Supermodel Liya Kebede is full of surprises. Like the fact that she cares about healthy meditation. Or that, like us, she is obsessed with the Crown. But it is her heart of gold that always surprises. No matter how many runways she’s walked or what front pages she has, her warmth and compassion go way beyond what’s instantly recognizable – and to a great extent photogenic – smile.
To put it simply, Kebede cares about helping others. This shows not only in her personal life (she was a maternal health ambassador to the World Health Organization) but also in her professional life. She is the visionary behind Lemlem – a line of beautiful handwoven overalls and strappy dresses that look like a tropical vacation in dress form. Aside from airy fabrics, wafer-thin textures and sun-drenched hues, there is a mission: to raise artisans, create sustainable jobs for women in their home country Ethiopia and keep a time-honored tradition of weaving alive.
“For me, sustainability has always been the human element – it’s about everyone having equal access, equal opportunities and fairness.”
Kebede thought about sustainability and traceability long before the rest of the fashion world made its way. And in a relatively uncontrolled industry that still has a long, long way to go to raise social and ethical production standards, Lemlem – which means in one of the Ethiopian mother tongues, Amharic, “flourish and prosper” – is making a positive contribution Maintain change and set the bar high. Very high.
We spoke to Kebede about Lemlem, the home life, what she’s most hoping for in 2021, and the inspiration behind these dresses above – including a perfect peony pink number made just for us.
What inspired you to launch a clothing line?
When I returned to Ethiopia in 2007, I started to see the fashion market changing. The Ethiopians had begun to turn away from wearing traditional clothing and so many weavers were unemployed. My favorite craft stalls in the local markets were closed and weavers barely got through and lived below the poverty line. Weaving is a central part of our cultural heritage – I wanted to do my part to keep this art form alive and to create jobs for the craftsmen.
Tell us about the hand weaving techniques.
Our Ethiopian collections are made using a traditional weaving process on wooden looms. Everything is done by hand, starting with cleaning, preparing and spinning the cotton fibers which are woven into soft fabrics using our signature stripe and design patterns called Tibeb, which is unique to Ethiopian weaving.
The most rewarding part of your job?
I love directing the creative process. Every season my team and I come up with a design concept that is inspired by locations, colors and patterns – sometimes also by art or music. And we work very closely with our artisans to bring the designs to life. We are constantly experimenting and creating unique stories.
Lemlem jumpsuit goop, $ 325
The proudest career moment yet?
Sustainability has always been about the human element – it’s also about everyone having equal access, equal opportunities, and justice. And I’m proud that Lemlem has created jobs that pay craftsmen a fair and consistent living wage. One of our training initiatives, launched by the Lemlem Foundation in 2018, is to empower more female artisans to build design and manufacturing skills in order to prepare for employment opportunities in the growing African fashion industry – I am really proud of that.
First place you want to go when that part of life resumes?
I am really looking forward to returning to Ethiopia to see my family and our Lemlem artisans.
What is the inspiration for the pieces you curated for goop?
The rich pinks and deep orange stripes make me think of the bold, striped sunsets in early winter that we often see at this time of year. They are so clear and strong and remind me to stop and take in the beauty around us.
Some things that have inspired you lately?
I was very inspired to see how people were moved to do more to help each other even in this very difficult year. At Lemlem we have focused on partnering with other brands made in Africa and it has been an amazing experience to learn more from each other.
How was life at home for you
I’m so used to traveling between New York and Europe and often traveling to work – it was a real adjustment at first, and I miss that energy. But I’ve found a new pace of life at home. I read a lot, watched films and rescheduled shows, and called old friends via video. It was really refreshing. And it also helped me maintain my creativity.
Netflix THE CROWN
What are you most hoping for this year?
That we can see an end to this pandemic and not only be closer together with family and friends again, but also focus on helping people around the world who need it most to recover.