"I think I was traumatized, but honestly, it was worth it," the 19-year-old Sudanese-Australian Adut Akech said on a recent afternoon in New York, remembering the frigid weather of her most recent Valentino campaign. Together with Anwar Hadid, Gigi and Bella Hadid's model (and jewelry designer) younger bro, Akech is the new face of two scents, Donna and OUMO, that make up Valentino Beauty's new fragrance collection. True to its name, Born in Roma, Inez and Vinoodh photographed the pair in Rome in the dead of winter—unfortunately not at the best time of year for romping around in a sleeveless dress.
But Akech isn't complaining; that simply isn't something she does, especially when it comes to catching her high-fashion break. Born in South Sudan, Akech grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya, which she and her family left behind for Adelaide, Australia, when she was eight. It was there that she first stepped on a runway, which, in a matter of years, led to one much more official than her aunt's makeshift fashion show. In 2016, Anthony Vaccarello not only cast her in his debut show at Saint Laurent, but arranged for her to work with the house exclusively for a full year after that.
As for the rest of the industry heavyweights, they've been clamoring to have time with Akech ever since—to the point that she gained more followers during her breakout season, fall 2018, than all but two other models in the entire industry. After the late Karl Lagerfeld added her to the storied line of Chanel couture brides, it was only natural for Akech to take home Models.com's 2018 Model of the Year.
"I haven't had any time to really let anything process, because it’s always just one incredible thing after another after another after another. I'm just trying to keep up," Akech said. "I think when I retire, that’s when I’m going to have a moment to sit down and reflect on everything that I’ve done. But until then, everything just feels like a dream."
But nothing, it seems, has felt more like a dream than working with Valentino. Shortly after her contract with Saint Laurent had run its course, Akech met the house's creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli. "I had no idea who he was," she recalled with a laugh, adding that she "basically immediately fell in love with him" when she found out. The feeling, it seems safe to say, is mutual: Akech has walked every Valentino show and starred in essentially every campaign ever since. She now considers Piccioli to be one of her "two favorite people in the whole wide world," putting him on the same level as Akech's "second mother," Naomi Campbell.
Here, Akech shares what she learned about fragrance from her actual mother, and why her favorite type of makeup is little to no makeup at all, in her beauty notes.
What is your first fragrance memory?
A thing called khumra, which is a traditional perfume that my mom wears a lot. That, and what we call bakhoor, which is khumra mixed with wood, spices, and sugar on top of burnt charcoal. It has the most incredible smell.
What are your favorite go-to beauty products?
For skincare, I’m currently using Dr. Barbara Sturm’s Darker Skin Tones range, which comes with everything—cleanser, moisturizer, face mask, hand cream, lip balm, all of that stuff. I’ve tried a lot of things in the past, and nothing has seemed to agree with my skin. But this seems to be going well, so I'm sticking with it for now. For my hair, I use an olive oil shampoo and conditioner, and then herbal hair food with coconut oil, jojoba oil, black Jamaican castor oil.
What is your nightly bedtime beauty routine?
I cleanse my face, put on my hyaluronic serum, put on my eye cream, put on my moisturizer. And I put on my lip balm, my Australian pawpaw—I can never go to bed without it.
What about your morning routine?
It’s basically the same thing, except that before I leave my house, or even put on my moisturizer, I put on sunscreen. I actually never wore it before, because the Barbara Sturm one is the first I’ve found that goes well with my skin, but now I wear it every day, whether or not it’s sunny. A lot of people think that people with my type of skin tone don’t get sunburnt, but that’s not true. So I try to protect my skin. Even when I’m shooting, I put on sunscreen.
What's the best beauty tip you've picked up on set?
There are so many, but most of them have to do with makeup, and I personally don’t wear makeup on a daily basis. If I wear it every single day for work, I do not want to be wearing it every single day in my personal life, especially if I don’t need to.
Do you have a go-to look for a special occasion, or a night out?
I do my eyebrows, or I put on a lip. And mascara. That’s my type of makeup. [Laughs.] Sometimes I put on a tiny bit of foundation, just to even out everything if I have pimples or a breakout or whatever, but that’s it.
What is your favorite shade of lipstick?
I like natural colors. I don’t like doing anything too crazy, other than a classic red.
What is your favorite form of self-care?
I recently started meditating, and I wish I had started it earlier, because it’s so good for you. Especially if you have a hectic, stressful lifestyle—and everybody in fashion has a hectic, stressful lifestyle, so I feel like everybody should meditate. I also do a lot of boxing. I find it’s a good way to release some stress—you know, if you’re angry, you just go box it out. The same goes for writing, which I also find very, very helpful. Before, I used to keep everything in, which triggered anxiety and all of that, so now if I feel like I’m getting anxious about something, I try to write about it. It's mostly on my phone, or on my laptop, but since I was young, I started writing a book about my life. I'm still contemplating if it’s still something I’d like to publish in the future.
Can you meditate when you’re backstage, or on set?
Mhm, I’ve learned to. I try to meditate any minute I can get, especially during Fashion Week, when it’s so hectic—I just take five minutes to myself, go to the bathroom, and put on my headphones. I’ve even learned how to sleep during my eyes open. I don’t tell people, though, so if they try to talk to me and I don’t respond, they just think I’m being rude. [Laughs.]