Liya Kebede interview: The supermodel mom on her charitable new clothing line Lemlem. Babble.com's 5 Minute Time Out.Tammy La Gorce
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.
Is clothing design a natural offshoot of modeling?
No – it wasn’t something I’ve always thought about at all. But being in fashion put me in a good position to be able to help the weavers. Things happen for a reason.
Do you now travel to Ethiopia a lot to make sure things are going the way you want them to?
I go back at least once a year, maybe a few times more. It’s sort of an organized situation there now. We’ve already done the difficult work of getting it up and running. Now it’s amazing for us to watch the craftsmanship that comes out of there. They’ve latched onto the idea of exceptional work, and it’s really great to see they’re getting it. At first it was really funny because when we’d send them designs, we’d be so specific about every inch of the fabric, or how we want the design to be this way or that way. They thought we were loony. They thought we were these crazy people in New York. With this J. Crew launch I think a lot more people will be aware of the line so it will expand – then we’ll be able to hire a lot more people and we’ll really see the difference.
Is it a struggle to be a mom, a fashion designer, an ambassador, and a supermodel all at once?
You know, not really. I love that I have the chance to do all these different things. I’ve always been into different things, and the more things you do, the more things come up that you want to do. And see. I handle it very chaotically, though. I handle what needs to be handled at any given moment and then go from there.
Do the kids respond well to the chaos?
My son is eight now, which is insane, so he’s used to it. And my daughter is three going on twenty. She loves it.
Do models obsess over changes in their bodies after childbirth more than non-models, do you think?
I don’t know; I guess I only know one side of the story. It probably depends on the model. If you’re going to go back into modeling you have to get right back into shape, that’s for sure. But actually I think the obsession about bodies has kind of reached the limit with everybody. There are a lot of model mommies now. So many babies backstage at shows.
What do you think about how Americans dress their kids? Too grown-up looking? Chic?
I think it depends on the age. Younger kids, under ten, it’s all casual. Boys are harder to dress because there are not a lot of options for them. But girls are tricky once they reach the age of ten, because they do wear overly mature clothes sometimes, and it’s a bit too much.
“If I ask my son to wear a a button-down shirt, it’s like the whole world’s collapsing.”Why don’t more designers do clothes for that age group? Why not Lemlem?
I don’t know if it’s for us because of the way our clothes are made, the hand-weaving. We can’t go in a gazillion different directions. But if you’re going to do regular clothes, I don’t see why you wouldn’t make nice clothes for that age group. I don’t know if girls buy the overly mature clothes because they like them and if that’s what’s driving the market, or if it’s that nobody’s giving them anything good. They do dress like little adults. I don’t know how my daughter will dress when she’s that age – I’ll see what she comes up with and talk to you then.
Does your son have a personal style?
He’s a typical boy – T-shirts and jeans. If I ask him to wear a shirt, like a button-down shirt, it’s like the whole world’s collapsing.
Is it cool for him to have a supermodel as a mom?
It’s not something we talk about a lot. He knows what I do and he thinks it’s funny. I don’t know how he addresses it at school, but we try to keep it low-key. We don’t want it to affect his world.
That sounds like sensible mom-speak. Are you a very hands-on mom?
Yes. I do my Lemlem work from my home office. I like to be here when the kids come home.