divinely dark

FASHION An extraordinary look, an extraordinary past: Alek Wek, rising star of the catwalk, talks to Angela Buttolph
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The Independent Culture
Alek Wek could hardly be in greater contrast to the pale, flaxen- haired waifs fashion is currently crazy about. Her complexion is a deep, deep bluey-black; her round, child-like head is covered in the lightest dusting of tiny Afro curls; her nose is as broad as it is long, resting between enormous sculpted cheekbones. In profile her pillow-plump lips jut out beyond her nose, and her backside is prominent, proud. Almost 6ft tall, and thin, with long, long legs and arms, she is like a traditional African statuette of polished ebony. "She's gorgeous and we use her as often as we can," says Deanne Liew, PR manager for the London designer Ally Capellino. "She's very striking in an abstract way. No one has a look like hers."

"Alek Wek has a story to tell," says her US agent, Mora Rowe, "and she wears it on her face." Until just five years ago, as a member of the ancient Dinka tribe, Wek was living with her family in a mud hut, deep in the jungle in southern Sudan, a refugee from the civil war. Fast forward to 1996 and she's gliding down a catwalk in gigantic green Perspex wrap-around shades, in the pages of a hip London magazine wearing a Gaultier op-art bikini, or dressed to kill in high heels and lip gloss in Tina Turner's Goldeneye video. At 19 she is every bit the funky fashion student and part-time model: cool, urban, groovy.

Wek is a fast learner, adapting to her environment. (The biggest surprise is her north London accent, acquired with the language from scratch in the five years since she arrived as a refugee, not knowing a word of English.) "When I first came here it was such a shock. I'd never seen so many white people," she recalls. London was obviously just as surprised to see Wek: "Every day people would stare and stare and ask 'Where are you from?' People are just curious but I didn't enjoy it." In New York, says Mora Rowe, "Everyone is intrigued by her, they come up and touch her in the street. I think she finds it a little overwhelming. But people mean well; they tell her she's the most beautiful thing they've ever seen."

In the town where Wek was brought up the sound of gunfire was an everyday occurrence. "My earliest memory is hearing bullets bouncing off the zinc roof-tops." The violence escalated as war progressed and poverty increased. "One night some people tried to break in and kill us. We were all sleeping in the same room, and we heard men outside shouting at us to get out. We all ducked under the bed and the men started firing. My mum got up to lock the door, but the click from the latch was really loud. The men outside thought it was a gun so they ran off."

The family fled to the mud-hut village in the jungle; she was eight. "It was sooo niiicce," she breathes, in wistful tones more appropriate for some decadent luxury. "Why?" I ask, unable to disguise my surprise at her reaction. "It was just so ... " she struggles to find the words to explain to a soulless European. "When you're lying there, you can smell the rain when it's raining outside," she says dreamily. "I loved that."

In 1991, soon after the death of her adored father, the family fled Sudan. Five of the eight children came with their mother to England. The three older brothers were not granted entry; two went to Egypt and one to Australia. Wek and her family originally settled in Hackney, east London, but moved north-west to Finsbury Park; there are other Dinkas in the area. "I couldn't stand Hackney," she recalls,"there's too many of the Innit people there." "Are they another tribe from Sudan?" I ask, fascinated. Peals of laughter: "No! They're like this [she does a Hackney accent]: 'It's out of order, innit?' 'That's all right, innit?'"

She is studying design at the London College of Fashion; the elaborate clothing of the Dinka tribe is her inspiration. "In the jungle you make leather and tie it around yourself. You don't wear anything on top because you wear loads and loads of beads, you can't even see anything underneath. Dinkas don't feel like you have to wear something on top, to cover this or cover that. Even in town, if you wore trousers or a dress, other Dinkas would stare at you."

It was while modelling in a college fashion show that she was spotted by Models 1. "I thought it was all a silly little joke," she admits. But the agency was so confident of her appeal that she was sent to castings before she had any photos to show. Within a week she was booked to appear in Tina Turner's Goldeneye video (Wek was unimpressed by the Bond connection, never having been to the cinema). She now models at designer shows in London, and top photographers are starting to take notice (her latest admirer is Richard Avedon).

Big money has brought big responsibilities. "I pay the bills and save up. We send money to my brothers in Egypt for their rent, for what they eat. If I get some money I will get my brothers to England." It must be very hard to have your family separated. Wek's voice drops. "Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes ... " she murmurs.

Wek was too young to appreciate fully what was happening when her family fled Sudan. "You know when you say 'Goodbye' ... " she ponders aloud. "Well, now I know what it means, but then it felt like I would be coming back. 'See you later': that's really what I meant. I thought I would be coming home again." The homesickness has set in. "Sometimes I think of it; it's like a dream."

Underneath the Guccis and the Gaultiers there is still a Dinka tribeswoman. "Things around you are different, but you feel the same," she says brightly, cheered by the thought. "We have our little jokes in Dinka, and when I talk my own language I don't feel like I've changed at all." !