Elle magazine took a risk by featuring dark-skinned, Sudanese model, Alek Wek, on the cover of its November 1997 issue. However, the result was a wave of reader responses and letters-to-the-editor from both women and men who were ecstatic to see different standards of beauty represented in the fashion industry. Oprah later commented to Alek on her show, “If you’d been on the cover of a magazine when I was growing up, I would have had a different concept of who I was.”
Alek was born in Southern Sudan and raised in the Dinka tribe. At fourteen, she was forced to flee to London to escape civil war. Soon thereafter, Alek was discovered at a London street fair. She quickly rose to the top of the modeling industry and was named “Model of the Decade” by i-D magazine, one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and one of the “50 Most Influential Faces in Fashion”. New York Magazine also named her one of the “50 Most Beautiful New Yorkers”.
Alek’s influence extends far beyond the fashion world; she spoke at the International Black Caucus Foreign Affairs as a member of a panel that included Hilary Clinton, Congressman Daniel Payne, and Danny Glover, among other influential figures. Alek has also served on the advisory board for the U.S. Committee for Refugees. She speaks in New York area schools to raise awareness around famine in Southern Sudan and educate children on the importance of nourishment. She has also launched the Bracelet of Life campaign in conjunction with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. Alek also works closely with AIDS awareness organizations, children’s charities, and non-profits dedicated to breast cancer research. Most recently, she collaborated with Bono’s (RED) organization and Diptyque candles to help fight AIDS in Africa.
She has been featured in ad campaigns for Clinique Happy, Ralph Lauren, Jean Paul Gaultier, Banana Republic, Joop, Nars, Issey Miyake, Moschino, the Gap, Ann Taylor, Michael Kors and MAC Cosmetics. Alek also appeared in Coach’s “Most Influential People” campaign and teamed with De Beers to promote the company’s diamond brand, “Forevermark”. Alek has also appeared on the covers of prominent international fashion magazines that include i-D, Elle, Essence, L’Officiel, London Style, Deutsch, New York Magazine’s Fashions of the Times, and the Sunday Times Style Magazine.
She has walked the runway for top fashion houses such as Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Christian Dior, Gucci, Fendi, Jean Paul Gautier, Vivienne Westwood, Chanel, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Zac Posen, Hermès and Helmut Lang. Alek dedicates her free time to another one of her passions: design. She has designed multiple seasons of handbags for her line, Alek Wek 1933. Alek also enjoys acting and made her debut in the film Four Feathers alongside Kate Hudson and Heath Ledger.
Alek has written and published a memoir, ALEK: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel. She remains actively involved with Southern Sudan and is an ambassador for The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Alek recently travelled back to her hometown to celebrate the 1 year anniversary of her nation’s freedom.