divinely dark

FASHION An extraordinary look, an extraordinary past: Alek Wek, rising star of the catwalk, talks to Angela Buttolph

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." !

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada