Adut Akech in conversation with her fashion "mama" Naomi Campbell
It’s a Sunday morning in Paris. Naomi Campbell has just touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport, on a brief layover between Los Angeles and Lagos. Adut Akech, meanwhile, is on the other side of town. She’s just walked the Lanvin menswear show, and is gearing up for couture week, which starts the next day.
Since making her debut for Saint Laurent in 2016, Adut has caught the industry’s eyes, stolen our hearts, and helped to usher in a new era of inclusivity, diversity and philanthropy in modelling -- much as Naomi has done since the very beginning of her career. The pair first crossed paths in 2017, on set, shooting the Pirelli calendar with Tim Walker and Edward Enninful, and quickly became inseparable -- or at least as inseparable as their hectic schedules allow. They affectionately refer to each other as mama and daughter, and Naomi has served as the young model’s mentor and guide since they first met.
On Christmas Day 2019, Adut turned 20, leaving her teenage life behind, the last year of which saw her pick up Model Of The Year awards from The Fashion Awards and models.com -- an incredible year, but just one of an incredible career so far.
For Adut’s third i-D cover, who better, then, to interview her than the Naomi Campbell (13-time i-D cover star)? A quick phone call across Paris later, and...
Naomi: Good morning, Adut!
Adut: Hey mama!
How are you doing today?
I’m in Paris and I’m a little tired. How are you?
I’m in Paris too. I’m at the airport. I’m on my way to Lagos.
Oh yeah! Were you here? I missed you.
I’ve come straight from LA to Paris. Then I’m in Nigeria for one night, then getting back on the plane and straight back to LA.
Oh my god!
The Dior show looked gorgeous yesterday though, it’s a shame I missed it. But let’s start. Let’s get to it. First I want to ask you how you feel about turning 20 in December. You’re not a teenager anymore!
It feels weird! Maybe it’s all in my head, but I feel like the minute I turned 20 I changed... Like on my birthday, I had this moment of reflection. Maybe I’ve got a new attitude towards life now? I feel like I’m older though – it’s crazy to me that I’ve just turned 20.
You’re very mature in a lot of ways, even though you’re still young. You told me this Christmas your mum was going to visit her family and you were going to take care of your siblings.
I have more responsibilities than most people who are 20. So much has gone on in my life already -- in my personal life and in my career.
I remember the first time I saw your face, and I thought just, oh my goodness! It was like -- bam! Here’s a star. I saw it immediately.
I remember when I closed the Saint Laurent show under the Eiffel Tower. You were backstage, and from there, that was it. We’d already met but then we became friends. We exchanged numbers. You texted me, and it felt really supportive. At that moment I needed that so much. I never thought that kind of support would come from the Naomi Campbell. I felt that love from you, I felt that connection.
I find it so important, because I came up with a group of girls who all really supported each other, and – although I don’t think it’ll ever be the same -- I didn’t see the same camaraderie in the generations that followed. But I care about your wellbeing, because without your wellbeing you can’t do all this. One thing I wanted to ask you about was your experience as a black woman in our industry. And since you started out as a model what changes you’ve seen, what developments -- how do you feel? You know, you’ve helped to create these developments and changes, too.
This is only my fourth year working as a model, but in those four years I’ve seen a lot of change. The biggest change we can all acknowledge is that the industry is getting more diverse. When I started – when I made my debut -- there were so few other black girls, and now there are so many. There are models of colour from so many places around the world working in the industry now, and it’s incredible to see. It makes me so happy.
I’ve very much observed you helping to make this change. You have made this advance in inclusion in the industry – but how did you feel about it at the beginning?
To walk for Saint Laurent was amazing. It is a dream to be a part of that, to have the opportunity to walk in that show. But it threw me, because it’s amazing to be working in fashion, but then you think about the lack of diversity there was in the industry then, and you know it’s not right. But across the seasons it started to get better, and now it’s so much better! And it can always get even better.
One thing that makes me so proud of you is the charity work you’ve been doing. You’ve been doing it for a while now, working with the UN Refugee Agency. It’s obviously clear what drives you to give back. But I find that the hope you give is such a powerful thing.
It was something I had always wanted to do, before even modelling, and now I just want to do it more than ever. I actually want to start my own foundation, my own organisation – it’s something deep in my heart. I don’t know what the exact steps are going forward, but I have a lot of support.
You have such a huge platform now. You have a lot of people who look up to you. You’ve given hope to so many.
The work with the UN, everyone knows the reason for it and why I’m passionate about it, why I want to give something back. I want to support them in any way I can.
How did it feel when you won Model of the Year in December at the Fashion Awards?
I mean I was incredibly proud to have some of the most important people in my life there – you and Edward and Pierpaolo [Piccioli]. I love Pierpaolo so much, he’s such a special being. You all have such a special place in my heart. I said this in my speech, you’re my family. I’m not great at reading from a script, writing a speech: I stutter, I mess up. So, with that speech, I just let my heart speak. That award felt bigger than me. That award felt like it was for every single little boy and girl, every woman and man, anyone that finds representation and validation in the work I’ve done. If little girls see me on social media, and get inspired, then that award is for them. I want to inspire other black girls to do this.
I love getting messages from people when they say, “You’ve made our skin colour more acceptable.” It’s also why, for example, I’m heading to Lagos right now. It’s so important to keep in touch with our continent, to promote it, because our African continent is emerging now and it’s beautiful.
It really is, and it gets portrayed so poorly, but I’m happy that people like you are changing the perception of Africa.
You’re using your platform in the right way to change things, too.
I’m trying my best. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am, to have the platform I have, to spread a message that’s true and that needs to be heard. I want to raise awareness about the things that are overlooked and ignored. Anyone who doesn’t like it? That’s not my concern. I’m learning to speak my truth and stand my ground. You have to fight for what you believe in.
You have the right to say it and the platform to say it from. You know I thought I would never be able to use social media, but I love it. Let’s not deny that we all like to spy on other people and see what they’re up to. But it’s also a way to support each other together and create a community. And if I want to set someone straight, I get on my social media and set them straight.
I love being expressive on social media. It can be beautiful, you can be so free, you can do whatever you want! No one can say no to you.
You’ve achieved a lot in your four years working. And I want to ask, what are your other goals? What’s left to achieve? Personally and professionally. What kind of role model do you want to be to these young girls?
Honestly, I just want to be comfortable, happy, content... You can’t predict the future but I’d love to have a family. Career-wise, I want to do everything I’ve always wanted to do and then more. I don’t want to be known as just a model -- I want to be remembered as someone who did something, someone who made a big impact.
I’m not worried because everything you do makes a big impact. You speak from your heart. You are sincere. There’s no bullshit. That’s why I love you.
Everything I do, I feel like it’s for all of us because it takes all of us. If I didn’t have the support I have from you, then I don’t think I would have made it to where I am today.
OK, one more question, and then I’ve got to jump on a plane.
I want to go to the motherland with you!
Let’s make it happen! This year I have to go home. I need to. I need to put my foot down in the motherland. I’m going to do everything in my power to make it happen.
You’re coming! OK, this question. I want to know what keeps you excited and enthusiastic about the business?
I want to know what keeps you going!
For me, I still love to be in front of a camera, to be transformed, to be made into a different person, to become this character.
I love the storytelling of fashion. And when it comes to it, I just love what I do. I love shooting, now. I used to really be a show girl but I feel like I get more and more excited every time I get in front of a camera at the moment, and that I’m getting better every time, too. I think I’ve learned the art of transforming myself, becoming a character -- depending on the outfit, the surroundings, what the photographer wants.
The clothes are so important. They set the tone. What you’re wearing transforms you. I can’t tell you how I’m going to be on set, because it depends on what I’m wearing. But isn’t it so fun?
I’m falling in love with it more and more every day.
This is the start of a new decade. How do you see our industry changing throughout it? Where do we want to be in 2030?
I have so much hope and so much faith, I’m so optimistic to see how far we can go in the next ten years. I think we want to see more diversity, more inclusivity. We want to get to a place where we don’t even have to talk about it. Where it’s not forced.
It feels like everyone is talking to each other on panel discussions about diversity but let’s not talk about it anymore. Let’s do it.
And that’s our work for the next decade. I want to revisit this conversation with you in ten years time, and look back at how things have changed. And let’s make it a totally different conversation we’re having in 2030 about what we want in that decade. All I want is to just be able to celebrate beautiful models of colour.
I’m so proud of you! Have a great time at Paris Couture! Stay hydrated, drink water, get enough sleep, stay healthy, don’t go to too many parties. Although if you work hard you have to play hard, too -- have some fun, that’s what it’s all about.
I love you.
I love you more. Have a safe flight.
Photography Daniel Jackson
Styling Julia Sarr-Jamois
Hair Esther Langham at Art + Commerce using R+Co “High Dive” Moisture and Shine Cream. Make-up Frank B at The Wall Group.
Nail technician Yuko Tsuchihashi at Susan Price NYC. Photography assistance Jeffrey Pearson and Jeremy Hall.
Styling assistance Christina Smith, Nick Centofanti and Lily Zhang. Hair assistance Gabe Jenkins. Make-up assistance Elle Haein Kim.
Production Rebekah Mikale.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.
Model Adut Akech at The Society.