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The Ethiopia-born supermodel Liya Kebede keeps glamour grounded. She’s effortlessly alluring, sure, but she’s also smart, philanthropic, and business-savvy. Kebede has been in the industry for almost 20 years— walking and talking for the world’s largest fashion houses and magazines, first with names like Gucci and Vogue. In 2005, she shifted gears to give back to her roots, establishing the nonprofit lemlem Foundation to employ women artisans in Africa. In 2007, she founded the label lemlem to produce a sustainable fashion line while simultaneously keeping parts of Ethiopian craft alive. Today, with both the label and the foundation, Kebede is dedicated to empowering women and supporting maternal health. Whitewall spoke with the dynamic creator about the many facets of her mission, and about empowering a community (and a younger generation) for positive change.
WHITEWALL: Tell us a bit about your childhood in Ethiopia, and how it shaped your life to be what it is today.
LIYA KEBEDE: Ethiopian culture is vibrant and diverse, and helping others is a part of everyday life. Growing up there influenced me. I saw the effects of poverty and how it limits access and opportunities. My mom used to help in so many ways, and there was always a lot of discussion around our dinner table about what each of us could do. This has stayed with me as I’ve moved around the world. I’m grateful for the opportunities I have, and giving back is central in my life and work.
WW: What was the spark that made you start the company? Was there something in the industry that made you want to start something personally meaningful and sustainable?
LK: The traditional weavers in Ethiopia were losing customers who were moving to fast fashion brands. As a result, they were losing jobs, living in difficult conditions, and the art of weaving was dying. When I started lemlem, I wanted Ethiopian weavers to have an even bigger market—an international one.
As we celebrated lemlem’s 10-year anniversary in 2017, we took the step to bring my foundation and business together and target our philanthropic efforts to help women artisans and their families thrive by expanding our programs to include professional training in technical, business, and leadership skills, in addition to our continued investment to improve access to maternal health. And together, we’re showing lemlem customers what their purchases and support can truly accomplish. Bringing those pieces together feels like a dream come true.
The reason we’re in business is to have a social impact. This idea of empowering people, creating jobs, so we can break the cycle of poverty and help families thrive. That is sustainability to me.
WW: How can the average consumer be more sustainable?
LK: One way to do this as a consumer is to be aware of how you spend your money. Do your research and support brands that are more sustainable.
WW: Can you tell us a bit about your foundation and its mission, expanding production and job opportunities, and how it empowers women in Africa?
LK: Becoming a mom was a defining moment for me, and it helped channel my passions. I knew I wanted to do something to help women in Africa, and so for six years I served as a Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal Health with the World Health Organization, working to help raise awareness about the need to train and place more skilled midwives and health workers in communities across Africa. I founded lemlem Foundation to continue to take sustainable action to improve health and help lift the next generation of women artisans and their families out of poverty.
WW: Tell us a bit about partnering with artisan studios in Ethiopia and other African countries that use traditional techniques in hand weaving, crochet, and embroidery, and work with local materials and fabrics. You mentioned that last year employed nearly 250 artisans?
LK: Nearly 250 artisans are now employed making lemlem, which has grown to include women’s, men’s, and kids’ collections that are sold worldwide. Their lives have improved dramatically. Seeing this impact led to a new sense of focus and purpose for lemlem. We want to help the fashion industry recognize Africa as the source of outstanding creativity and high-quality artisanal production.
WW: Why did you originally choose the word “lemlem” for your label?
LK: I like the word because it means to bloom or flourish in Amharic, and it is also a nickname I had for my daughter. So when my team suggested different names, I smiled when I saw “lemlem” on the list. I felt it was meant to be.
WW: Speaking of your daughter… Is there anything you particularly are making a point to teach your children about sustainability or the workplace?
LK: I am hoping that my kids are inspired from all the things that I am doing with lemlem and my foundation and will channel that inspiration toward their passions.
WW: What type of designs do you aim to create at lemlem today?
LK: We want to create designs that mean something and that last. That help you slow down and appreciate what is around you. And that help you see the things we have in common and how we are all connected.
WW: Tell us a bit about your Spring 2019 collection.
LK: For Spring 2019 we introduced a fresh new color palette of chalky pastels and sun-faded hues. Color was our main inspiration, along with our classic stripes. The collection is inspired by daily life and daily wear on the streets of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital city)—fabrics wrapped into turbans, dust sheets, and shopping bags from the Merkato, the largest open-air market in Africa.
WW: Tell us a bit about the brands you’ve partnered with, like Pierre Hardy, to support the foundation’s work.
LK: We love partnering with other brands, like Pierre Hardy, to create something unique. Pierre is a great supporter of our brand, so we decided to create a capsule of accessories that bring together the traditional weaving of our artisans in Ethiopia and the French savoir-faire.
WW: Recently, for Moncler “Genius,” Valentino’s designer Pierpaolo Piccioli was inspired by lemlem. Tell us a bit about your relationship with Pierpaolo and what he was inspired by.
LK: Pierpaolo and I are good friends. He had the idea that we could work together, blending our three different heritages: Moncler, lemlem, and Pierpaolo’s creations, to create something rich and new that redefines beauty and reminds us that there are no borders in life. It is such an exciting collection and collaboration for me. I love the amazing colors and how beautifully it showcased lemlem as an inspiration.
WW: You’ve been in the industry for quite some time now, walking in fashion shows, appearing in movies, but working to make the world a better place. What do you hope for the next generation?
LK: In today’s world, it seems that most things and most decisions are made from a place of fear and mistrust of the other. I hope that we can help the next generation move toward a more harmonious and inclusive society.
WW: Is there anyone you look up to in the fashion or activism worlds, or a mentor you’re thankful for?
LK: I meet so many incredible people that inspire me in many ways. I have always been very inspired by people who are generous, passionate, and compassionate. Franca Sozzani was one of those women for me.
WW: What are you working on now?
LK: We are looking forward to launching our High Summer 2019 collection as well as some exciting projects and collaborations, including the launch of lemlem swimwear.
WW: If you could look back at your careers, what do you hope to be known for?
LK: I would like to be known as someone who made an impact, who changed things.