“It’s so scary everywhere; it’s like chaos! Look at Hong Kong… Brexit… Trump – it’s endless. What a strange moment,” says Liya Kebede in a calm but incredulous manner. It’s a typically dreary autumn afternoon in Paris and we’re nearing the end of our rendezvous in the dinky corner café run by the Shakespeare & Company bookshop on the Left Bank, a local haunt of the supermodel and entrepreneur, where she can take refuge and “cocoon” herself. I say rendezvous because interview sounds far too formal for an encounter with Kebede: I have talking points, but we regularly go off-piste, over coffee and bagels, and talk about what everyone is talking about now: the TV shows she’s bingeing on – The Loudest Voice and Succession; the books she’s reading – several by Ursula Le Guin and a non-fiction crib, How to Read Literature. She is candid about the dangers of social media, the state of fashion and, yes, politics – though only because everything seems political when the world is on fire.
Besides, Kebede, who showed up today looking low-key in an oversized pinstripe shirt, a hooded parka and trainers, has long been an engaged citizen. Alongside her 20-year-strong modelling career and a foray into acting, there is her role as a World Health Organisation (WHO) goodwill ambassador and her lifestyle brand Lemlem (meaning “to bloom” and “flourish” in Amharic), which she launched in 2007 as an effort to reinvigorate artisanal handweaving practices in her birth country, Ethiopia. The technique, once part of a thriving industry responsible for the customary attire, habesha kemis (long, loose white dresses with colourful woven trims), has been shrugged off by the younger generations in favour of imported jeans and T-shirts. To counter that, Kebede is working with weavers to produce contemporary designs and stimulate work opportunities in Addis Ababa. That was, at first, the full extent of the plan. “There wasn’t a need to create a brand or anything and I had no ambition for designing,” she says. “If Lemlem had just been about creating a brand, I wouldn’t have done it. What keeps me going is knowing that we’re changing people’s lives and doing something that is impacting a whole community.”
Still, respecting the tradition of weaving came with challenges: the handwoven cotton has no stretch, so the garments had to be loose, and the local cotton is mostly undyed, so Kebede had to get creative about how to add colour. Such limitations, though, came to define the Lemlem aesthetic: breezy cover-ups and separates with colourful woven motifs, which have a resort-like comfort and elegance. “There was a lot of give and take, and meeting in the middle – there still is,” Kebede says of her relationship with the workshop. “We came in with all our New York details and time frames and they were like, ‘What?’” More recently, the artisans there learnt to weave with wool for the first time, for a collaboration with Woolmark. In addition to the handmade styles fashioned in Ethiopia, Lemlem currently works with a manufacturer in Kenya and a factory in Morocco, where its new swimwear line is made. The brand, which began without a plan, now produces three collections a year and sells to 150 stockists worldwide.
Kebede was born in Addis Ababa in March 1978, the fourth of five children – and the only girl. Her mother was a career woman – “She was a woman who had to work” – and her father, who worked for Ethiopian Airlines, placed great importance on the family’s academic endeavours, and his daughter was earnest and studious at school: she loved reading and learnt to speak French and English fluently, alongside her native Amharic. “School meant a lot to me. I didn’t think you could live life without doing the school thing and so college seemed obvious to me,” she says. Life had other plans though (as is often the cinematic twist for genetically blessed young women) and, at 18, Kebede headed to Paris to model, and then to New York. In 2000, in her first modelling season, she landed an exclusive catwalk deal with Tom Ford at Gucci. Then, just as things were taking off, 22-year-old Kebede, who had married (her now ex-husband) Ethiopian hedgefund manager Kassy Kebede the same year, became pregnant.
“I thought my career was going to end. I was just showing up on the radar, and it was such bad timing. I had done a Tom Ford show, Anna was calling…” she says. “In those days, no one, no one, got pregnant.” And yet, just over a year after the birth of her son, Suhul, Kebede was booked by Carine Roitfeld for the cover of Vogue Paris and had signed a deal with Estée Lauder to be the brand’s first black spokesmodel. “I had an agent who was so wonderful. He encouraged me and he said, ‘You can do this,’” she says, still clearly touched. When she was pregnant with her daughter Raee, four years later, it was an entirely different story, but then Kebede is part of a generation of supermodels – she came up with Mariacarla Boscono and Natalia Vodianova – who are still booking major shows and campaigns to this day. “I had the chance to still be here… I got really lucky, and I’ve built a lot of relationships with people,” she says, shaking her head when I ask if fashion’s ageism is in retreat. “The way the world is going today, everything is so fast… no one has the chance. A lot of the girls come in and go. We were the last generation of girls who were able to do this. The whole industry is just weird, you know? Social media has changed everything.”
One thing that has improved in the modelling industry since she started, however, is inclusivity. “Honestly, it is a lot more colourful now,” Kebede says with a smile of the spring 2020 collections in September and October, which had the most diverse casting in history. “When I started working, there could only be one black person on every runway. That’s kind of insane. It was accepted; no one even questioned it.” Certainly, I offer, we might have social media to thank for this: fashion no longer exists in a bubble, and brands and people of influence are being held accountable for everything from casting choices to greenwashing. “I don’t buy the whole ‘You’re bad and I’m good’ thing… sometimes you screw up,” cautions Kebede. “That whole thing scares me a bit, to be honest. It propagates so much hate and intolerance.”
The arrival of motherhood at such an early age has been a hugely influential force in Kebede’s vocational life. In her mid-20s, when most of her generation were nursing hangovers and mourning the end of Destiny’s Child, she signed on as a WHO goodwill ambassador for maternal, newborn and child health. “I think you grow a lot of compassion; you start worrying about everyone else and suddenly everything matters,” she says of becoming a mother. The WHO experience, which involved building awareness – including giving an impassioned address to the United Nations in 2009 – and fundraising, saw the young model dedicating herself to the plight of women. Even her acting career touched on this when she played the leading role of the 2009 biopic Desert Flower, based on the life of the Somalian model and FGM survivor and spokesperson Waris Dirie. It also informed the way she set up Lemlem: as a grassroots operation. “When you’re doing aid, you’re always looking for money – it’s a never-ending cycle and there’s no [self-]sufficiency,” she says. “So the idea of making something more sustainable by employing people is the most productive: you’re empowering them, giving them independence and teaching them a skill they can use for the rest of their lives. It will go on whether you’re there or not.”
Lemlem’s impact on a micro-level has been significant. Kebede estimates that when they first began producing with the workshop in Addis Ababa, there were around 50 employees. Today, there are more than 250 – and their wages have increased fivefold. Lemlem also has a foundation that offers programmes for women to learn the art of weaving – a practice that was traditionally passed down from father to son – and has continued interest in maternal-health initiatives, working in tandem with leading east African non-profit Amref Health Africa to promote access to pre- and postnatal care and education.
Lemlem’s success and African roots have seen Kebede collaborate with some big luxury names, not to mention snag guest-speaker spots at the most recent Vogue Paris Fashion Festival and The Business of Fashion BoF Voices event. In 2018, she produced a collection of brightly coloured, handwoven shoes and bags with Pierre Hardy and, earlier this year, Lemlem worked with Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli on his second Moncler Genius collaboration. The latter was such a joyful marriage between the three brands that I can only describe it as an “orgy” of diaphanous, nylon-laqué puffer gowns – their hems embellished with a printed motif from Lemlem’s artisans of the Tibeb woven pattern. With the industry’s now-heightened awareness of cultural appropriation and insensitivity, getting someone like Kebede involved seems like an important way forward. “I have no way of approaching these aesthetics, because it’s so different from my world,” says Hardy, adding: “Liya was at the centre of the question. She embodied this idea, as a woman, as an entrepreneur.”
At a time when the public is increasingly demanding transparency from the industry, Kebede has the advantage of having established, 12 years ago, the right sustainability practices. “For me, the word has different meanings,” she says. “The work I am doing is a sustainable model because it’s about the human element. Of course, when I started, this whole conversation wasn’t even a thing, so we were just focused on social entrepreneurship. Now we are all being educated and trying to be efficient in a lot of ways. The problem is that when something like this comes up, the pressure is such that people expect you to just flip, and there is no appreciation for the small changes you are trying to make, in your own capacity, in your own company.”
Lemlem donates excess fabric to educational programmes for underprivileged children. This season, the brand will start phasing in recyclable tags and compostable packaging. “I see a lot of this stuff and I can see that everyone’s jumping on sustainability as a marketing tool, but this is so real for her,” says close friend Mario Grauso, the president of Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew, one of Lemlem ’s stockists.
I think it’s fair to say that everything Kebede does is very real to her. There’s no posturing, no agenda, no ego. She drains the last drop of coffee, and we gather our things and venture next door into the musty depths of the shop. “I have a fantasy of owning a bookshop,” she says, happily surveying the piles and piles of brightly coloured tomes. “It would be the perfect place to hide.” It’s true; in here – her head bowed down to examine the synopses – Kebede could be just any other bookworm escaping into science fiction.