Alek Wek, a renowned model and designer, achieved great success despite the experience of being uprooted from her home during her childhood. Alek was born as the 7th of 9 children, into a house without electricity or running water in Wau, South Sudan. In 1985, when Alek was 7 years old, she and her family were forced to flee the ongoing civil war to live with family in Khartoum, the capital. In 1991, at the age of 14, Alek and one of her younger sisters managed to move to London where her older sister had already moved before the outbreak of the civil war. Her mother and 2 of her other siblings, however, were not able to join them until 1993. The remainder of the family had to seek refuge in Canada and Australia, forced to scatter to different parts of the world. Once she arrived in the UK, Alek learnt English quickly, and worked part time jobs outside of schools so that she could send money to her mother.
Although Alek was born with the skin condition Psoriasis, this cleared immediately when she moved to London. In 1995, after living in London for 4 years, Alek was spotted by a model agency scout when shopping in a London market, around the same time that she started studying Fashion technology and Business at the prestigious London College of Fashion.
Dark skinned models were rare if not unheard of in the fashion industry when Alek started modelling. Featuring in editorials in American and British Vogue, appearing on the cover of Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Forbes Magazine, Alek’s mainstream success was celebrated by black women all over the world. Alek’s modelling acted as a major step forwards in the acknowledgement and appreciation of Black beauty in mainstream pop culture in Europe & America, with Oprah Winfrey saying that "If you had been there when I was growing up, I would have thought of myself as beautiful".
On top of her modelling career, Alek also designed a successful range of luxury handbags called "Wek 1993". With the name referencing the year her father was born, the handbags are inspired by the brass clasp briefcase her father used to carry before he died of a haemorrhage in 1985. Alek Wek took the fashion world by storm with her talent for both modelling and design, and is still pursuing her incredibly successful career today.
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Florence is a second year Music student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.