The runway is the fastest route for Alek Wek to get where she’s going.
The stunning supermodel known for her short hair, dark skin and bright smile has strode the catwalks of some of the world’s top fashion houses.
She calls Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier and Dries Van Noten friends, and solicited advice from such designers during the early stages of launching her handbag company, Wek1933, named after the year her father was born.
Wek also has a great wardrobe.
“Maybe I do have a few more dresses, but I’m just like everyone else. I have a favorite raggedy dress, and I have a Dior, a Gucci, a Dries Van Noten, but that’s after more than five years of being in their shows!” she told The Associated Press over tea at Manhattan’s Splashlight Studios.
On this day, she’s wearing an orange top, light-wash jeans and an animal-print scarf around her head.
Walking in stilettos for so many years — she was discovered at a London art school after emigrating to Britain at age 14 — hasn’t affected her balance: She successfully juggles the demands of her career, family — she has eight siblings — and charity.
“Pressure only makes you sick. You won’t get anything positive out of it,” she said.
Heart belongs to AfricaWek was born in southern Sudan in 1977 and raised as part of the Dinka tribe. She fled with two of her sisters during the country’s civil war, and was reunited with her mother and other siblings two years later.
She now carries a British passport, but Wek’s not sure if she’d call London, where her mother lives, or Brooklyn, where she has a town house, her home. (Her unusual accent falls somewhere between Britain and Brooklyn.)
Her heart, though, belongs to Africa. Wek is a partner of Doctors Without Borders in its Bracelet of Life campaign that highlights malnutrition in Sudan and is an advisory board member for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
AP: What was your first fashion show?
Wek: It was in London for Red or Dead. I wore hot pants and cowboy boots and I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’
AP: Are you worried about getting older in an industry that values youth?
Wek: I feel 18. I’m trying to grow older with wisdom.
AP: Do you have a glamorous life?
Wek: Fashion shows are glamorous for 20 minutes. ... I am always aware how beautiful and special the clothes are. Someone’s mom or sister made them and it might have taken six months.
AP: Do you often find yourself in a room filled with egomaniacs?
Wek: Not everyone is selfish in fashion. There are people who go to bed feeling good about themselves and then spread the love.
AP: Do the more seasoned models offer advice to the younger ones or is it more of a turf battle?
Wek: We probably give advice to each other without knowing it. A lot of people especially want to know about going into business. But it’s a two-way conversation. It brings us together. It’s more camaraderie than catty, but, sure, there always is someone who doesn’t help anyone. No workplace is perfect.
AP: Do you feel pressured as a model to be rail thin?
Wek: Today I had potato and fish soup. I eat, but not junk. ... I love hot milk, water. Growing up, lunch was the big meal. We’d eat boiled eggs, and we had cookies as a treat. ... I always eat breakfast, and I like tea, grilled chicken with onion, tomato and whole-wheat bread. There are models who don’t eat. That’s worrisome — you need the right amount of gas to get going.
AP: What drives your interest in charity work?
Wek: Ten dollars could feed a Sudanese family for a month, but aid is still not reaching everyone. I feel like I should be the voice. If we don’t take care of each other, who will? ... I don’t want to ever say, ‘I should’ve done something.’
AP: Do you have a celebrity boyfriend?
Wek: (Laughing) My boyfriend isn’t a rock star. His values are rock solid. We met at a dinner and he made me laugh.