Cover story

The Relevance


Alek Wek & Gemma Ward

Two of the most recognizable faces in the industry, ALEK WEK and GEMMA WARD defined a new era of modeling in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Twenty years later, they still own that fickle fashion essential that is hard to come by and even harder to hold on to: relevance. Here, the duo showcase the SS19 pieces that are every bit as timelessly cool as they are

Photography Claudia KnoepfelStyling Helen Broadfoot
Cover Stories
Opening image: Alek Wek wears blouse, skirt and belt Valentino. Gemma Ward wears dress Valentino; bag Saint Laurent; ring Gemma’s own. This image: Alek wears bodysuit Agolde; pants Nili Lotan; belt Anderson’s; boots Chloé. Gemma wears top and pants Dries Van Noten; belt Anderson’s; boots The Row; bag Bottega Veneta


Sudanese model Alek Wek, 41, began her career at the age of 18 in 1995, changing the industry and the ambitions of millions of dark-skinned girls – Lupita Nyong’o included – around the world who finally saw themselves reflected on magazine covers and in high-fashion images. She has walked for everyone from Chanel and Dries Van Noten to Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs over the past 24 years, appeared in music videos for Tina Turner and Janet Jackson, and hosted London’s Fashion Awards last year.

I’M VERY SURE OF MYSELF. I come from a family where we celebrated each other as women. But in fashion [in the ’90s], it was very foreign for [the industry] to see something out of the ordinary. For me, it was important that it wasn’t just about me and representing women of color, but saying that we need diversity. Fashion draws its inspiration from around the world, from all different cultures, so this is a collective. Now, with social media, we’re so connected you can’t not celebrate diversity. It was long overdue.

PEOPLE EMBRACED ME BECAUSE they knew I wanted to have fun with [fashion], wear these clothes and create the shapes and send a message out that my color is part of me – I’m not a gimmick and I’m not going to be sold short. I’m really glad that translated throughout the years. I was blessed to work with certain people in the business who are legendary, like Yves Saint Laurent and Irving Penn. I’m glad that I worked with people who nurtured me because if you’re not nurtured, you can’t grow from there. Now I see all the throwback [pictures], I can’t believe Alek at [age] 18, 20, 21… It’s really humbling, but it’s the same woman.

SOCIAL MEDIA SHEDS LIGHT ON IMPORTANT ISSUES, be that the bullying that goes on in the business or the #MeToo movement. People who misbehave don’t have to misbehave anymore and if they do there are consequences – in this industry, I felt for such a long time we didn’t really have that. When you’re putting something out, even when you talk, you have a social responsibility and you’ve got to respect that. There are younger generations coming up and if you do certain things that aren’t OK, they’re going to think it is. Being able to show faces and stories is very important, that’s how we strengthen each other. I always say we come from different backgrounds but a struggle is a struggle, family is family, values are values, morals are morals, and friendship is friendship. That’s a universal thing – whether you sleep on the floor or in a five-star hotel, you still cry, bleed, feel the same.

Jacket and pants The Row

“People EMBRACED me because I wanted to have fun with [fashion] and send a MESSAGE out that my color is part of me – I’m not a GIMMICK and I’m not going to be sold short”

Shirt, skirt and pants Peter Do; sunglasses Le Specs

IT’S NOT ABOUT SIZE, it’s about being healthy. Everyone has different body types and some girls are discovered when they’re 14 – that’s when I hit puberty! If you’re not healthy, nothing else matters.

IF I WASN’T IN THE FASHION BUSINESS I think I probably would have a bunch of kids because I love children. Definitely now I want to try for babies; I feel maternal, I’m mentally a mother, and I have time now, I don’t have to run around. My sister’s kids are now in their 20s and I can’t believe it. They’re all so proud of my career, loving fashion and seeing themselves in that. I couldn’t imagine them not being able to see themselves in [fashion images].

FASHION HAS GIVEN ME A PLATFORM TO SHED LIGHT ON IMPORTANT ISSUES such as the refugee crisis. I was born and raised in South Sudan during the Civil War. We didn’t have electricity or anything and if the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] – the biggest refugee agency in the world – were not there to give food, shelter and water, I don’t think I’d be sitting here right now talking to you. So I think it’s important to do that for others.

Alek wears dress Ganni; pants The Row; bag Bottega Veneta. Gemma wears blazer Bottega Veneta; shirt Equipment; pants The Row; sunglasses Loewe
Shirt Givenchy


With her doe-eyed, doll-like beauty, Australian model Gemma Ward, 31, was a revelation when she hit the runway as an exclusive for Prada in 2003, aged just 16. She became a fixture for brands including Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Valentino, then made the leap to Hollywood, scoring parts in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and The Great Gatsby. She stepped away from the spotlight in 2008; six years and two children later, Ward made her return to the catwalk for Prada’s SS15 show.

WHEN YOU’RE YOUNG YOU THINK YOU’RE INVINCIBLE and don’t realize that [work] can take a toll on your mind and body. If I could go back, I would tell myself to slow down and take it easy. I probably placed too much importance on things, thinking that everything was going to go away in an instant and that I had to do it now. That’s not actually the right way to go, because careers last a long time and it’s just not worth putting your health on the line. I approach work differently [now]. I appreciate it more, but also I can recognize when I need to take a step back.

NATALIA VODIANOVA WAS THE FIRST MODEL WHOSE WORK I REALLY LOVED, especially with Calvin Klein. When I first started looking at fashion images, hers stood out for me. Lauren Hutton is another inspiration: her life advice and the way she approached the fashion industry.

I’M ONLY JUST LEARNING ABOUT HOW THE INDUSTRY HAS CHANGED because I took a break. I’ve been hearing the way careers are built is very different now there’s social media. Some of the things that I went through wouldn’t happen today, so I think it’s a safer and perhaps a more inclusive place. I think [the #MeToo movement] is very positive and was needed. When things go uncontrolled and unregulated for so long, people are allowed to have power over people who are helpless, or put them in positions where they think they have to do something in order to work. It makes me very happy that things are moving in a better direction, especially if you have an industry that has a lot of young girls. These are people that need to be protected.

“Certain things should never be said to a model. Being told you’re too FAT is just not right. It’s destructive and can HARM someone physically and mentally for a very LONG time”

Coat Marc Jacobs; pants Low Classic; pumps The Row

CERTAIN THINGS SHOULD NEVER BE SAID TO A MODEL. I can say for myself when I was really young, at 14 or 15, being told you’re too fat is just not right. It’s incredibly destructive and can harm someone physically and mentally for a very long time and have huge repercussions.

LIFE IS SO STRANGE – I’m constantly amazed and surprised by my life journey. Since puberty my life has gone in so many ways that I never expected it to go. I do think that looking back has been very positive for me; you can mine your personal experiences for lessons and truths and sometimes you don’t recognize what you needed to learn from a certain situation until you look back. There is a learning opportunity in every situation you find yourself in, positive and negative, so you can come out with some silver lining. You [need to] move on and get through it, or else you’re stuck mulling over it and wondering.

I CAN’T REMEMBER EXACTLY THE FIRST TIME I WORKED WITH KARL LAGERFELD, but we did many shows together. He was always so sweet, letting you know he appreciated you, making a funny joke or something to make you feel at ease. That really goes a long way because you can often feel kind of dressed without being acknowledged, and he definitely made a point to acknowledge the person you were. Whenever we’d have lunch, he would always include you in his conversation. I remember him asking about films I was [acting in] and saying, ‘What are the costumes like? You don’t do a movie unless the clothes are good.’

Alek wears dress Dries Van Noten; loafers Church’s. Gemma wears coat Peter Do; shirt Totême; brogues Church’s

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.