For more than a decade, Alek Wek has been adorned by fashion masters such as Valentino, Chanel, and Dior. With her dark visage and klieg-light smile, the unconventional Sudanese beauty illuminates international runways and advertising campaigns, turning the fashion industry’s idea of marketable beauty on its head.
Though part of an industry that discards women at lightning speed, Wek has never perceived herself as disposable. Perhaps she’s been able to keep her meteoric rise to fashion celebrity in perspective. Fleeing a worn-torn country with your parents and eight siblings can do that.
“My mother said we need not sit in pity about what war has done to us,” says Wek, who gained refugee status in Great Britain at the age of 12. “To have this opportunity, in light of my family’s struggles, made me want to create something lasting and relevant.”
In 2001, Wek started her own company, ALEK WEK1933 Ltd., under which she designs a line of handbags and accessories. The legacy of her family’s triumph over adversity infuses her work, and her line is named in honor of the year her father was born. “I wanted to have a medium that would allow the artist in my heart to evolve,” says Wek.
Functional and durable, the WEK1933 bags are defined by Wek’s experience: citizen of the world, chic, earthy. “I live all sorts of lives, from evening dresses to Timberlands. I designed bags that function that same way.”
Wek sources much of her materials from tanneries in Bologna, Tuscany, and Florence, Italy — cities renowned for their leather. “Twice a year, the new trends and colors are introduced,” Wek explains. “In Bologna, designers shop for everything, from soles, straps with woven leather, to various textures.”
The line features D, T, and U bags that come in woven-leather totes; waterproofed wax canvas messenger bags; minaudiÃ¨res in chocolate or mink alligator; and carryalls in moss, cognac, and eggplant lamb. Wek’s fall collection features bags in pebble, gingham, and cotton glaze. Select bags are silk-lined with Wek’s handprints. Others, such as the signature briefcase, are accentuated with brass and copper hardware and dog tag-inspired buckles. The bags are best-sellers in London, Hong Kong, and Australia and are available at high-end stores throughout the U.S. They range in price from $300 to $500 for the small bags and $400 to $1,000 for larger ones.
Hectic schedule notwithstanding, Wek is involved with every aspect of her business, from meeting with buyers at trade shows to picking the color of a new prototype and meeting with tannery owners. “The owners spot the trends, and if they value your business, they’ll assist you with purchasing minimums and help with delivery for your production schedule.”