The 2023 Pirelli Calendar celebrates the muses who have inspired photographer Emma Summerton and, more broadly, the remarkable power, passion and talent of women.
Adut Akech’s earliest years could not be in starker contrast to the life she leads today as one of the fashion industry’s most beloved muses and sought-after models.
She was born on Christmas Day 1999 as her mother fled civil war in South Sudan and made the perilous journey to a Kenyan refugee camp, where the family lived for the first years of her life.
As a young child, Akech’s dreams about the future were all about getting to a safe space – a place she could call home. “I had dreams of not having to worry about fleeing the next day because we’re in fear that we’re going to... get kidnapped and our parents are going to get killed,” she said.
“And I dreamed about being in a place where I can have freedom to do whatever I wanted to do.”
“I dreamed about being in a place where I can have freedom to do whatever I wanted to do”.
Adapting to change
When she was eight, Akech’s family made it to Australia. They settled in Adelaide and embarked on the challenging task of adapting to their new home.
“I was always one of the few darkest kids in the school and, yeah, I was definitely bullied about how dark my skin was, my gap [between her front teeth] and not knowing how to speak English,” Akech recalled. “But I also fell in love with school and so I was like, ‘well, I have to be here,’ so I just found a way tobe able to block that out.”
“I was definitely bullied about how dark my skin was... But I also fell in love with school”
Meanwhile the model, who has five siblings, was falling in love with clothes and fashion, raiding her “auntie’s make-up stash” with her sister and experimenting. “I’d never seen make-up before. I didn’t even understand what it was, but I instantly fell in love with it. And then I fell in love with getting dressed up because I now had more clothes and more options.”
At 16, she joined a local modelling agency and her career took off almost immediately. Saint Laurent booked her as an exclusive for its summer show in 2016. She went on to become the muse of such high-profile designers as Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, who took her to the 2018 Met Gala, and Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel, for whom she opened and closed numerous shows. She has shot campaigns for Fendi, Moschino and Versace, walked international catwalks for brands including Calvin Klein, Miu Miu and Prada, and worked with many of the world’s top photographers.
In 2018, Time magazine named her one of that year’s “25 Most Influential Teens” and in 2019 she was one of 15 women in the Forces For Change issue of British Vogue guest-edited by the Duchess of Sussex.
Despite her success, Akech said it had “not been the easiest journey” to get where she is. She credits her mother’s indefatigable work ethic and determination for inspiring her.
An incredible story
In Emma Summerton’s Love Letters to the Muse Calendar for Pirelli, Akech embodies The Dream Catcher. “I love poetry,” Summerton said. “Adut [has] had an amazing ascent through the fashion industry and she has an incredible story of where she comes from, and she became the embodiment of poetry rather than a poet.”
“Adut [has] had an amazing ascent through the fashion industry and she has an incredible story of where she comes from”
Akech was photographed in a white, strapless dress with a full train that “represents reams of paper spilling out onto the floor,” Summerton said. A large, cloud-like headpiece crafted from scrunched-up tissue paper by hair stylist Eugene Souleiman was “like the thoughts, the pages, swirling around her head”.
The shoot took Akech back to her first appearance in the Pirelli Calendar, the 2018 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-themed Cal photographed by Tim Walker and styled by Edward Enninful (editor-in-chief of British Vogue). It was here that she first met her idol Naomi Campbell, alongside an all-black cast that included Lupita Nyong’o, RuPaul and Whoopi Goldberg.
“Since that day we’ve been inseparable,” said Akech, who affectionately refers to Campbell as “mama”, saying: “She has been ahuge role model for me. I used to admire her [from afar], but now having her advise me is quite amazing.” Akech is also close to Enninful.
Champion of diversity
As well as modelling, Akech, who said she was “very honoured” to appear in a second Pirelli Calendar, is a supporter of fellow refugees everywhere. She has spoken out about discrimination against darker-skinned models and, at the 2019 Fashion Awards, where she won Model of the Year, she gave a powerful speech about diversity. “I said in my speech that if a little dark-skinned South Sudanese girl who comes from really nothing can do it, so can you. And I truly mean that... for if I can do it, I know anybody can.”
“If a little dark-skinned South Sudanese girl who comes from really nothing can do it, so can you”