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.
Women of Style: Alek Wek
Family & Career
On Growing Up In A Large Family
"There is never a dull moment! Being one of nine children means you have to express yourself and be yourself."
Early Life In London
"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
"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
"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."
Her Role Models
"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
"Success is happiness, happiness is success! Life isn't about material things, it's about family and friends."
Favorite Runway Shows Of All Time
"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
"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."
On Modeling Today
"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."
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
"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
"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
"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."