Ethiopia: Supermodel Liya Kebede Talks Lemlem’s Evolution

Mothers Day Carnival in Support of BORN FREE Africa - Hosted by VOGUE, DIANE VON FURSTENBERG, LIYA KEBEDE, JOHN MEGRUE, WANGECHI MUTU, and CLAIRE DANESHaving spent roughly half her life in the fashion biz, Liya Kebede has come a long way in the industry since leaving Ethiopia at the age of 18 to model in Paris. In the following decades, Kebede has established herself as a bona fide icon—not only as a “super” still busy with runway and editorial work, but additionally as a philanthropist/advocate for maternal health and an emerging entrepreneur. Back in 2007, she launched her ready-to-wear brand, Lemlem, as a way to create new opportunities for the traditional weavers and artisans based in her hometown, Addis Ababa. The word lemlem means “to bloom” in Amharic and is also a nickname Kebede gave her 8-year-old daughter, Raee. Indeed, the line itself—comprised of beach-ready wares that are handwoven and embroidered in Africa—has been flourishing in a big way: Just this week, Kebede was announced as a new member of the CFDA.
Fresh off of the haute couture and menswear circuits (in Paris, she walked Dior and posed for pal Haider Ackermann’s presentation), Kebede joined to preview her new collection. At our appointment, the supermodel was the epitome of summertime casual in a gray T-shirt, striped Lemlem skirt, and canvas sneakers. While the has introduced new jersey and merino wool categories in recent seasons, Resort ’15 focused on best-selling gauzy tunics, caftans, and scarves in vibrant hues. Kebede personally gravitates toward some of the more directional silhouettes, including strapless jumpsuits, raw-edged maxi ponchos, and long boy shorts. Our takeaway? Both Kebede and her beachy clothes are beautiful in every way. Read on below for five things we learned about Kebede and Lemlem.
— Brittany Adams
1. Kebede started Lemlem on a whim:
lemelem 1“The whole thing came about when I was at home in Addis [Ababa] and walking around with the mayor. He wanted so much for me to do something, and I initially didn’t know how I could give back. We went through this big bazaar in Shola, where all the artisans work, but the market hadn’t been doing well because Ethiopian people are wearing machine-made outfits on an everyday basis and saving traditional clothes for special occasions like church or a wedding. We were talking about how amazing all these incredible weavers are, and that got me thinking that maybe I could start a line.”
2. Lemlem launched with kids’ clothes but is now primarily focused on womenswear:
“I had my kids back then already and thought it would be cute to start Lemlem as a children’s line because every mom would love a nicely handmade little dress for her daughter. Then every mom—including me—loved it so much we decided to make the clothes in larger sizes, which is when things really took off.”
3. Kebede maintains a close relationship with Lemlem’s artisans:
“I was most recently in Ethiopia in May. I actually went for my foundation [Liya Kebede Foundation], but every time I go there, I’m always multitasking. So we do the foundation thing for a few days, and then the family thing, and then we see the Lemlem weavers. It’s mostly men that weave, and the craft is passed down generationally, from father to son, father to son. But it’s women who hand-spin the cotton and do all the sewing. It’s been interesting to see how our weavers have grown to see Lemlem. When we first started with them, we were so demanding and they thought we were these, like, neurotic New Yorkers. It took a while to really gel and understand each other. Now they’re so proud of the product and exclusively want to work for Lemlem. It was great to see them last time all listening to the radio and throbbing to the music while they weaved.
lemelem 2
4. Kebede believes there’s room in the market for both fast fashion and more conscious design.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about fast fashion versus slow fashion lately, and I think there’s space for it all to exist. If you want a Zara shirt, you want a Zara shirt. But I also believe that more and more people are becoming increasingly conscious of how and where their clothes are made. Aside from the fair labor aspect, many of our customers are simply coming to us for something that’s unique.”
5. Lemlem will continue to grow, but will always keep its roots in Africa.
“I really see Lemlem as a lifestyle brand and something that can ultimately be quite impactful. The whole motto of Lemlem is “Made in Ethiopia.” That will always be our signature and what makes our story a bit different. Even now as we’re introducing jersey and new categories, we’re going to stay true to our original Made in Africa mission. We want to prove ourselves and prove to the world that there’s a new destination for clothing production.”
Lemlem ($135 to $325) is carried by retailers including Barneys New York, Net-a-Porter, and Selfridges. For more information, visit

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