Liya Kebede is almost annoyingly PERFECT. Pretty, classic looks? Check. Handsome hedge-fund-manager husband and two adorable children? Check. Still in demand to open fashion shows despite being 15 years older than most other models? Check. And she spends a significant portion of her time doing good works? Come on.
But it’s true. These days, the Ethiopian native acts as Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization and heads an eponymous foundation to benefit her home country, all while tending to a nascent acting career and a fledgling children’s line, LemLem.
This story first appeared in the April 1, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The collection, whose name means “flourish,” or “bloom,” in Amharic, is no vanity project. Kebede started the line in order to provide employment for traditional Ethiopian weavers. “They don’t have a market anymore. I wanted to give them a way to showcase their art and get money from it,” explains the 31-year-old, who decided to design for kids because she is an avid shopper for her own young son and daughter. The results — cotton bloomers, shirts, onesies and dresses — have proved irresistible to mums, so much so that shirts and scarves are now being made in adult sizes.
Though production is very small-scale (indeed, a cardboard box of clothes arrives direct from Addis Ababa to LemLem’s Chelsea studio as Kebede explains the line), six pieces are exclusive to J. Crew in a first-time collaboration, and others will be sold online and at retailers in Paris and London. The extra business gels with Kebede’s plan to encourage industry rather than simply dole out handouts.
“I thought this [collaboration] was the right fit because it brings the Western market to them,” she says.
Of course, the male weavers are not accustomed to working at the intense pace of the New York City fashion industry. “They think we are nutcases,” she laughs. “They don’t understand why we want [something] done two millimeters differently. We’re like, ‘No, trust us.'”
Liya is incredibly invested in having this project work and having it be viable,” says J. Crew’s creative director Jenna Lyons.
Kebede put an equal amount of diligence into her turn on the big screen in the upcoming “Desert Flower,” a biopic of Somalian model-turned-activist Waris Dirie — so much so that cast and crew took to calling her Waris during the shoot. Kebede, who made her film debut in 2005’s “Lord of War” and appeared in “The Good Shepherd,” won the role out of 500 hopefuls based on her audition tape. “Only afterwards did we learn that she is a top model,” says the movie’s German director, Peter Hermann. To test her mettle, he threw her in with professional actors from Munich’s Bavarian Staatstheater for a second audition. “We didn’t make it easy for her,” he says.
As for modeling, Kebede still enjoys it. “I take pleasure in the process,” she explains. But, she says, discrimination persists in the industry despite all the recent attention to race, including Italian Vogue’s famous “Black Issue,” in which she appeared. “I’ve had clients saying, ‘We can’t use her because she’s black,’ ” she says. “You say, ‘OK, fine,’ and you move on. I’ve been lucky about it, but even today it will happen and I won’t be shocked.”
“The fact that there has been all this talk about it has helped. And I really think that Michelle and Barack Obama have helped,” continues Kebede, who met the President at a campaign fund-raiser. “I’m a bit more optimistic this time around.” And should her daughter want to model, Kebede says she would be supportive. “I wouldn’t want her to start early. But if she is around 18 or 19, I wouldn’t mind. It’s a tough industry, but I’ve done it and it’s been quite OK with me.”