Words by Justine Cullen. Styling by Rachel Wayman. Photography by Derek Henderson.
The internationally acclaimed supermodel – and the cover star of JONES’ new Spring issue – has been mentored by Naomi Campbell and has Valentino on speed dial, but the things that mean the most to her could not be closer to home.
Just four years after her first appearance on a Saint Laurent runway, Adut Akech Bior’s story is already one of fashion folklore. Born in war-torn South Sudan, she spent five years living in a Kenyan refugee camp. At the age of eight, her family settled in Adelaide where – alongside going to school for the first time and learning to speak English – Akech Bior found a love of fashion. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of things,” she explains.
“I grew up in a refugee camp. We didn’t have a lot of clothes, we didn’t have make-up. You go from not being able to have these things and now you’re in a place where you have access to all of that – it was really exciting for me.”
But not as exciting as what was to come. Akech Bior hasn’t just gone on to achieve the dream she’d had since she was 12 years old of being a model, she’s become the model of our times – celebrated as the face of much needed diversity in fashion, closing for Chanel, covering magazines and being named Models.com’s Model of the Year not once but twice. The girl who started without much, and who had already lived manifold lives, was suddenly thrust into another world. One where she was living in New York City, flying to another country every few days, being mentored by Naomi Campbell and having Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli calling her mum, Mary, for a chat every now and again. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this. It’s been four years and I still can’t seem to wrap my head around it. Every now and then I’ll have moments where I stop myself and think, ‘Oh wow, this is my life.’ Things happen so fast I don’t get time to process anything. I just go along with it.”
Despite her success, Akech Bior still finds being away from her family difficult, speaking to her mother four or five times a day and returning to Adelaide as often she can. (“When work is stressful, or it all just gets too much, I’ll tell my people I need a moment and I come home.”) Last year, she bought Mary a house. When she speaks about it, her face glows – even more than usual. “Just seeing my mum smile, seeing her happy, that’s all I care about. It’s not easy being a single mum raising six kids. I saw the sacrifices she made. I saw my mum struggle for me and my siblings and that gave me inspiration and motivation, so the minute I started making any money, I would give it to my family. I’m lucky that I’m in a position to make sure my siblings don’t grow up the same way I grew up; that they can grow up in a comfortable space and environment.”
It’s not just talk. Last December, straight off the back of her British Fashion Awards Model of the Year win, she took a month off to go home and look after her younger siblings while Mary went back to Africa to see her own parents for the first time in 25 years. (Akech Bior dreams of going “one day when my country is peaceful and safe enough. [For now] my mum won’t let me. She’s like, ‘I will tie your feet down if you ever try to go!’ It’s sad, but I understand.”) I tell her I can’t think of many other 20 year olds who would put a glamorous supermodel life of parties and private jets on hold to go home and look after their four younger siblings – one of whom is just three years old – for a month.
“I know. I truly am the best daughter there is. Mum, I hope you read this …” she laughs, adding, “For me it’s not like, ‘Oh gosh, I have to go home and spend time with my siblings.’ It’s like, ‘Yes! A month at home with my siblings.’ I don’t have to think about it. I missed out on job opportunities but it didn’t cross my mind for a second. I’ll drop whatever it is. My family is the inspiration behind anything I do in life.”
“I don’t have to think about it. I missed out on job opportunities but it didn’t cross my mind for a second. I’ll drop whatever it is. My family is the inspiration behind anything I do in life.”
Adut wears AJE top
A couple of months later, she was back in Adelaide again on what was meant to be a five day trip to escort her little brother on his first overseas trip to shoot a Valentino campaign in London together before commitments in Paris, LA, NYC and back to London in a matter of weeks. But COVID-19 struck while she was here and the world shut down. The day Akech Bior shoots for JONES is her last in Australia. She’d been here for almost four months.
How does that feel, to be at the top of your game in an industry where the legs are long but careers are short and then to be forced to take a hiatus for such a long period of time?
“I’ve been going non-stop since I started and it just gets busier. So to go from being on a plane every two days, constantly in a different country, to just being in one place – it was really weird for me. The first three months were challenging from a work aspect. I’d get anxious about things and I was like, ‘What am I gonna do? I’m losing my mind; this is crazy!’ But I haven’t had a break like this or spent this much time with my family in almost five years and I know for a fact I needed that break and I’m grateful for it because now I feel recharged.”
And how does an international supermodel spend her time when a coronavirus has her grounded in Adelaide, the fashion world on pause?
“I renovated my mum’s house and that was a good distraction for both of us. Once I got past the stage of having anxiety about the whole thing, I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna be stuck here for a while.’ I just accepted it. I started just sleeping and reading and writing. For me writing is therapeutic. I suffer from depression and anxiety so that’s my way of dealing with it because I don’t like talking to people. I was eating a lot of my mum’s cooking. She’s an amazing cook. I was living my best life! I was like, ‘This is the life I’ve been wanting for the past 20 years and I’m finally getting it.’ I can wake up whenever I want and, you know, I have nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to see. It was good. I’m not complaining.”
Now, though, enforced downtime officially over, passport in hand, she has the future to look to – and it couldn’t be brighter. She’s leaving New York for London (noting she has “no interest in living in America while Trump is in power”), to be with her boyfriend and closer to Paris, where she is so often for work. She still has goals to achieve: “I would love to go back to my country and build a hospital and a school and start a modelling agency there,” she reveals. “I’m excited for new adventures and experiences.”