BY MAGGIE KIM
PHOTOGRAPHY BY COLUMBINE GOLDSMITH
STYLING BY EMILY MAZUR
Alek Wek is celebrating. In Los Angeles for Labor Day weekend for a “top secret project” and to talk about her signature capsule collection with Weekend Max Mara—A.W.orld by Alek Wek—the South Sudan-born, New York-based supermodel brims with the unexpected joy of having a luxurious few days all to herself.
“Before this trip, I said I’m going to take care of myself, go to LA for the weekend,” Wek trills over the phone to me from her West Hollywood hotel. Her British-meets-Brooklyn accent is posh and party in equal measure, lifting into laughter more often than not throughout our conversation. “Usually, I’m here for a day for a job and I’m out. Tonight, I’m wearing the belt I designed from the collection and I’m meeting my friends.”
She takes a breath and jokes, “Maybe I’m not supposed to wear it out yet? I hope they don’t sue me!”
Of course they won’t. In fact, I later spy her jubilant sortie in her Instagram stories, said belt tied around a bright yellow floral dress, her smile wide and winsome. (Best #ad ever.)
Wek’s joie de vivre is palpable, an exuberance that’s permeated her revolutionary career that spans a remarkable quarter of a century. She was the first Black bride for Chanel haute couture, and that irresistible smile has illuminated countless magazine covers when Black models, especially ones with skin as dark as hers, weren’t considered sellable. Yet for all of Wek’s unassailable beauty and vivacity—bare necessities for success in her industry—the icon has an unexpected confession: “People don’t understand that I’m quite shy. Don’t touch me. Don’t stand next to me.”
“I’m an artist at heart before I was a supermodel,” she notes.
That artistry was first explored at the London College of Fashion, where Wek was studying fashion business and technology before she was scouted. Her first model booking was for Tina Turner’s 1995 GoldenEye music video, her arresting features in nascent form, still a teenager with apple cheeks and colt-like legs that would soon grace every important designer runway for the next two decades: Ralph Lauren, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen. While Wek aptly chose modeling over art (“I had a teacher who told me I could do whatever I want. To have people like this in your life!”), painting became her hobby as her career took off. The art she created has now been used as prints for A.W.orld.
“My new motto is: Art is a language for everything,” Wek tells me. “This collection with Weekend Max Mara is so personal on so many levels. The prints are the actual lifeline from the palm of my hand. The earth colors were inspired from a movie I did in Morocco [The Four Feathers with Heath Ledger].”
Striped knits from the collection mirror the South Sudanese flag: red for the bloodshed of the civil war, black for the people, green for the land, yellow for the sun, blue for the Nile, and white for peace. “I don’t even have to explain,” Wek says almost defiantly. “This is my story. And I’m glad it’s happening at this time.”
“This time” could mean post-lockdown or it could mean 2021’s intersection of dissension, representation, and affirmation. Then again, Wek was fracturing the diversity frontlines long before it became an inexorable movement and moment.
It seems absurd to talk about representation with a woman whose very existence—and appearance on Elle magazine’s 1997 cover as its first African model—instantly changed perceptions of beauty, self-love, and self-acceptance for everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Lupita Nyong’o. Wek has lived the shift over the past 25 years: from being just a face and a body—an outlier one, at that—to being recognized for the entirety of who she is.
“I was at a job once and I overheard the editors and other models saying about me, ‘Oh she’s just rice and peas,’” she recounts with a mixture of humor and irritation. Microagressions spare no one, not even supermodels, but the nonchalant racism remains stunningly cruel. “Fashion celebrated the way I looked and not how I felt, so I always felt like something was missing. Hollywood was the same way. There are really mean people out there. But with this collection, people I never thought would celebrate me are celebrating me and how I feel. It’s not just rice and peas!”
(Later, Wek and I discuss how much we love rice and peas and our mutual addiction to New York Times Cooking: “It’s absolutely brilliant!”)
More than anything, the A.W.orld collection represents coming full circle—a coming home, even—for Wek. She worked on the designs over Zoom during the lockdown in New York while reflecting on what it means to be human, the universal experience that connects us all. “Humanity is so essential. It’s good to be human. It’s good to be present,” she says. “We need to celebrate that and if you couldn’t learn that from the pandemic, then you missed the point. You’re just fighting a war you can’t win.”
For Wek—who fled the Sudanese civil war for London when she was 14 years old after watching her beloved father die from an infected hip injury on their journey—sharing experiences and holding space for one another in grief, tragedy, and happiness is what moves her now. She’s certainly had her fair share of all three.
“I’ve never shared this before, but when my brother committed suicide in 2008, it completely changed the way I thought about things,” she reveals, describing for the first time the death of one of her eight siblings. “No one should have to feel isolated that way. We need to help and embrace each other. We can make each other stronger.”
Wek arcs toward joy, even in the aftermath of unimaginable loss. “I was daddy’s little girl and because of that, I never have to look at another man because I was so loved by my father,” she admits. “He is my angel.” Somehow, this reveals more about Wek than anything else. The solidity and safety of a father’s encompassing love…how it must have primed her for a heroine’s journey.
Wek’s father instilled confidence and a strong work ethic in his daughter. “He told me, ‘When you go in there, just do your job. Don’t let them come after your eggs because then they’ll come after your chickens,’” laughs Wek.
She is adamant about personal accountability, especially in the midst of COVID-19: “This is the time where you have to do the work: Wash your hands, wear your mask. Take responsibility for your place in the world.”
As a refugee who grew up without running water and who reached the rarified stratosphere of supermodels, Wek takes her place in the world seriously. She serves as a Good Will Ambassador to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, but says she prefers to play a role in the arts rather than politics, which lends another layer of meaning to her clothing collection. “I went back to Sudan two times after the peace agreement and now we’re independent,” Wek explains. “I want every young person to know it’s all possible. My little nieces I used to babysit and who are now taller than me, this collection is for them. We can all share it and we can all wear it. The people deserve it.”
That generosity and compassion extend to a young homeless woman Wek crossed paths with on this trip that has brought her to LA. “The night before, I saw her sprawled out on the sidewalk. Los Angeles is not like New York. Seeing the homeless here is humbling,” she tells me. “Today I saw her walking by and I was so happy to see her in a different state that I had to speak to her. She was a beautiful girl in her early 20s from Haiti, just gorgeous. It’s the morning and I’m having my chai latte and taking my iron pills, the hotel security is telling me I’m fabulous, but I know that I could be that person on the street. To me, that’s where humanity comes in.”
Wek’s personal history means she has a profound understanding of the razored line that separates the favored from the forlorn. “In New York, it’s crazy,” she says. “Nobody appreciates how fortunate we are. It’s just about competition and I can’t take it. I just want to nest and cook!”
Nesting has to wait as New York Fashion Week looms and A.W.orld by Alek Wek gets dropped into the public consciousness. The supermodel-turned-designer has been showing her latest clothing sketches to Sharon Stone while still trying to impress her mother. “For her, I’m not really that successful. She’s had nine children so her life is very different,” says a bemused Wek. “My mother’s the one who taught me to knit and she always reminds me that I can’t speak Dinka [the language of Wek’s ethnic group]. But I’m in a good place. I’m so humbled and touched by all of this. I’m not the smartest cookie, but there’s still excitement about my work.”
This weekend, though, is all about relishing her time in Los Angeles, and she’s grateful when I tell her she deserves to let loose and enjoy herself. “Thank you,” she says with sincere grace. “I want to embrace people, embrace humanity, embrace art. I want to embrace you! This is cloud nine for me.”