From Ethiopia to the World
Meet our cover star, Ethiopian-born model and designer Liya Kebede
Liya Kebede made a name for herself on fashion’s glitziest runways. These days she is sharing her heritage with the globe through her fashion brand, lemlem. She tells us why “Made in Ethiopia” is the future
Liya Kebede will need no introduction to fashionistas. She has walked the runways of Paris, Milan and New York, and appeared in global campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint-Laurent. She’s the supermodel with the triple-C factor – cool, calm and collected.
A career on the catwalk means a globetrotting lifestyle.
Yet, there is a place that remains close to her heart – Ethiopia, where she was born and raised, and where she returns for inspiration. We spoke to her about home, travel and launching her own sustainable fashion label.
What inspired you to start the lemlem brand and foundation?
I had come home to Addis to visit my family and I visited the area where many artisans come and sell their goods. I realised they were in a very difficult situation because there was no market for their products any more.
People were buying ready-made and the art of weaving was dying. I wanted to come up with a solution to this. I remember being inspired by U2 singer Bono, who had just launched his Red initiative with Gap. The whole idea about wanting to change the image of Africa really stayed with me; and the goal was to create something that would employ local people and make products in Africa.
So, I started a line of clothing with the idea to hand-weave everything here, so it would be a Made in Africa and Made in Ethiopia product – made by hand and by local artisans, creating employment.
In my work as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador, I had seen the challenges of philanthropy, that it’s hard to sustain and you’re always having to look for funds. The idea of making aid sustainable was really the concept behind the birth of lemlem.
Supporting women and maternal health is a big part of your work with the lemlem Foundation. Do you have any other local causes that you are passionate about?
We still do a lot of work on the issue of maternal health, but another thing we are doing with the foundation is connecting our lemlem customers with our artisans and families in surrounding communities. So, we are training a lot of women weavers to bring them into the workforce, empowering and enabling them, so they can be independent.
I believe this is one of the best things you can do for a person.
Why is it important for you to bring traditional prints and fabrics, like the ones created here in Ethiopia, to the global stage in a modern way?
In fashion people get inspired by different things. A designer can go to India or China and be inspired for a whole collection. The difference here is that I’m an African, bringing a product made by Africans to the West and trying to keep its integrity, making people partners and really trying to inspire other African entrepreneurs to do the same. Africa is incredible and the craftsmanship across the continent is amazing but it’s interesting that all African countries stay very siloed. It’s not easy to know what’s happening in Kenya, Tanzania or Ghana. If the whole continent would communicate these ideas, we might not need the rest of the world and we could all just work together.
You are very connected to Ethiopia and have spoken about finding inspiration here. What is it about Ethiopia that inspires you?
I’m happy with my philanthropy work and lemlem, and my family have enabled me to stay connected to Ethiopia. In a way, this has allowed me to give back. I think it’s very interesting how a lot of people who went abroad are now returning to work and do things here. I feel there’s a new trend, not just in Ethiopia but also across Africa, where people are really embracing their cultures, celebrating their own uniqueness and not always looking to the West. I love seeing the kids wearing traditional clothes and making them cool, and embracing our music.
I still feel we have a long way to go, because we are still quite city-centric, for example, but there are so many tourists who want to come and explore Addis, and around the country. Of course, development also affects the local people and we need to perfect that tricky balance to do this sustainably with respect to the environment and local people. The reason we love Paris is because there are so many rules about what you can develop and how to preserve buildings. There’s no reason why African countries can’t do this too, in keeping with their identity.
What was growing up in Addis like?
Things were simple. There was so much space everywhere, kids were on the streets playing ball and there was an innocence to it. I was lucky enough to grow up in a middle-income family [Kebede’s father worked for Ethiopian Airlines] and had the opportunity to go to a French school. That was amazing because I was very much exposed to things like fashion. I started modelling while at high school, doing fashion shows for Ethiopian designers trying to make Ethiopian clothes in a modern way.
The story goes that you were discovered here in Addis and taken to Paris and New York, but you were already modelling, so where did that story come from?
Yes, that’s not my story, it’s the one the press likes to convey. I was already modelling while in high school in Addis, and I have the best memories of that. When I eventually got to Paris and the US, I realised fashion is a business. Before that it was just girls getting together and having a blast, doing make-up for each other and partying afterwards. It was such fun. But then you realise it’s a whole business and there can be a lot of pressure.
Did you feel this pressure once you got to Paris?
It was very competitive and very hard to break into the industry. Not being hired can be very stressful. Being a Black girl was not easy. Things are different now, but back then, no one was interested. In Ethiopia we didn’t grow up with that. We were not colonised, so we didn’t really think about colour. The first time I started to think about being Black or being of colour was when I got to Paris, and was the only Black person in some situations. My career only took off after I moved to New York, it was a sort of make-or-break situation. It took a few years, but eventually it worked.
Ethiopia is increasingly becoming a popular tourist destination. What are your favourite places to recommend from a travel perspective?
I want to visit so many more places, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the north, in Lalibela, which everyone obviously has to see. The journey from there to Gondar is the most incredible drive. It’s like being in the Scottish countryside, the rolling hills and green scenery and colours. The 16th-century castle is incredible, and the town is very simple still, centred around a square and surrounded by hills. I went to Bahir Dar to see the Nile and Harar, which is insane and exciting and crazy. It has Islamic influences and feels like a Moroccan town with its market, architecture and beautifully carved doors with unbelievable craftsmanship. It’s an incredible place.
When it comes to travel, what inspires you?
When you travel you learn about different ways of living. I think that’s the most important thing to me. You see different ways of life in the US, Europe, Africa and in Asia. No life is better than another, and by travelling, you can take a little bit of this life and a bit of that life, and learn how you want to live. Travelling also makes you more tolerant because you realise there’s no “other”. That whole fear of the other fades away when you’re in someone else’s country and you see that we all have the same problems and that we are all just trying to do the right thing. I think if you have the opportunity to travel it can really help you understand humanity better.
Finally, this interview is also a podcast called A Coffee With… If you could have a coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would that be and why?
God, yes God would be good. I have a lot of questions!
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Liya Kebede's Ethiopia
I love to eat some really good injera bread, and there is no better place to have it than at my parent’s house.
I take a lemlem piece wherever I travel, which reminds me of Addis’s incredible weavers.
When I want to get away from the hustle and bustle, I go to the Entoto forest at sunrise for a run. Magical.
I just discovered Fendika on my last trip. It’s a small hole in the wall, traditional but at the same time a super-trendy, super-cool joint where you eat incredible shiro [chickpea stew] and tibs [stir-fry], while listening to some wonderful Ethiopian jazz.
My go-to place in Addis for a sweet treat and a great macchiato is Enrico’s pastry shop. It’s on an ordinary, busy street near Piassa old town. I love their Italian cakes with layers of puff pastry and sweet, creamy custard.
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