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How Liya Kebede is changing the sustainable-fashion game

From Addis Ababa schoolgirl to international supermodel, LIYA KEBEDE has never been one to tread a conventional path. So when an opportunity to help reinvigorate Ethiopian artisans and traditional weaving presented itself, guess what she did? LIZZIE WIDDICOMBE meets the accidental entrepreneur. Photographs by CASS BIRD. Styling by GEORGE CORTINA

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Picture the headquarters of a fashion label run by an international supermodel. What do you see? Marble floors? Espresso machines? Ladies in stilettos? The offices of Lemlem, the made-in-Africa resort brand founded by model and actress Liya Kebede, have none of these things. The company recently moved into an old loft building in New York City, and on the day I visit, there isn’t much in the way of décor – just a few people working at computers, and some racks of colorful, hand-woven clothes. I remark on the low-key setting. “What were you expecting?” asks Lebede. “I don’t know. It’s very…” She raises an eyebrow. “Downtown?”

One thing most people know about Kebede is that she’s Ethiopian (she grew up in Addis Ababa). If they’re better versed in fashion-world trivia, they may also know she burst onto the scene in 2000, when Tom Ford cast her – then an unknown model – in a Gucci show. For the next few years, Kebede was everywhere: walking all the major runways, starring in Estée Lauder ads (the brand made her its global ambassador), and featured in countless fashion magazines (Carine Roitfeld dedicated an entire issue of Vogue Paris to her – a first in the magazine’s history). And she’s never really gone away. But fashion model to fashion-label founder is a surprising leap – though perhaps not quite so unexpected when you learn more about the brand’s creation.

The company is what’s known, these days, as a mission-driven business. Although, Kebede would never have used those words when she started it, more than a decade ago. Back then, she said, “I thought I was just fixing something.” She was in Addis Ababa, visiting family, when government officials asked her to tour a market street where weavers sold habesha kemis, the traditional embroidered cotton dresses worn by Ethiopian women on special occasions. The dresses were handwoven, using techniques that had been passed down for centuries. But people were buying Western clothes.

I am completely, 100%, an accidental entrepreneur. I had no desire to do a brand
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Every time I see someone wearing Lemlem, I have a ‘wow’ moment – because I know how far we have come

“I saw this huge market with all the weavers, and they had no business,” Kebede recalled. The art of weaving was dying. 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.”

The plight of the weavers presented an opportunity to create something that is economically sustainable. “I am completely, 100%, an accidental entrepreneur,” Kebede said. “I had no desire to do a brand.” But, bit by bit, she created one: using her own money, she hired a designer and a stylist and employed a few weavers to make Western-style clothes, using traditional techniques. Today, Lemlem sells to vendors around the world, from a boutique in The Four Seasons Hawaii to online at NET-A-PORTER. It employs 250 weavers in Addis Ababa and 5% of its sales goes to the Lemlem Foundation, which supports women artisans in Africa. “Every time I see someone wearing Lemlem, I have a ‘wow’ moment – because I know how far we have come.”

Kebede serves as the company’s creative director, and also collaborates with designer friends, most recently with Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli on a line of fanciful ‘puffer gowns’ he created for Moncler. Kebede helped Piccioli add colorful borders to the gowns, like those found on the 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.” A bit like Liya Kebede.

Read the full version of this interview in PORTER’s Summer Escape 2019 issue, on newsstands Friday 7 June

See the full shoot in PORTER’s Summer Escape 2019 issue, on newsstands Friday 7 June

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The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.