Adut's triumph: the Australian refugee taking on the fashion world
Adut Akech was packing her bags when we spoke on Friday. She’d finished high school just the day before, and that night the 17-year-old from Adelaide would be flying to France to take part in the Saint Laurent show, which marked the start of this year’s Paris fashion week.
On Wednesday morning shots of her marching down the runway flew across fashionistas’ social media accounts; wearing a dramatic black-and-white top, short shorts and furry boots, hers was the final outfit in the much-applauded show. Akech has arrived.
It’s a remarkable moment for any teenager – and even more so for the model now known by the moniker Adut, who was born in war-torn South Sudan and spent her early years in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya before arriving in Australia as a seven-year-old.
On the phone, she sounds giddy with her newfound freedom, admitting it hasn’t quite sunken yet in that she has finished high school and is about to become a full-time model.
In fact, she’s something of a Saint Laurent veteran. She made her international catwalk debut last September and has walked exclusively for the fashion house for the last two seasons. This year she’ll be doing the full schedule – and if Tuesday night’s show is anything to go by, she’ll be busy.
It’s a strong start for Akech, who has been photographed for ID magazine, 10 magazine and Vogue Australia in the past year. She’s also featured in the much anticipated all-black Pirelli calendar for 2018, shot by Tim Walker, styled by the incoming Vogue UK editor Edward Enniful, and starring Naomi Campbell, Diddyand Whoopi Goldberg.
Although the lineup is dazzling, the person Akech was most excited to meet was the actor Lupita Ngong’o, one of her role models, alongside Campbell and Alek Wek. It sounds as though Ngong’o may take her under her wing. “She told me to get in touch with her when I go down to New York, so I’m gonna do that,” says Akech, excitement creeping into her voice. “She said if I ever need any help or I need anything when I get to New York, just to get in touch with her.”
And so this year, after the whirl of Paris fashion week, she won’t head home to Australia. “I’ll probably come back in the next two months to visit my family but yeah, I might be in Paris for a couple of weeks and then probably head down to New York,” she says.
For a 17-year-old, Akech is well and truly a seasoned traveller. She doesn’t remember Sudan or the refugee camp but does recall the family settling in Nairobi before being transferred to Australia. She desperately wanted to attend the local school but it was too expensive for her single mother. “There were times when I’d walk to my cousin’s school to take her lunch there and I would just be at the gate, looking at all the kids playing in the playground and it kind of made me sad. I wished that was me.”School was what she was most excited about when the family found out they would be moving to Australia. “The free education and having the choice to actually go to school,” she said. “Back then I didn’t have a choice.”
The family left Kenya with nothing more than a few clothes, and it was an exciting but nerve-wracking time for the six-year-old Akech. She was curious about who she would meet. “Back in Kenya, it was rare to see any white people, and I was like, ‘Wow what is it going to be like, being in this country?’ I’d heard that there were a lot of white people but we weren’t used to seeing white people so that was one of the things that was always on my mind.”
She hesitates when I ask if landing in Adelaide was a culture shock. “It was different, it was something different,” she says cautiously, “but I was really looking forward to everything.”
They settled into the community quickly, and for the most part, the family felt welcome. “Everybody has [discrimination], when you go to school and stuff, because you don’t know how to speak English that well. I had a few kids laugh at me but it’s like, we all didn’t really know how to speak English so that’s why we went to an English school.”
Akech wanted to fit in as quickly as possible: “I just worked hard, I was like, I’m going to do the work that I get given and graduate from English school, so I can actually go to a normal school like a normal person.”