Supermodel Liya Kebede covers Porter Magazine #33 Summer Escape 2019. George Cortina styles Liya in a mix of sustainable and not sustainable swim and resort pieces from All Sisters, Cover, Fisch, Ganni, Hunza G, Mara Hoffman and bold jewelry. Photographer Cass Bird is behind the lens for ‘Making Waves’. / Hair by Ward; makeup by Frank B
Writer Lizzie Widdicomb interviews the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia-born schoolgirl with a focus on her Lemlem brand and the Liya Kebede Foundation, now known as Lemlem foundation. Noting her early rise in fashion when Tom Ford reigned at Gucci, Widdicomb reminds us that Carine Roitfeld dedicated an entire issue of Vogue Paris to her in 2002.
I am completely, 100% an accidental entrepreneur. I had no desire to do a brand.
“I saw this huge market with all the weavers, and they had no business,” Kebede recalled about a trip to Ethiopia to visit family, where government officials intervened to ask for her help. The art of weaving ‘habesha kemis’, the traditional embroidered cotton dresses worn by Ethiopian women on special occasions was in a death spiral with Ethiopians choosing Western fashions.
Kebede had always wanted to help people in Ethiopia, but “didn’t know in what capacity,” she says. She’d spent several years as an ambassador for the World Health Organization, focusing on maternal health, and the experience had taught her about the limits of foreign aid: “You’re always needing to come up with money.”
“I am completely, 100%, an accidental entrepreneur,” Kebede explained. “I had no desire to do a brand” Yet, the sad status of the women weavers did present an opportunity to create an economically-sustainable alternative to foreign aid.
Using her own money, she hired a small staff of designer and stylist, and proceeded to employ a few of the weavers to make western-style clothes, using traditional techniques.
Today Lemlem’s business is global and employs 250 weavers in Addis Ababa, with 5% of sales going to the Lemlem Foundation. “Every time I see someone wearing Lemlem, I have a ‘wow’ moment – because I know how far we have come.”
Liya serves as Lemlem’s creative director with a focus now on collaborations. In 2018, Lemlem collaborated with Pierre Hardy on a footwear and handbag collection.
Recently, Kebede worked with Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli on a collection of ‘puffer gowns’ he created for Moncler. The supermodel helped Piccioli add colorful borders to the gowns, like those found on her beloved ‘habesha kemis’.
The details do something electric. “It has this feeling of depth and warmth, and a sense that there is another dimension to them,” she says. “It bridges these things that you didn’t think could be bridged.”