A STAR IS BORN
Fantasy and reality collide as newly crowned model supernova Adut Akech returns home to Adelaide to take a turn in couture: bold, spirited and surrounded by her grounding force, family.
STAR IS BORN
AA paradox of youthful élan and uncommon strength, Adut Akech is the newly crowned model supernova, claiming the spring/summer ’19 season walking in 33 shows from New York to Paris. Fantasy and reality collide as she returns home to Adelaide to take a turn in couture: bold, spirited and surrounded by her forever grounding force, family. By Alice Birrell. Styled by Jillian Davison. Photographed by Charles Dennington.
Astorm system is quietly wending its way across the Adelaide Hills on a spring day as Adut Akech Bior steps out of a car. Tendrils of charged cloud float menacingly downward as the 18-year-old hikes up a couture gown heaped in cake-like tiers. She catches it by a hair from trailing on the ground as the first plump raindrops fall over Saint Columba College. The name the industry is repeating worldwide is back home and back at school – a cluster of butter-coloured weatherboard buildings flanked by rosebushes and gums an hour’s drive from the Adelaide CBD – although this time she’s hurrying to save an Alexis Mabille dress from the weather.
“There’s De Jager,” she says from under the safety of an umbrella, recognising the head of the senior school greeting us warmly. “He’s excited,” she says with droll fondness. “I used to get homesick about my room, my car and school. Who would have thought?” At a clip behind her to get undercover is Brianna Lang, her best friend, who she met in year 10, also here to be in Vogue’s shoot. Adut returns to her family as often as her schedule will allow. This time she’s back for a few weeks before flying straight to her base in New York for the start of the spring/ summer shows. It will be her biggest season yet and cement her in the minds of fashion’s leaders as undoubtedly one of the faces of the year, giving way to rumblings about a once-in-a-lifetime type of model, but she’s not to know that yet.
Right now there is a feeling of homecoming and reunion, making it easy to forget she was studying here less than a year ago. For Adut a year might feel like a long time. After two seasons booked as a Saint Laurent exclusive, beginning in September of 2016, she has had two blue-chip fashion months, the kind agents dream of. In July, hand-picked by Karl Lagerfeld, she became only the second black model ever to walk as Chanel’s bride, an overdue moment, preceding her induction to The Business of Fashion’s 500 – a list of the most influential names in fashion. It was all bookended at one end by a turn in Tim Walker’s momentous 2018 Pirelli calendar, the first with an all-black cast, and on the other by the September shows, with 33 exits, opening one and closing three, including Valentino, where she is a favourite.
Shuttered inside her former science classroom, the wind is whistling outside. A textbook school lab, it is filled with beakers, Bunsen burners and anti-bullying posters: ‘Change starts with you!’ Her old teachers come to say hello while she waits for the shot to be set up, one giving her a hug. “Do you remember me wearing these?” she asks Louis de Jager, holding up a pair of school shoes with evidently the wrong coloured sole. He mock scoffs. “He told me I couldn’t wear them but he gave up.”
“We were rebels,” says Lang. “But we were good,” says Adut. “We were the best humans in the school. We used to hang out together in that room at lunch,” she says, gesturing to an ante-room off to the side that looks perfect for conferring secrets. Adut has an obvious energy that you can imagine would make her fast friends with anyone: warmth that is magnetic and a joyful vitality that doesn’t feel concerted. With a smile that reveals a gap in her teeth, the kind of cherubic lips designers draw in exaggerated fashion sketches and legs with a length hard to untangle in your mind, she is both innocence and grace. In her gown for the shot she slouches into her heels, toggling into a louche
youthfulness with alarming speed. It’s why she inhabits the clothes, be it streetwear and chunky sneakers or conceptual high couture, in a way that fits seamlessly with her personality. The combination is transfixing.
Although she has met allies all over the world, Adut maintains a small group of friends. “My circle is so tiny. I pick my friends very wisely, and very carefully,” she says. “I get along with everyone and anyone, but there’s a difference between just getting along and actually being friends.” She counts models Kaia Gerber and Fran Summers as actual friends. “Adut is amazing. She has this presence about her that goes beyond her undeniably beautiful looks,” Gerber writes over email. “People appreciate working with someone as kind as her, who creates a positive atmosphere.” Summers feels the same: “Adut is my best friend in this industry as we started doing shows at pretty much the same time. We tell each other everything. She can make anyone feel special.” As they’re in the running to book the same jobs, it would be understandable if competition reared its head between friends. Adut doesn’t go in for this. “I get so happy when I see my really good friends going so well; they’re opening shows, they’re closing shows,” she says. During fashion month she gets texts every morning from them checking on her, saying: “How are you feeling today?” or: “I hope you have a good day.”
It’s a world away from the fierce model moguls of the 80s, or the anonymous seen-not-heard girls of the early aughts. It also tips past the social-media model and into a new generation of model-muse: the girl with heart, who makes it cool to be nice. “I don’t think I’m more beautiful than anyone or anything, but I feel like my personality is the reason why people actually do fall in love with me,” she hazards without conceit. “If you are just a nasty, horrible person, but you’re the most beautiful person, nobody’s going to want to work with you. I just feel like it’s hard not to be nice to someone, you know?”
To that end Adut says when she sees a new face backstage she asks if they’re okay. “I know exactly how they feel. I tell them it’s normal to be nervous, it’s normal to be this or that. I feel like a mum when I’m giving advice,” she says, laughing. When Adut walked for Saint Laurent in 2016, her major runway debut, she was 16, had represented her home town as the face of the Adelaide Fashion Festival, been signed to Chadwick in Melbourne and Sydney for less than a year and had travelled alone to Paris after doing a casting from afar. “It’s rare that we book a model having never met them in person, but in Adut’s case we decided to confirm her after viewing only her casting video,” say Piergiorgio Del Moro and Samuel Ellis Scheinman, casting directors for the Saint Laurent show. “She was demure, but she was not shy, and the way she interacted with the camera foreshadowed her incredible presence and energy on the runway.”
When a model is talked about in the terms that Adut currently is, as a revolutionary force, a modern-day Alek Wek, it is a signal. Hitting on what designers want to articulate and who women want to be, a model can define an era, or, at least, define a year. This season there was unprecedented diversity on the runway, but deeper than that, an edifying sense that this new cohort of models, accepting of everyone, aren’t just there to check a box.
“When I first started there were a select few black models who were doing good, and nobody else was noticed, but now every season there’s somebody coming in, there are black girls, and Asian girls – different girls,” says Adut, who in just three years has noticed a change and
“I don’t think I’m more beautiful than anyone, but I feel like my personality is the reason why people actually do fall in love with me”