The Ethiopian model, initially discovered in 2000 when she was cast as an unknown in a Gucci show by then Creative Director Tom Ford models all black sustainable swimwear looks and gold jewelry, from Mara Hoffman to Fisch and Ganni.
For the cover story, she talks about to Lizzie Widdicombe about changing sustainable fashion, preserving Ethiopian artisanship and becoming an accidental entrepreneur.
Read excerpts from her cover story below
On building Lemlem, a mission-driven business
“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 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. 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.”
On Lemlem’s growth
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.”
On her experience as an ambassador
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.”
Kebede 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.”
Read the full cover story on www.net-a-porter.com
Photography Cass Bird at Art + Commerce
Styling George Cortina at Exposure NY
Model Liya Kebede at DNA
Hair Ward at The Wall Group
Makeup Frank B. at The Wall Group
Production Denise Shenton Productions