The very short version of Alek Wek’s incredible story: As a young girl Wek fled South Sudan with her family to escape a violent Civil War and settled in London, where she was discovered as a model and quickly rose to fame. Wek’s journey, from growing up in a family of nine to being a refugee and a teenage supermodel, is a fascinating and inspiring one (in fact, she wrote a book about it a few years back). Today, the 36-year-old model continues to impress us with her commitment to humanitarian work and helping the Sudanese people gain access to better education, healthcare and nutrition. Wek works with Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF and World Vision and is also an UNHCR Good Will Ambassador. For her iconic status in the fashion industry and her incredible commitment to making the world a better place, we are so proud to have her as our latest Woman of Style.
Family & Career
On Growing Up In A Large Family
Photo: @TheRealAlekWek on Twitter
"There is never a dull moment! Being one of nine children means you have to express yourself and be yourself."
Early Life In London
Alek as a teenager in London. Photo: Facebook.com/AlekWeksJourney
"I had various jobs in order to put myself through college and buy art supplies. I worked at a supermarket, a printing company, as a cleaner at BBC radio and a bus girl at a hair salon. I was first discovered as a model on a Sunday afternoon in Crystal Palace park in London - I was at Burger King."
Her First Modeling Jobs
Alek and Edward Enninful in 1997. Photo: @edwardenninful on Twitter, by Ellen Von Unwerth.
"I shot a commercial with the stylist Edward Enninful, then i-D magazine, then I went to New York to shoot Italian Vogue with Steven Meisel. In the beginning I also shot for Nars, Pirelli with Herb Ritts and Revlon. It all just happened so quickly, it was surreal."
Favorite Memories From Modeling
Alek with Trish Goff at the Seventh on Sixth Todd Oldham Fashion Show in 1997. Photo: Getty Images
"Being able to work with amazing photographers, whom I've come to really love and respect beyond their work. Herb Ritts, Irving Penn and Annie Leibovitz have all have been so instrumental in my career. Being the first woman of color on the cover of Elle, being the 'bride' at Chanel and writing my memoir in 2007 were all incredibly important moments for me as well."
I am so blessed to have a voice in the fashion community. With this platform so much good can be done. One thing close to my heart is to raise awareness about the conflict in Sudan through my work as an UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
Her Role Models
Alek returning to her hometown in South Sudan. Photo: @TheRealAlekWek on Twitter.
"My role models are my mother and dad, they gave birth to me and my eight siblings and raised us through two Civil Wars which is how I ended up in London. We were seeking refuge during second Civil War in the South Sudan."
"My parents taught us to value education, be comfortable in our own shoes, treat others how you would like to be treated, agree to disagree, stand up for yourself and others and that beauty goes beyond the external."
The Best Career Advice She's Ever Received
Alek with her friend, Zac Posen. Photo: @TheRealAlekWek on Twitter.
"Success is happiness, happiness is success! Life isn't about material things, it's about family and friends."
Favorite Runway Shows Of All Time
Alek in a Givenchy show in 1997. Photo: @TheRealAlekWek on Twitter.
"It would be difficult to pinpoint, I have been fortunate enough to walk in many shows over the course of my career! All of the YSL shows, Gucci while Tom Ford was there, the time I opened Ralph Lauren, and Dior in the 90s and 00s were some personal favorites."
On Being The First Black Model To Appear On The Cover Of Elle
Alek on the cover of Elle in 1997. Photo via eBay.
"I was shooting many stories for Elle before gracing the cover so it felt natural when the time came. I remember being thankful to my agents for believing in me and pushing them to have someone different on the cover. It was such a statement for the time."
When I first started, some people in fashion thought I would never get jobs, let alone go a long way. I always say no matter what field you work in you must be comfortable in your own shoes. Let YOU be the only thing that defines you.
On Modeling Today
Alek in United Colors of Benetton's spring 2013 campaign. Photo via HuffPo.
"I have been so fortunate to be able to work in such an amazing industry for more than a decade. Now, I model in moderation. I choose jobs based on what fits me and focus on quality over quantity. I enjoy having time to do humanitarian work and collaborate with people on creative projects."
On Her Humanitarian Work
"Through my work with humanitarian organizations like World Vision, Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF I am focused on helping people gain access to better education, nutrition, health care and water in places where they need it most, particularly South Sudan. People get sick and have no access to clean drinking water and this just shouldn’t be."
My Dad was on the Board of Education when I was growing up and he fostered a sense of curiosity and enthusiasm for learning in all of us. He also encouraged us to embrace art and express ourselves at a young age. I attribute much of my success to this and try to offer the same opportunities to others.
Fashion & Beauty
Her Personal Style
"The traveling I got to do as a model opened my eyes to different cultures, including their different styles. I love to mix and match pieces; from a bold top and a pair of jeans to a fun vintage dress and great pair of heels, my style is eclectic and fun. I believe style is all about being comfortable."
On Going Glam
Alek at the Pirelli Calendar 50th Anniversary party in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
"If I fancy being a little glam, I go for Vivienne Westwood, Blumarine, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana or something vintage that fits and feels lovely. I also love to wear young African designers like Delo Sago, who has such cool colors and modern shapes."
Her Favorite Beauty Products
CoverGirl Lashblast Mascara, $8
"I love Johnson & Johnson baby oil gel (any scent), CoverGirl mascara and shimmer bronzer and Lancôme Juicy Tubes in dark cherry or clear. I like to keep it simple when it comes to makeup."
How She Spends Her Free Time
Alek with her friend, Jason Wu. Photo: @TheRealAlekWek on Twitter
"When I'm not working or donating my time, I love swimming (I just started learning), yoga, watching documentaries, spending time with my mates, hiking with my toy fox terrier, painting, gardening, cooking South Sudanese food, playing my piano and karaoke!"
On Finding Balance
"I can be really shy when it comes to dating. I cook a lot, play piano, and I love to read! I love learning and expanding my mind. I like to paint too, it’s a really soothing hobby. I am fluent in Dinka, English, Arabic, Spanish and a little French and Italian."