Adut Akech was packing her bags when we spoke on Friday. Sheâd 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 yearâs Paris fashion week.
On Wednesday morning shots of her marching down the runway flew across fashionistasâ 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.
Itâs a remarkable moment for any teenager â 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 hasnât quite sunken yet in that she has finished high school and is about to become a full-time model.
In fact, sheâs 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 sheâll be doing the full schedule â and if Tuesday nightâs show is anything to go by, sheâll be busy.
Itâs a strong start for Akech, who has been photographed for ID magazine, 10 magazine and Vogue Australia in the past year. Sheâs 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, Diddy and Whoopi Goldberg.
Although the lineup is dazzling, the person Akech was most excited to meet was the actor Lupita Ngongâo, one of her role models, alongside Campbell and Alek Wek. It sounds as though Ngongâo may take her under her wing. âShe told me to get in touch with her when I go down to New York, so Iâm gonna do that,â says Akech, excitement creeping into her voice. âShe said if I ever need any help or I need anything when I get to New York, just to get in touch with her.â
And so this year, after the whirl of Paris fashion week, she wonât head home to Australia. âIâll 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,â she says.
For a 17-year-old, Akech is well and truly a seasoned traveller. She doesnât 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. âThere were times when Iâd walk to my cousinâs 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.â
School was what she was most excited about when the family found out they would be moving to Australia. âThe free education and having the choice to actually go to school,â she said. âBack then I didnât have a choice.â
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. âBack in Kenya, it was rare to see any white people, and I was like, âWow what is it going to be like, being in this country?â Iâd heard that there were a lot of white people but we werenât used to seeing white people so that was one of the things that was always on my mind.â
She hesitates when I ask if landing in Adelaide was a culture shock. âIt was different, it was something different,â she says cautiously, âbut I was really looking forward to everything.â
They settled into the community quickly, and for the most part, the family felt welcome. âEverybody has [discrimination], when you go to school and stuff, because you donât know how to speak English that well. I had a few kids laugh at me but itâs like, we all didnât really know how to speak English so thatâs why we went to an English school.â
Akech wanted to fit in as quickly as possible: âI just worked hard, I was like, Iâm 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.â
But her world hasnât been completely untainted by racism. Earlier this year Akech was picked to take part in the David Jones spring/summer campaign, and as the face of the retailerâs beauty book. Itâs a significant milestone in a modelâs career and her wide, smiling face is featured on billboards across Australiaâs capital cities.
But a Gold Coast woman took exception to her casting, complaining via David Jonesâ Facebook account that the model didnât represent âthe general population of Australiaâ.
Elizabeth Ballard wrote: âHow on earth am I expected to relate to this cover? I canât wear any of her make-up, I donât know ANYONE who looks like her â¦ she could have been used on the back page â¦ You people have really missed the mark here, and Iâm pissed off and sick of big companys [sic] going for the minority feel good. Please think about your shoppers next time.â
David Jones came under fire when one of their social media moderators responded to the comment with: âWe are so sorry you feel this way. We have passed your feedback on to our Marketing Department for their information and consideration,â before the post was deleted.
Akech didnât say much at the time. That was deliberate. âI really took the time to think about it â am I going to overreact, or am I just not going to let this thing get to me? I chose not to let it get to me because that was the first time I had a stupid racist comment made about me.â
She was celebrating the fact that she had made the cover, and didnât want anything to distract from that. âMy thing wasnât so much about the ladyâs comment because everyone is entitled to their opinion â sheâs not happy about it, it is what it is, itâs her opinion, thereâs nothing she can do about it. It was more about the David Jones response.
âBut I thought about it in the end, Iâm like, Iâm pretty sure David Jones choosing me was not a mistake, and just because one person felt the need to apologise and this is probably all interpreted in the way that it did get interpreted, thatâs probably not the way it was meant to be.â
The Australian model Duckie Thot, also a rising star, has spoken out about the lack of diversity in the Australian fashion industry. Adut agrees, but thinks things are getting better. âThereâs always room for improvement. I feel like they could do better [and] use a range of different girls. You are starting to see dark-skinned girls and Asian girls and things like that, so that really makes me happy.â
Akech has big ambitions for her modelling career â âI would love to get Victoriaâs Secretâ â but is also thinking about her life after fashion. She wants to study business and entrepreneurship, and hopes to set up a foundation to help with poverty and homelessness. She recalls a stay in Sydney, just before she returned to Adelaide, when she cooked up her remaining food and distributed it to the homeless people she saw camped out across the city.
Akech says she feels connected to the homeless community because of her own background. âMy family didnât have all these luxurious foods and all these nice things, so I did kind of see what it was like.â
When she appeared in October on a Channel Seven TV interview about the Adelaide fashion festival, billed as a refugee, there were complaints that she was being pigeonholed and unfairly treated.
But Akech wasnât fazed: âA lot of people were like, âWhy are you guys classifying her as a refugee, sheâs Australian?â â¦ I am a refugee, thatâs who I am, Iâm not ashamed of it, and I shouldnât be mad about it,â she says. âYes, I am an Australian citizen, I am a South Sudanese Australian, but Iâm still a refugee.â