ties such as Oprah Win­frey and Lupita Ny­ong’o cite her as an in­spi­ra­tion. To­day, in a north Lon­don stu­dio, decades af­ter it all be­gan, Alek, 40, is grin­ning for the cam­eras and danc­ing around the room to Beyoncé, her pierc­ing eyes and ra­di­ant smile still ev­ery bit as cap­ti­vat­ing.

Wait­ing ex­cit­edly for her is 21-year-old model Poppy Okotcha. Doe-eyed and nat­u­ral-haired, she’s been mak­ing waves in the fash­ion in­dus­try, too, walk­ing for Chloé, Vivi­enne West­wood and Al­berta Fer­retti. Suc­cess isn’t all she shares with our cover star; these two mod­els are forces to be reck­oned with, they’re agents of change, pas­sion­ate about the fu­ture – and, when they meet, the en­ergy is elec­tric.

POPPY OKOTCHA: It’s great to be in­ter­view­ing you. When I was lit­tle, I ripped out a tiny pic­ture of you from a mag­a­zine. You looked like you were painted black and you had amaz­ing things at­tached to you. I love that im­age.

ALEK WEK: Yes! It was black la­tex and they were lit­tle pieces of veg­eta­bles, stuck on my head and all down my back.

PO: I re­mem­ber find­ing it and think­ing, ‘Oh my God, this is such an amaz­ing pic­ture.’

AW: That was when I’d just started mod­el­ling. PO: Re­ally? I had it on my ‘wall of in­spi­ra­tion’. I didn’t know it was you at first, or who it was shot by, un­til I started study­ing art and my teacher told me it was Herb Ritts.

AW: Wow, isn’t that some­thing? I’m hon­oured. That pho­to­graph was for the 1999 Pirelli cal­en­dar. I al­most didn’t do it be­cause I was so shy. My agent said to me, ‘Lis­ten, you don’t have to worry. He’s not go­ing to take ad­van­tage of you.’ When I got there, he was just amaz­ing. He gave me a signed copy of Africa, his in­cred­i­ble book, which is full of beau­ti­ful blackand-white pic­tures. There’s one of a woman in Kenya breast­feed­ing her child and it brought back mem­o­ries of my mum work­ing in the field with my younger brother. I thought, ‘This is an in­cred­i­ble hu­man be­ing – Herb doesn’t just want to pho­to­graph me be­cause I’m dif­fer­ent, he re­ally ap­pre­ci­ates women.’ It was the De­cem­ber im­age, and they called it Fu­ture, 2000. That was a great tone to set be­cause, at the time, there wasn’t much di­ver­sity in fash­ion. That was a real mo­ment for me.

You’ve been a big in­flu­ence on me. You’re a strong, black model and, like you said, that wasn’t al­ways com­mon. I didn’t see enough pic­tures like that one when I was grow­ing up.

Thank you. I was 14 when I came to Lon­don. So much had hap­pened

Feel “em­pow­ered – quirks are what make you unique “ALEK WEK by POPPY OKOTCHA

with the civil war, then sud­denly I was go­ing to school in Hack­ney. The kids weren’t al­ways nice; they made fun of my dark skin, how skinny I was and my big butt! It’s so nice to hear that from you, a young per­son, be­cause I’ve al­ways said I never want young peo­ple to feel like they’re weird. I want them to feel em­pow­ered – your quirks are what make you unique.

PO: I can re­late to that. I grew up a bit in South Africa and came to Eng­land when I was 12. I was liv­ing in a pre­dom­i­nantly white area… AW: …there are a lot of dif­fer­ent chal­lenges.

PO: Yes, try­ing to fit into a new cul­ture can be hard.

AW: Early on in my ca­reer, I en­coun­tered peo­ple who were so mean. They would say things like, ‘You’re never go­ing to last in this busi­ness.’ The same peo­ple come up to me now and say: ‘I ab­so­lutely adore you!’ I think, ‘Wow, you’re a great ac­tor, you be­long on the stage!’ Ul­ti­mately, if you are able to per­se­vere, you can do any­thing.

PO: And you have. Your ca­reer is in­cred­i­ble. What is your high­light? AW: Early on, I was work­ing with peo­ple like Herb [Ritts] and Irv­ing Penn, both leg­endary pho­tog­ra­phers, and I didn’t even know who they were be­cause we didn’t re­ally have fash­ion mag­a­zines in South Su­dan. I’m glad I wasn’t ex­posed to the fash­ion in­dus­try un­til later, be­cause I got to be my­self. I re­cently got some old pic­tures de­vel­oped; me hang­ing out with de­sign­ers such as Yves Saint Lau­rent, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Karl Lager­feld, and it just felt so nat­u­ral. I re­mem­ber pho­tog­ra­pher Steven Meisel shoot­ing me in Ver­sace and say­ing, ‘You know what? Take that wig off. It doesn’t work. Let’s put on mu­sic and you just do you.’ US ELLE was one of the first to put me on a cover at a time when peo­ple would say, ‘Black girls on the cover means the mag­a­zine’s not go­ing to sell’ – the whole thing prac­ti­cally sold out!

PO: What was it like start­ing out in the late Nineties?

AW: It was the su­per­model time, but it was also the punk time and I loved that. Dur­ing the tran­si­tion into the Noughties, when the Brazil­ian girls [Gisele Bünd­chen, Alessan­dra Am­bro­sio] started to come through, you could feel fash­ion slowly branch­ing out. I got to play around and do in­ter­est­ing, ex­pres­sive shoots. While I was at col­lege, I loved walk­ing around in ripped jeans and Dr. Martens – that was my uni­form. I wear what makes me feel com­fort­able on the in­side.

PO: Peo­ple say there are more mod­els now. Back in the Nineties, did it feel more like a fam­ily? When I go to cast­ings, I rarely see the same face twice.

AW: Yes, def­i­nitely. To­day, it’s all about ‘new faces’. You guys have to work so damn hard. Be­fore, we looked for­ward to see­ing the same peo­ple. We grew up to­gether. Now, with so­cial me­dia, things move fast. But the in­dus­try is also com­ing back to those au­then­tic val­ues; peo­ple want pho­tog­ra­phy shoots with sub­stance, and so­cial me­dia also gives you a plat­form to hold de­sign­ers and cast­ing direc­tors ac­count­able if they’re not rep­re­sent­ing a di­verse group of peo­ple. It’s a lot harder to sweep bad be­hav­iour un­der the rug.

PO: It feels like there has been a shift to­wards di­ver­sity in fash­ion. Now, you don’t have to go to an agency and get ap­proved, you can just put [your own pic­tures] out there. I have friends who don’t look like stan­dard mod­els…

AW: …and I bet they have loads of fol­low­ers! To me, beauty is uni­ver­sal. It doesn’t mat­ter what colour some­one is, be­cause we all cry the same, we all bleed the same, we cel­e­brate fam­ily and friend­ships in the same way. If a brand is do­ing some­thing be­cause it’s to­kenis­tic or a gim­mick, it al­ways comes out. If mod­els try to have in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion and climb over others, I say, ‘Well, time tells.’

PO: What have you learned from the past 20 years in the in­dus­try?

AW: I get to learn ev­ery time I do a story; I’m al­ways dis­cov­er­ing what works, and that keeps me ac­tive. I prac­tice yoga to keep me mind­ful, rather than feel like I have to be this way or dress that way to fit in. There’s a feel­ing you have when you’re young and you can’t wait to grow up: I’ve still got that feel­ing. I’ve ma­tured a bit, but I still have that joy of youth.

The in­dus­try is com­ing back to au­then­tic val­ues – peo­ple want pho­tog­ra­phy shoots with sub­stance

Black and cream wool jacket, £1,735, RALPH LAU­REN COL­LEC­TION. Black cot­ton-mix body­suit, £145, WOLFORD at NET-A-PORTER.

Gold-plated ster­ling-sil­ver ear­rings (just seen), £140, SALLY LANE JEW­ELLERY

Denim jacket, £59, TOP­SHOP UNIQUE.

Wool sweater, £2,995, leather belt,

£865, and leather trousers, £6,090, all

CHANEL. Leather shoes, £345, MAX MARA. Crys­tal, black

di­a­mond and pal­la­dium-plated me­tal ear­rings, £249, ATE­LIER SWAROVSKI

by IRIS APFEL

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