Originally published in
October 2008
Three of today’s most influential supermodels demonstrate that the world really is ready to embrace and celebrate cultural diversity.
“The most amazing thing that fashion has given me is travel and being known across the world, it’s having the opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless.

Naomi Campbell. Alek Wek. Liya Kebede. These names read like a guestlist for the most fabulous VIP party. In fact it’s the call sheet for today’s ARISE cover shoot. Three of the world’s most famous models are winging their way over to the Grand West London Studio (which looks rather grand considering it used to be a car factory) in Ladbroke Grove where rails of brightly hued, sparkling clothes by some of Africa’s finest designers and rows of designer shoes await them. As the freshly brewed coffee flows, croissants are consumed and iTunes is plugged in, anticipation among the team is palpable.

2pm: Liya Kebede is the first to arrive. She’s just got off the plane from New York but still looks a million bucks. “I think I look a little tired,” she smiles self depreciatingly as the hair and make up artists go to work.

3.35pm: She emerges from the changing room followed by the stylist wearing a floor-skimming, exotic print gown by Lanre da Silva.  “It’s actually a skirt and top we’ve turned into a dress. I love it,” she says as the volume on the stereo is turned up and she strikes her first pose. Bulbs flash, the photographer lies down on the floor to get the best angle and Liya is on it. A true professional.

In between photos she laughs as the make up artist tickles her flesh with his brushes. Then she changes into her second look, a sculptural evening dress by Deola Sagoe for take two.

3.45pm: Alek Wek arrives with a dress she wore at the previous Africa Rising gig in a bag to return to the stylist. Wearing a simple jumper, jeans and flat loafers, she could almost pass for another member of the crew, if it weren’t for her remarkable features, treacle-dark skin and Amazonian height. She too has arrived from New York today  yet heads into hair and make-up with a smile on her face.

4pm: Liya, now changed back into her own comfy grey tracksuit, grabs a slice of cake and heads upstairs with me, away from the hullabaloo of the fashion shoot, for a chat. “Those clothes were beautiful,” she coos, picking at her chocolate gateaux. “I think it’s nice that these Nigerian designers are getting an opportunity to show their craft and exposure for themselves by being a part of this shoot.”

Having modelled at Thisday’s Africa Rising show at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in August, Liya had the opportunity to meet the designers involved face to face too. “The designers were lovely, really sweet. There were no premadonnas and it was neat to know they came all the way from Nigeria with their collection. These weren’t designers from Paris or London who where used to that thing. No they have their atelier in Africa, which is kind of fantastic. “These designers say it’s so hard to break into the industry. There should be an entity that gave support and guidance to new African designers because it’s not just about the garments, it’s about gives jobs to people, who can then support their families.”

Kebede set up her own children’s clothing label Lemlem ("to bloom" in her native Ethiopian language, Amharic) in 2006 for the same reasons. “There are all of these talented handweavers in Ethiopia who have handed down their skills and traditions through the generations. But now with globalisation everybody is wearing modern western clothes putting these local weavers out of work. So I decided to give them a chance, which changes their lives and the country’s life, you know, in a small way.” The range of cotton kaftans and dresses is currently stocked in the cutest kids stores in NYC. “It’s a grass roots but very modern collection. It’s got a nice spirit to it.”

Lemlem isn’t Liya’s only initiative for Africa however. Far from it. She’s also a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organisation (WHO) on matters of maternal, newborn and child health. As a mother of two (son Suhul and daughter Raee) it’s a matter close to her heart. In the same spirit she has also set up the Liya Kebede Foundation in 2005. “When WHO came to me and told me that every minute there’s a woman who dies from pregnancy across the world, I decided to raise awareness for them.” Working with the Ethiopian government, she hopes small measure with improve the bigger picture. “There’s a serious problem of not having enough doctors or access to hospitals but if we can train medical professionals and set up outposts where they can perform simple procedures, offer family planning, give kids vaccinations and treat infections, then we can minimise the amount of serious problems. It’s prevention rather than cure.”

Herself born in Addis Ababa 30 years ago, Liya got a taste for modeling while at school at Lycee Guebre Mariam. “We did a little fashion show in school and I thought that was the coolest thing to do. So I just gave modelling a go and then I got obsessed with it,” she laughs, finishing off her piece of cake. Once bitten by the bug, she first moved to Paris and then settled in New York. Her big break came when Tom Ford chose her to model for the Gucci’s autumn/winter 2000/1 show. “I was three months pregnant and sick as a dog but no one knew so I had to pull my stuff together,” she recalls. “My husband (Ethiopian financial trader Kassy Kebede) came along with me because he thought I wouldn’t survive it by myself. I was so stressed out and naucious but the whole time I was at the casting and fitting I was fine. It wasn’t until I got home that I threw up everywhere! The collection was amazing though. Tom Ford’s shows were always so spectacular that it was great to be a part of them.”

Since then she’s had an entire issue of Paris Vogue dedicated to her in 2002, became the first woman of cover to become the face of Esteé Lauder in 2003, has appeared in ad campaigns for everyone from The Gap to Dolce & Gabanna and most recently appeared in Vogue Italia’s Black Issue in July this year.

The huge success of this controversial issue of Vogue is proof indeed that, despite constant claims by the industry that black cover girls don’t sell, black beauty is now a force to be reckoned with in a truly diverse fashion world. “It was one of the fastest selling Vogues ever, which is really amazing. People walked up to me to tell me they’d bought five copies of it. I’m glad Vogue did it and I hope it will affect the fashion weeks and turn into campaigns for black models. We need more of it. What I want is for it to be normal. The magazine sold out because it was rare. The goal for it to be a regular thing, not just a phase.”

Appearing in the magazine alongside alongside both Naomi and Alek, Liya finds it funny to think now it was Naomi who helped foster Liya’s initial enthusiasm for modeling. “When I was a girl in Ethiopia I had a picture of her in my room. It was a simple black and white shot that I’d look at for inspiration. I don’t think I’ve ever told her that.” Talk of the devil, who’s that coming in downstairs?

4.30pm: Naomi arrives in a flurry mobile phone ringing and dives straight into hair and make-up. Alek meanwhile has just finished modeling her second dress for the fashion shoot, an electric blue silk number by Deola Sagoe. It’s the same dress she wore at the Africa Rising shows in Lagos. “When we did the fitting in Lago, I thought let me try it on. The colour looks fantastic and it fitted perfectly, very chic,” she says, taking the seat Liya has just vacated next to be upstairs. “These designers are so talented and the clothes are so modern. I know designers who are now household names who didn’t get there because they were in Paris and did a huge show, but because of the essence behind the clothes. If people see how different and diverse these designers are it opens the doors so that they realize Africa isn’t so far away. Music and fashion do go hand in hand and I’m honoured to be part of it.”

Hitting the catwalk in both Lagos and Washington were nights to remember for Alek. “I’m not used to doing shows in front of so many people but the crowd were so expressive and really going for it. I was so moved the first time I walked out to see the energy of everyone together and enjoying themselves. By the end of the night it was a true celebration of African music and fashion.”

Alek’s own life story is a celebration of success in the face of adversity. Born in Wau, southern Sudan in 1977, she was one of nine children raised as part of the Dinka tribe. She fled to London in 1991 to escape the brutal civil war and settled in Crystal Palace where she was later joined by her mother and three more siblings. Her father perished in the war. By 1995 an 18-year-old Alek was studying art at London Institute when a Models 1 scout spotted her. “I tried modelling for six months but wasn’t getting any work and it was disrupting my school work so I was going to give it up,” she recalls. “My mum was like ‘Stop playing around, this modeling business is a waste of time.’ Then my agency sent me to New York for castings and I ended up moving there. I found an agent that believed in me, who wanted to see me grow and give me a space to become a woman, I said, ‘I can do this.’ That’s when I realised I could be myself, I didn’t have to pretend to be anyone else or do any project, shoot or job that I didn’t feel comfortable with.”

As a dark skinned African model she found many doors closed to her at first but with success came confidence. “All these people who said I couldn’t do it, who said I was strange, were suddenly interested once I’d done a shoot with (famed fashion photographer) Steven Meisel, was opening all the shows in New York and shot for Italian Vogue. I was still the same girl, nothing had changed, but all of a sudden they thought I had the stamp of approval. Then after they all wanted Alek look-alikes. But there are no Alek look-alikes, everybody is different.”

In her memoirs, Alek: Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel, which was published last year, she discusses these early modelling experiences in depth in an effort to empower young girls just like her. “I’m not saying that I wasn’t fortunate enough, I just address the fact that at first people said I wouldn’t make it because this business doesn’t let black models work so much. But I was like, not really. If there weren’t people who did want to work with me I wouldn’t still be around 13 years later. It’s our differences that make us beautiful. How boring would it be if we were all alike for goodness sake. Some people want to be followers and are too quick to judge. And some of us are leaders. We are all special and different because of our colour, and that’s what I explain in the book.”

Not just a force for change as a model, Alek is a member of the U.S. Committee for Refugees’ Advisory Council and speaks on behalf of Doctors Without Borders. Plus she has recently set up her own initiative called WEK (Working to Educate Kids), which ais to rebuild schools and offer scholarships to children both in Sudan and the inner cities.

“The most amazing thing that fashion has given me is travel and being known across the world, it’s having the opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless. Since I was a refugee, I can we shed a light on our responsibility to educate our young ones and tell them it’s okay to be different, have beliefs, and that hard work does pay off.
I set WEK up last year and now the funds are starting to come in. I’m working with the Sudanese embassy in London to set up investments in schools Hopefully it will give people hope,” she says with real conviction. “The last trip I went to in southern Sudan with my mum where I was born I saw kids fighting over one pen and who would get to use it next. It blew my mind. Out there the simplest things can make a difference.”

She also finds time to develop her handbag label Wek 1933, is currently designing a some diamond jewellery for DeBeers and is looking into the possibility of making a documentary. All this and she can still sway gracefully in a pair of Jimmy Choos. “Lately I’ve been modelling in moderation to work on these other projects. I’m growing my own line, collaborating with other companies that make sense and doing things I truly believe in.”

5.32pm: Alek’s PR appears to usher back in the direction of the beauty team to get ready for her final shot. She makes her polite excuses and I head in the direction of Ms Campbell. I find her furiously multi tasking. She has a Blackberry in her lap, a hairdresser blowdrying her locks and a phone at her ear. There’s no time to lose however so we I pull up a chair and ask her about her contribution to Nduka Obaigbena’s Africa Rising concerts.

“I became aware of Nduka's vision for promoting Africa after some of the great events he put together in Nigeria in 2006 anad 2007 featuring some of my favourite artists like Alicia Keys, Jay Z, John Legend, Beyoncé and Snoop Dogg.  He obviously had a remarkable vision, a real passion and a special message. The more I found out about his mission to promote positivity and understanding, the more I wanted to be involved. Ouch!” The hairdresser backs off after a particularly aggressive brushing movement.

“There are so many good things going on there and it's great that he is bringing together the world's biggest talents to highlight positive images of Africa. Gianni Versace was the first one to do that, bring music and fashion together, and it does work. I’m just happy to be part of something that’s positive and do what I can to help.”
Hanging out at the gigs in Abuja and Lagos, she’s excited to be finally hitting the catwalk at the London show. “Seeing Rihanna and Mary J Blige perform at the Nigeria gigs was amazing. It will be nice to make it onto the catwalk at last.”

Naomi is also busy promoting her Fashion For Relief charity, which she first set it up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “I saw all the images of the people with nowhere to go, many of them people of colour, and thought ‘Why can’t fashion world do something?’ so I contacted my model agency IMG and we got it going.” Each year it supports a different this cause with a star studded show and auction. This year’s spectacle during London Fashion Week was in aid of the White Ribbon Alliance, which aims to help pregnant women and newborn babies around the world. Over 60 celebrities took to the catwalk including Jamelia, Tracey Emin, Dame Vivienne Westwood, Cheryl Cole, the Sugarbabes and, of course, Naomi herself.

It’s not just any supermodel who could pull off a spectacle like this. Naomi, who was born and bred in Streatham, south London, was discovered aged just 15 while hanging out with her friends in Covent Garden in 1986. Her formidable look (part Caribbean, part Chinese) found favour with the fashion hierarch and she became the first black girl on the cover of both French and UK Vogue. And where would the 1990s have been without the so-called ‘Big Six’ supermodels that she formed part of alongside Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. “I owe a lot to Chrissie, she introduced me to so many people and I am grateful to her. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by so many good people working hard at what they do.”

Now 22 years later, she’s as in demand as ever, as her autumn/winter 2008/9 ad campaign for Yves Saint Laurent testifies. “I first worked for YSL from the age of 17 to 20 and did the Helmut Newton campaign. So I was really shocked to be told I was working with them again after so many years. Working with Stefano (Pilati), who has has brought such light to YSL, is brilliant.” With that the hairdresser’s work is done and Naomi rushes off to put on her outfit and emerges looking ravishing, ready for her close up.

Together with Liya and Alek, three of today’s most influential supermodels, it feels like something special happening in the room. It’s very rarely that these famous faces, who each promote their own unique and powerful definition of black beauty, stand together for one camera lens. In doing so they’re not only inspiring young non white models such as Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman and Nnenna Agba but all fans of fashion who hope that the world is finally ready to embrace a fully culturally diverse look. This is no flash in the pan, a gimmick, or trend. Black is not the new black, it just is, as Alek concludes: “Shoes go in and out of fashion, human beings don’t. There’s nothing to talk about when it comes to colour but it’s everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves and move forward. It’s about the bigger picture.”

Visions for Africa

Naomi, Alek and Liya explain what ‘Africa Rising’ means to them…

Naomi Campbell
“My vision of Africa that it is becoming a fast growing economy and countries like Nigeria are leading the way with the cities Abuja and Lagos. Thisday's Africa Rising festivals aim to support infrastructures in these cities, which will benefit both socially and economically and show Africa in a true positive light.”

Liya Kebede
“People have all these notions of Africa but if you haven’t been there you can’t know how beautiful and wonderful it is. When you just land there the air is different, the sky is different, the landscape is different. So my vision is to see Africa at its fullest and highest potential. I’d like to see it modernised but still keep its essence. I think it’s important that we don’t lose our heritage in trying to develop in a certain way. It must keep its own identity and flourish. That is my hope.”

Alek Wek
“Africa Rising is great for the continent. It’s not just talking about the issues and problems, it’s talking about bringing to the people everything amazing that is coming out of that continent, which often gets overshadowed. Yes we should address the problems but that’s not the only thing that’s happening in Africa. That’s why this project has been so successful.”