If you know fashion, you know Liya Kebede: The Ethiopian-born supermodel has peered off the cover of Vogue enough times to be included in a recent Forbes ranking of the world’s highest-paid models. But if you know Kebede for her creamy skin and never-ending legs, you may not know that her charms are far more substantial than the average model’s bone density. Since 2005, the 31-year-old mother of two has been a World Health Organization Goodwill ambassador for maternal, newborn, and child health – one of the ways she calls attention to the dismal medical conditions pregnant women and new mothers endure in her native country.
She’s also the lady behind Lemlem, the cute new clothing line you may have seen in the spring J. Crew catalog. Lemlem is another charitable endeavor, and one that keeps the New Yorker in what she describes as a constant state of chaos. Babble roused her for an early-morning phone chat recently about kids, fashion and the mystery of why nobody makes good clothes for girls ten and up. – Tammy La Gorce
Lemlem’s been around for a while, but you’ve just joined forces with J. Crew. Right?
We’ve had the line for a year and a half, and we just started this partnership with J. Crew for the Spring 09 season. We showed them the line and they loved it – they’re very encouraging and supportive, and the catalog just came out and we’re getting great reviews. It’s really cool.
It’s for kids up to size 6X, and you’ve just introduced a few Lemlem things for women. How did the line start?
Well, I had gone back home to Ethiopia on a visit about three years ago, and I started looking at the clothes, the traditional clothes and how they’ve always been made the same way – it’s our traditional art. Men weave, and it’s a talent that’s passed on from father to son.
So the women don’t weave? They don’t have a hand in making the clothes?
Yes – the women spin the cotton. That’s how it’s traditionally done. So some of our products are hand-spun, which gives them a soft and very cozy feeling. The texture is incredible. This is my little way of trying to support their creative talent, by bringing them to the Western market where they can showcase their talent. It’s also so the Western market can experience something beautiful from a different world. So it sort of helps both worlds.
How does that work? Are part of the proceeds sent back to Ethiopia?
No. I really got inspired seeing Bono do his RED campaign. I like this sort of social entrepreneurship – it’s so interesting to be able to employ people so they can be sustainable. The sustainability factor is so important. I love that whole theory of, “Teach a man to fish rather than giving him a fish.” This is a different sort of helping that not only helps the weavers but helps the industry in Ethiopia. It sort of gives it credibility. I really want to help make Africa the next place where designers go to make their clothes.
Does that fit in with your World Health Organization ambassadorship? Is Lemlem directly related to helping women and children?
At the end of the day everything is sort of related to poverty. I’m trying to make people independent there so they can support a family.
What’s the Lemlem aesthetic? Does it match the J. Crew classic preppy-clean look?
Well, it’s very summery and colorful, and J. Crew is known for all those colors as well. The way it fits in is that you can dress up your J. Crew stuff with a piece from Lemlem, a unique piece. You take your regular J. Crew things and you mix it up with a Lemlem skirt and you’re good to go.
You have two kids – your son Suhul is eight and daughter Raee is three. Did they inspire Lemlem?
Oh my God, yes. The way this became a children’s line is because I enjoy buying for them more than I do for myself! The clothes for them are so much more interesting and fun. My daughter has been part of the team forever. We try things on her. She plays dress-up with us. My mother-in-law actually calls my daughter Lemlem – it means to bloom, or when something is sort of lush and green and fertile, in Ethiopia.