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Alek Wek: Alpha Female

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Giant furry pom poms at David Koma, Yasmin Le Bon stalking the Issa catwalk – fashion’s most breathtaking moments are undoubtedly beautiful… but are they really revolutionary? A world where something can feel as current and fresh as today’s headlines one day and be considered irrelevant the next surely points to a vacuous one. But at the heart of the outwardly transient world of fashion is something with a much steelier core. A £20.9 billion industry which fuels the British economy; a platform on which to make profound statements (Vivienne Westwood’s political T-shirts are often more powerful than many of our elected leaders’ speeches) and a tool which is used repeatedly by everyone from world leaders to celebrities to royalty to tribesmen to convey agendas. In short, fashion is power.

So it’s fitting that this season’s biggest trend is designed to make a powerful statement. When bondage-taped bodices, sheer skirts and leather made an appearance at the a/w 2011 shows, fetish was crowned as the season’s breakthrough trend. Designers in every fashion capital looked to dominatrix style: Ralph Lauren in New York, Giles in London and Louis Vuitton in Paris all played with leather and the highly charged conceal-and-reveal trend.

And who better to showcase this trend and present the message of ‘fashion is power’ than Alek Wek, a woman renowned for her fierce modelling style. Since her arrival on the catwalk in 1995 aged 18, her personality and back story have made her one of the greatest characters in supermodel history and she’s been credited for single-handedly changing the traditional concept of what is beautiful in the west. Although Alek herself recalls not understanding the debate that raged around her. “Everyone around me was like, ‘Is she going to make it? She’s so different,’” she tells me later. “I was like, ‘Different, how? I think I’m very normal actually.’” Others will disagree. Photographers love her, with Steven Meisel musing, “I haven't seen anybody that interesting, that black and that beautiful in a long time.”

ABOVE: Dress, £1,145, Hakaan at Harvey Nichols; mask, £128, Paul Seville at Coc de Mer

BELOW: Top, £867, Antonio Beradi; skirt, £2,520, Alexander McQueen; harness, £625, Corlette

Alek’s look can be attributed to the Dinka tribe in southern Sudan from which she heralds – as well as the personal inheritance of her father Athian’s unusually long limbs. She lived in Sudan until she was nine. After the outbreak of the second civil war, Wek and her family fled the country as refugees trekking hundreds of miles to safety, eventually settling in Hackney, east London. It was a journey which, sadly, her father didn’t survive and, as a self-confessed ‘daddy’s girl’, Alek has named her handbag range ‘Wek 1933’ after the year he was born.

Today, having flown in from New York especially for our shoot (she lives in a Brooklyn brownstone), Alek shows none of the starriness you might expect from a talent who has fronted orgcampaigns for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Moschino and Clinique and taken to the catwalk for Calvin Klein, Dior, Gucci, Chanel, Fendi, Vivienne Westwood, Galliano and McQueen. She’s easygoing and genuine, cranking up the volume on Beyoncé’s album, debating which Madonna era was the best, scrolling through photos of her toy terrier Little Bit and revealing her almost obsessive love of Kylie.

She also let us cut off her braids. “Chop them off, I trust you,” she says smiling. It’s this chameleon quality that has enabled Alek – named one of the 50 most influential faces in fashion by i-D magazine – to sit on the advisory board for the US Committee for Refugees, to help launch the Bracelet of Life campaign for Doctors Without Borders and, most recently, speak at the UN Youth Summit. “We need to inspire them [young people],” she says. “If I hadn’t had the community and mentors to give me tools and opportunities, I wouldn’t be sitting here now.” For Alek, fashion really does equate to power.

ABOVE: Skirt, £1,110, Gucci; hat, £875, Moschino; gloves, £610, Corlette; shoes, £449, Emporio Armani

BELOW: Knickers, £30, DKNY; belt, £665, Paul Seville at Coco De Mer; shoes, £765, Christian Louboutin

Did the clothes on this shoot make you feel powerful?

Oh, yeah. Especially the heels. I have a pair of boots from Cerruti – my ex hated the heels – that are so in right now. The look is so great to wear. It’s good to feel powerful.

How do you feel fashion has empowered you?

It’s opened so many doors for me. It’s given me a career. I’m able to pay my bills, help my family, travel the world and I’m very grateful for that. But the most humbling part is the voice it’s given me. I believe we should utilise any power we have for important issues that are bigger and beyond us. Whether it’s with refugees or working to educate kids. I don’t think you need to have gone through a civil war to do something. I believe as human beings we can look out for each other. That’s when I started to work with the US Committee for Refugees and Doctors Without Borders because they put their lives on the line to help save people.

Times were tough when you first started in the fashion industry. How did you keep going?

The fact that designers like Lagerfeld, Gaultier, Galliano and Dior could believe in Alek made me believe in myself too. I had only been out of Sudan six or seven years. I was catching up to a new culture and they totally embraced me. It’s not like I had an easy look. I had to pound the streets of New York with my book. I had two pairs of pants and no money.

ABOVE: Swimsuit, £930, Norma Kamali; cuffs, £200 each, Paul Seville at Coco De Mer; boots, £995, Alexander McQueen

BELOW: Skirt, £690, and harness, £2,430, both Herve Leger; handcuffs, £1,400, Louis Vuitton

Do those memories stop you from being too extravagant now?

For me, you have to have some kind of modesty. The most beautiful things are not associated with money; they are memories and moments. If you don’t celebrate those, they can pass you by. That’s what carried us through as a family; my mum, my sisters, my brothers [Alek is one of nine children] – moments together. It is joy.

Do other models inspire you?

Christy Turlington. She’s beautiful, she’s a mother, a wife, a businesswoman; she’s giving back to society. She’s like my sister away from home and I think that’s how women should be. We should embrace each other, we should inspire each other and we should empower each other.

refugees.org; doctorswithoutborders.org

Photography: Jonty Davies, Fashion Director: Alexandra Fullerton, Words: Debbie McQuoid

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