In 2017, when Anok Yai was a 19-year-old student at Plymouth State University, she attended Howard University’s homecoming, where a photographer captured her in denim cutoffs and a sheer turtleneck, the detritus of a college bacchanal strewn across the grass behind her.
The image went viral on Instagram minutes after it was posted. “When I first saw the number of notifications I was getting, I thought that I had become a meme,” says Yai. “I was too scared to open my phone. I was like, Oh my god, everyone’s going to know. I can’t go back home.”
In fact, she was getting showered with praise, and that picture launched a career with unprecedented swiftness. Within 24 hours, Yai gained upwards of 30,000 followers on social media. Then the agencies came calling: Next Models flew her out to New York and signed her that same day. In the five years since, she’s walked in thousands of shows. In 2018, she became the first Black model to open a Prada show since Naomi Campbell in 1997. Now 25, Yai has established herself as a bona fide star.
Courrèges bra top, skirt, and necklace.
Chanel jacket and skirt; Courrèges bralette.
Growing up in New Hampshire, Yai stood out in more ways than one. “I always wanted to get into fashion but couldn’t afford to go to New York,” she recalls. “I got scouted multiple times at the mall, or was prodded by my friends at school who were at modeling agencies, and I kept saying no. I always had this feeling that something bigger was coming for me.”
She was born in South Sudan and immigrated to the United States with her family as a toddler. In college, she was studying biochemistry and thinking of pursuing a career in medicine. After she was signed, she put her studies on hold. “I took a leap of faith and flew to L.A. to shoot a Prada campaign,” she says. “I tried to stay in college, but science and traveling don’t work together.” Instead, Yai took it upon herself to learn fashion’s ins and outs. “I taught myself by researching all day about the industry, about finances and marketing. I took business and economics courses online. I was a new face, but I wanted to be able to go into the rooms and know what the fuck I was talking about.”
Drilling down on a new venture with intense, prolonged focus is Yai’s modus operandi—for both work and play. “Whenever I want to do something, I do it at 100 percent,” she explains. “And if I fail, I know there was nothing more that I could have done.” In addition to spending “60 percent of my life on a plane” for modeling jobs, Yai is a prolific visual artist, mostly painting with oils, but also experimenting with other media. (“Right now, I’m doing some work with fire,” she says. “But it’s a trial and error thing.”)
Dior coat; Courrèges boots (throughout).
Ferragamo dress; Courrèges necklace and gloves (throughout).
During the pandemic, Yai took up knife fighting lessons as an outlet for her restlessness. That has since morphed into a full-blown passion that takes her worldwide with her sifu, a master teacher who trains Hollywood actors and choreographs fight scenes in movies. “When I’m fighting, it feels like a dance that goes so fast, you have to meditate,” she says. “Because the second you lose focus, you’re hit with a knife.” For Heidi Klum’s famed annual Halloween party in 2022, Yai dressed up as Blade and left the soirée after 20 minutes to film a fight video with friends under the Brooklyn Bridge—just for fun.
“I’m at a place now where I want to create my own lane,” says Yai. “I don’t know exactly what that is, but I know I want it to be different from anything anyone has ever seen. I’m focused on competing with myself and pushing my boundaries as far as they can go.”
Who do you look up to?
Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones. They inspire me so much, and they paved the way for so many of us.
What do you consider the most iconic fashion shoot of all time?
Everything that Helmut Newton did. I wish I’d had the opportunity to shoot with him.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your career?
My favorite part is the performance aspect of modeling—I love affecting people. And my least favorite is that I have no social life. I’m trying to learn to balance, but I’m a crazy workaholic. It comes with the territory.
What was your style like when you were a teenager?
Oh, I dressed crazy. My mom would braid my hair into hot pink or violet box-braid bobs. There was a moment when I had a cornrowed pink mohawk. And I would dress in themes for different weeks: One time, I did a fur theme, so I had these big fur boots and this giant fur jacket, fur pants, and a fur crop top. In my head I looked fine, but my mom thought I was insane.
Is there a particular designer who is an important person in your life?
If I pick one, I’m going to get in trouble. [Laughs] I would say Miuccia Prada and Riccardo Tisci because they were there from the beginning and they supported me so much. When I first met Miuccia Prada, I knew of her, of course, but I didn’t know what she looked like. I was just talking to her like she was another nice Italian woman. Everyone kept looking at me and saying, “What are you doing? That’s Miuccia Prada!” Ever since then, we’ve been super close. And Riccardo, he’s like my cool uncle-slash-dad, basically.
What is your favorite form of self-care?
Recently, I’ve gotten into scents and aromatherapy. Buying perfume and having a scent makes me feel really calm. I’ve started buying scents for my bed, for the airplane, for hotels. And acupuncture! I just started a few months ago, and it’s helped me a lot with my gut health.
When you’re not working, where do you like to go?
My team had to force me to go on vacation recently. They were like, “You need to take time for yourself.” But I’m trying to find new vacation spots. When I’m not working, I’ll call my friends and I’m like, “What country are you in?” And then I’ll just go. And that’s how we all link up. If we’re all in three different countries, we just pick a country that’s closest to all of us, and then we meet up there.
Earlier this year, I went home to South Sudan for the first time since moving to the U.S. Before I went, I always felt like there was something missing, a void in my life, and I could never put my finger on it. Once I went home, I felt whole for the first time. There’s this grounding, spiritual energy when you enter Africa, like you’ve found god, even before you land. I recommend visiting Africa for everybody. They’ve got to go back home.
Hair by Benjamin Muller at MA+Talent; makeup by Thomas de Kluyver for Gucci Beauty at Art Partner; manicure by Anatole Rainey for Chanel Le Vernis at Premier Hair and Makeup. Model: Anok Yai at No Smoking. Casting by Piergiorgio Del Moro and Samuel Ellis Scheinman at DM Casting. Set design by Nicola Scarlino at Blaze Paris.
Produced by January Productions; executive producer: Leonard Cuinet; local producer: Afif Baroudi; production coordinators: Barbara Eyt, José Rodriguez Grijalva; photo assistants: Kai Cem Narin, John Neate, Joris Rossi, Hugo Varaldi; digital operator: Niccolo Pacilli; digital assistant: Cassian Gray; lab: Dreamer; fashion assistants: Arnaud Buisson, Marlene Le Gall; production assistants: Jules Guibourg, Anthony Abikhzer, Sofiane Baziz; hair assistants: Lauren Berrones, Shannon Davison, Mills Mouchopeda; makeup assistants: Abbie Nourse, Josh Bart; set design assistant: Sacha Gabilan; set dressers: Amin Bidar, Manon Colin.