Alek Wek is spinning around the courtyard of a hotel in Brooklyn, her printed dress blurring into abstraction, with a smile as wide as her ears. The supermodel, now 44 years old, still exudes the same optimism, magnetic energy and slim physique that saw her rise to the top of the fashion world 25 years ago. “Now, in my 40s, I feel so beautiful as a woman,” says Wek, her accent a smooth culmination of the different countries that she’s lived in. “I would tell any young girl, ‘Don’t be afraid of how you feel. The world will try and mould you into something else but you have to be who you are.’”
Wek was born in Wau, a city in what is now known as South Sudan, in 1977. During the country’s civil war, she escaped to London as a refugee aged 14, and spent her teenage years in Hackney with her mother and sisters. For the past two decades she’s been based in New York, a place she always felt she belonged; a brownstone in Fort Greene is home. “In London, I love that you’re never very far from a park, and that’s the same in Fort Greene,”Wek. “I like to wake up early, if I haven’t worked late the night before, and go for a stroll or visit the farmers’ market.”
When she’s not on the runway or shooting fashion campaigns, Wek likes to paint – a hobby she picked up early on in her career. “I’ve always really enjoyed my art, and I’ve always wanted to have a platform where I can share that because it’s personal,” says Wek of the travels, colours and scenery that fire her imagination. “It’s my journey, and it’s part of who I am.”
Bottega Veneta wool coat, £2,230, nappa leather belt, £1,890, leather boots, £1,280, and gold-plated sterling silver and enamel earrings, £525. Weekend Max Mara: A.W.ORLD by Alek Wek viscose skirt, £350. CDLM rayon neck piece (worn as brooch), £320 © Andre D Wagner
Weekend Max Mara: A.W.ORLD by Alek Wek quilted jacket, £405. Khaite crepe satin Katia dress, £1,890. Balenciaga leather shopper bag, £1,490. Bottega Veneta gold hoop earrings, £265. Jil Sander by Lucie and Luke Meier gold Globe necklace, £1,290 © Andre D Wagner
JW Anderson wool dress and twill split-hem trousers, both POA. Loewe leather wedge loafer boots, £925. CDLM rayon neck piece, £320 © Andre D Wagner
Through a new partnership with Weekend Max Mara, she has co-designed an exclusive capsule collection with their in-house team. One of her artworks – a colourful mass of brush-strokes that mimic the curve of her lifeline – is printed on a ruffled knee-length dress; graphics from another black-and-white painting are transposed onto a tassel blouse.
I would tell any young girl: ‘The world will try and mould you into something else but you have to be who you are’”
Despite once having created a line of handbags (called Wek 1933, now discontinued), Wek hasn’t designed clothes before. Although she had begun a diploma at London College of Fashion before being scouted at age 18, she was unable complete the course due to her uncontrollable success. Her early career saw her starring in the music video for Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye”, in which she lounges on a chair in a leopard-print bikini and knee-high boots, as well as starring in Janet Jackson’s music video for “Got ’Til It’s Gone”. She was 5ft 11in tall and was quickly ushered into the room. fashionModeling, editing editorials with Steven Meisel of Vogue Italia and Arthur Elgort of American Vogue. She walked for Ralph Lauren in 1996 and Donna Karan in 1996.
In the ’90s, the fashion industry was almost exclusively white – which made Wek a trailblazer. She was the first African model to star on the cover of US Elle, in November 1997, at a time when the industry was arguing that black models didn’t sell magazines. This move attracted significant attention and earned Wek an Oprah interview. The talk-show host, Wek, was a big fan.showNotification from the host “When I was growing up, if you had been on the cover, I would have had a whole different concept of who I was.” In 2004, Wek became the first black model to play the prestigious role of Chanel bride (the closing look of the maison’s couture shows). It wasn’t until 2018 that South Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech became the second.
Weekend Max Mara: A.W.ORLD by Alek Wek double-wool jacket, £615. Gabriela Hearst silk dress, $2,990. Bottega Veneta leather boots, £1,280 © Andre D Wagner
Alexander McQueen wool and polyfaille hybrid jacket, £1,790, polyfaille skirt, £990, and leather boots, £890. Repossi black- and pink-gold, diamond and lacquer ring, £3,780, and pink-gold and lacquer ring, £1,980 © Andre D Wagner
Weekend Max Mara: A.W.ORLD by Alek Wek viscose top, £230, viscose skirt, £350, and silk twill headscarf, £115. Bottega Veneta gold and silver rings, £685 each. Alighieri gold-plated silver The Moon Shine ring, £395, The Trembling Bough ring, £225, The Better Craftsman ring, £395, and The Beginning of the Plait ring, £250 © Andre D Wagner
Despite her early success, Wek is very vocal about how she was pigeonholed in the industry. She recalls being asked to pose with animal skins and a spear at jobs. In 1998, while walking the runway for Betsey Johnson, she pulled off the blonde wig she had been styled in and threw it into the audience: a protest at being made to cover up her hair. It is still worn in its natural state and with a close cut, a gesture of defiance that has gained more resonance today. “Alek Wek has transformed fashion and womanhood eternally through the perception of her beauty,”Bibi Abdulkadir, who admires her fellow model, says: “She has schooled the world on the ultimate power that lies in simply being yourself.”
Wek insisted that Weekend Max Mara’s collection reflect her entire, multifaceted identity. “She wanted the designs to be inspired by her life and her lifestyle – things she would actually wear,” says Giorgio Guidotti, Max Mara’s global president of PR and communications. The collection reads as an autobiography in clothing: a hooded jacket, inspired by one she wore as a teenager, nods to her time in the UK, as does a beige trench coat. A pair of boots, meanwhile – a kind of motorcycle-hybrid – is in the same style that she wears to walk around Brooklyn. The silk scarf was inspired by the landscape of Morocco, where she filmed The Four Feathers in 2002 with Heath Ledger.
The most striking thing about the striped knitwear is the zip-up top and pleated bottom. The colours match the South Sudanese flag. They carry specific symbolism. Black represents the people, blue is for agriculture, green for unity and the hope, red is for the bloodshed during civil warfare, and white is for the peace that has been achieved after years and years of struggle. “The colours mean a lot to me because I never foresaw that South Sudan was going to be independent while I was still alive,”Wek. “I thought I would never see that, because it’s been a very long civil war, and it has displaced people. But we always had hope. And, for me, that’s what those colours are.”
Weekend Max Mara: A.W.ORLD by Alek Wek cotton gabardine poncho jacket, £560, and polyester bag, £350. Proenza Schouler technical wool trousers, POA. Bottega Veneta leather boots, £1,280, and gold hoop earrings, £265 © Andre D Wagner
Louis Vuitton wool jumper, £2,900, and leather skirt, £3,900. Jil Sander by Lucie and Luke Meier gold Globe necklace, £1,290. Model Alek Wek, Storm London. Hair, Hos Hounkpatin at The Wall Group. Christine Cherbonnier at The Wall Group. Makeup. Photographer’s assistants, Doug Segars and Bryan Anton. Stylist’s assistants, Paget Millard and Shant Alvandyan. Production, De La Revolución © Andre D Wagner
More than just reflecting Wek’s own life, the Weekend Max Mara collaboration is part of a growing, broader acknowledgement and celebration of African creatives and aesthetics within the global fashion industry. “Designers of African heritage have been impacting global fashions for decades, for example Chris Seydou in the mid-20th century and Virgil Abloh today,” says Dr Christine Checinska, curator of African and African Diaspora Fashion at the V&A. “What we are witnessing now is a galvanisation of creativity and an increasing focus on their representation in the media.”
“Photographing Alek in Brooklyn was a joyful and powerful experience,”This cover story was shot by Andre D Wagner, a documentary-style photographer. “She showed up on set with her personal paintings and scarves from Africa and her various travels. She has so much energy – she brings the clothes alive.”
Indeed, Wek’s turn as fashion designer shows how the model is still helping to shape and redefine the industry, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. “I’ve always wanted to show my heritage, and this was such a beautiful way to do it,”Wek. “I’m really happy that I can translate that through fashion. Even though these aren’t prints from Africa, I am African, and that’s in my heart. It’s amazing how art and fashion can really speak in that way.”