The Mark Hotel on New York’s Upper East Side smells rich—like really rich. I walk into the iconic art-deco lobby on a balmy October afternoon and a blend of luscious scents greets me at the door. Then a model hops off the elevator and commands everyone’s attention twirling throughout the lobby, resting on a circular table to take photos for her 651,000 Instagram followers. “Wait, can we take another one outside? I want to catch the light.” Not that she needs it. Adut Akech who made history as the second black Chanel Bride and has walked the runways of Fendi, Versace, Saint Laurent and more, is absolutely luminous—her smile, incandescent. Waltzing through the lobby doors, she adds yet another silky, heavenly aroma to air, one that sticks to her—and me—for the duration of our interview: Maison Valentino’s Born in Roma Eau de Parfum.
The Australian-Sudanese model is steeped in the world of Valentino. Season after season, she’s walked in Pierpaolo Piccioli’s runway shows—she opened the Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2019 collection—and most recently fronted the brand’s Fall/Winter 2019 editorial campaign. Now, for her-first ever beauty gig, Akech serves as the face of Maison Valentino’s Born in Roma fragrance starring alongside Anwar Hadid. The scent is available in two iterations: Donna, for women, is a seductive layering of three different types of jasmine, a kick of woodsy notes and vanilla bourbon, while Uomo, the men’s cologne, is a brilliant blend of warm ginger, sage, smoked vetiver and mineral salt.
Fronting a beauty campaign for the legendary Italian house is a feat Adut says she never would’ve dreamed of, but it’s more meaningful than just another bullet point on her rapidly growing resume. “The biggest thing for me is that I get to be a representative for dark skin women, and women of color, and show them that we are beautiful,” she tells ELLE.com. “And that we could be faces of some of fragrances for the biggest brands in the world. And I did it.”
Ahead, Adut talks all things beauty, including her favorite childhood scent, Valentino’s newest fragrance, and how minding your business can give you the glowing skin of your dreams.
What scents do you associate with your childhood?
My mom’s cooking. I love when my mom cooks okra, and we eat it with this crepe-like bread called Injera. It’s Ethiopian I believe, and that with the okra is just…wow. She also makes the best beans. And there was this fragrance that she wears that I will never forget the smell but I can’t remember the name. As children, we weren’t allowed to use it because they said that it’s only for married women.
Do you remember the first real fragrance you ever bought?
How does Maison Valentino’s Born in Roma Donna fragrance make you feel?
It’s literally my type of perfume in the sense that it’s a light, sweet, refreshing fragrance. And I’m a very happy, bubbly person. I can definitely relate to this scent because it’s sweet, like me, it’s innocent, like me, and the smell puts me in a happy mood. I feel like this fragrance lifts my mood whenever I leave the house. My mood is determined by weather; I’m a weather person, so if it’s a beautiful sunny day, and I put this fragrance on, I feel like, a thousand times happy.
What does beauty mean to you now?
Beauty is not about what’s on the outside, it’s about what’s happening inside. You can be a beautiful girl on the outside, but if you have an ugly personality and an ugly attitude, that automatically makes you ugly. I’m sorry. Beauty to me, now, is about just expressing myself and being exactly who I am, doing makes me feel the most beautiful, not caring about what anybody thinks.
How has your approach to beauty shifted as you’ve grown older?
Beauty is more of a want than a need—I understand that now more than ever. Also, less is more. You don’t need to wear makeup every single day. When you’re younger you see other people and you’re influenced by them, you think you’re supposed to look a certain way or have perfect skin or a full face of makeup. But as you grow, you come to your senses and discover what’s works for your skin and what doesn’t.
Tell me all about how to achieve your glowing skin.
Drinking water and minding my business. No, but seriously, my skin is sensitive, and being a model definitely does not help it. From the use of different makeup and all these chemicals and everything that goes into our faces everyday, my only goal is to save my skin. Nothing seemed to agree with my skin until I came across Dr. Barbara Sturm, which is amazing because how many brands do you know do skin care for darker skin women? Not a lot. But her products, I could swear by them. I use everything, from the cleanser, to moisturizer to the hyaluronic serum.
She also has the Sun Drops, which is just sunscreen, and these amazing anti-pollution drops, which I cannot leave the house without using because when you’re in New York city, the minute you step out of your apartment you’re collecting dirt until the time you get home and wash your face.
Earlier you said that beauty is how you feel. What does your self-care routine look like?
I’ve learned to listen to my body and my mind and when that happens I take a break. I love exercising when I feel stressed out or when I’m exhausted. I know it’s crazy that I’m working out when I’m exhausted, but it makes me feel good mentally. I love doing a lot of cardio. I love running, I love writing. I will just tell my agents I need a break, take a week off. Then, once I feel like I’m good again, I’m back at it.
Campaigns like this, with a dark skin woman as the face, show how far the industry has come. But on the other hand, there’s still moments that prove there’s a lot of work to be done, for instance, earlier this year your name appeared in a magazine alongside an image of another model.
Yes, it’s messed up. It’s 2019, and this is still happening. You’d think that at least by now publications would know better, right? But they don’t. The only thing I can do is just call it out and stand my ground and say that enough is enough. It is important to speak out about because it happens so often. Hopefully these magazines and other brands that are still quite behind can get on board and use brands like Valentino as an example of what inclusivity looks like. And hopefully in a few years time we’ll see a better change.