COVER STORY: LIYA KEBEDE BY MACIEK KOBIELSKI
Liya Kebede has been on top of the fashion world ever since the moment Tom Ford cast her in that Gucci show back in 2000. Since then, she has become a mom of two, started her own business, acted in a few movies, and established her maternal health charity organization. While some of these accomplishments are the result of years of hard work and dedication, others seem more about being in the right place at the right time.
Kebede started her clothing company Lemlem about seven years ago when she was in Ethiopia. As a well-known Ethiopian, she is always being encouraged to give back to the community, and fashion was an obvious place for her to start. She says she found inspiration when she was introduced to local traditional weavers, who are in less demand these days since people are wearing more Western-style clothing rather than traditional pieces, now mainly used for weddings and other special occasions. “It seemed like an opportunity to make these types of clothes for a different market. It was a very organic and spontaneous process,” Kebede explains. “It started with kids’ clothing simply because I thought it would look great on my kids—and so did a lot of other people.”
Eventually, the moms who started dressing their kids in Lemlem wanted their own pieces, which led to producing women’s clothing and, now, home products like pillows, blankets, and scarfs.
When asked if becoming a fashion designer was a longtime dream, Kebede shakes her head. “Not at all, it was almost a reverse process,” she says. “I was presented a problem (traditional weavers being less in demand), and I was trying to find a solution.”
The company’s design team is based in New York and the production is in Ethiopia, and communication isn’t always easy. “Sometimes email responses are a bit slow, if a generator breaks down and there is no electricity,” Kebede says, so patience is clearly something that is needed. The company now sells at Barneys, J.Crew, and Shopbop, and is currently looking at expanding into a fuller collection while actively sourcing other manufacturers specializing in various crafts.
Just like the clothing company, Kebede’s charity work is something that came to her, in a way, rather than something she actively pursued. “I always wanted to do charity work, but it’s hard to know what to focus on,” she says. In the case of the World Health Organization, for which Kebede became a Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health in 2005, they approached her with a few different areas that needed attention. In a country like Ethiopia, where there are so many issues to be fixed—many of which are interconnected—and a general lack of resources, it can be hard to know which are the most urgent and important. “In my case, maternal health issues naturally spoke directly to me,” she says. “After seeing the conditions in rural Ethiopia, I realized how privileged I was to be able to give birth to my kids in New York. Women dying in childbirth was, and still is, a huge problem there, although it has gotten better. I started the Liya Kebede Foundation to raise money for this cause.”
One success story Kebede points to is the Hawassa Safe Mothering Center, where LKF funds the training of clinical staff in partnership with the Ethiopian government and a network of donors. In 2010, LKF equipped the pediatric ward of the Durame Hospital in southeastern Ethiopia. Kebede acknowledges these are just two small projects struggling against a huge problem, but, as she says, “If I can bring awareness to the issue, that’s at least something.”
As much as her charity work and her fashion line seem to have found her, her acting career is a dream that started early on. “Yeah, this one didn’t fall into my lap,” she laughs. “I’ve loved movies forever and had a dream of being an actress since I was a kid. I started taking classes just to see, and I loved it right away. I was auditioning before I even had an agent,” she says. Kebede has since appeared with Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, and Robert De Niro in The Good Shepherd and opposite Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, and Jared Leto in Lord of War; and famously starred in Costa-Gavras’ Capital and Desert Rose, the biopic of Somali model, author, social activist, and former UN Special Ambassador Waris Dirie.
But before all of this started, Liya Kebede excelled to supermodel stardom by being “the Gucci girl” of the season and later appearing in the memorable Yves Saint Laurent ads under Tom Ford’s direction. She later became an Estée Lauder spokesmodel, which not only added to her status but also made her one of the best-paid models in the business. She caught Nicolas Ghesquière’s attention early on when he was at the helm of Balenciaga, and now, as the women’s designer at Louis Vuitton, he still works with Kebede. “It’s so different now, when you know the business and the people, and you’ve cultivated your relationships over many years,” she says of her longevity. “I feel like I can contribute now in a different way when I have more experience.”
When asked what her next step is and what she will be focusing on, Kebede smiles and says, “Everything! It takes a lot of organizing and scheduling to do all this and also be a mom.” Even so, she still tries to find some downtime for her own personal pleasures. “I just saw Whiplash and this TV series The Knick, with Clive Owen, that I highly recommend,” she laughs. “I’m just trying to catch up on movies and TV shows I have missed.” —Magnus Berger
Magnus Berger is the editor-in-chief of The Last Magazine. He is also the creative director of WSJ. Magazine (Wall Street Journal) and the cofounder of Berger & Wild.
Makeup by Sally Branka using Lancôme at LGA Management. Hair by Esther Langham at Art + Commerce. Model: Liya Kebede at IMG Models. Photographer’s assistant: Paul Park. Stylist’s assistants: Katelyn Gray, Lauren Davis, and Holly Gorst. Makeup artist’s assistant: Daisy Whitney. Hairstylist’s assistant: David Colvin. Digital technician: Roy Beeson. Production by Pawel Walicki at Warsaw Creatives.