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  • Writer's pictureMikelle Drew

28 Days of Black Fashion History: Liya Kebede

Updated: Feb 3

Liya Kebede carries many titles: supermodel, actress, activist, goodwill ambassador, mom, and fashion designer. Her story begins in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she was discovered in high school by a French film director. After finishing her studies, she moved to Paris to pursue a career in modeling.

An editorial for Grazia France, August 2015, shot by Jason Kim.

Liya has (and continues to have) an illustrious modeling career, appearing in ads for Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria’s Secret, Revlon, Yves Saint Laurent and other major labels. In 2000, Tom Ford gave her an exclusive contract for his Fall Gucci collection. Then, in 2002, Paris Vogue dedicated their entire issue to her. Liya was the first Woman of color to receive an Estée Lauder contract, and by 2007, Forbes listed her as #11 of the world’s 15 top earning supermodels.

Liya Kebede’s Vogue Paris cover, an issue which they dedicated to her.

As Liya’s career progressed, she began acting and has used her celebrity status for more philanthropic endeavors. In 2005 she became the Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health for the World Health Organization. She later established the Liya Kebede Foundation to focus on promoting better access to maternity care for mothers in Africa.

Watch an episode from “Living Proof | Liya’s Diary” chronicles Kebede as she learns first hand some of the challenges facing Ethiopian women during and after childbirth.

In 2007, Liya founded lemlem, a women’s and children’s clothing line celebrating her Ethiopian roots. Meaning “to bloom” or “to flourish” in Amharic, lemlem was founded to promote the art of traditional Ethiopian weaving and to provide job opportunities for the weavers who’d lost their markets for their woven goods. The clothing is made in Ethiopia from natural cotton, and while it preserves traditional weaving techniques, it is designed with a modern edge to appeal to a diverse clothing market.

Liya with some of the local women working on lemlem. Photo by Giles Bensimon.

“The motto of lemlem is ‘Made in Ethiopia’. That will always be our signature and what makes our story a bit different. We want to prove ourselves and prove to the world that there’s a new destination for clothing production.” —Liya Kebede

Liya Kebede wears dress from her lemlem label for Born Free, a project whose mission is to stop infants contracting HIV in the womb.

In 2015, Lemlem expanded their production into Kenya. Building on the strengths of the environment, hand crochet, silk and jersey pieces were added into the line. As Lemlem continues to expand the collection, it builds on the mission of showcasing to the world the beautiful craftsmanship of various African cultures (and its diverse heritage), empowering and employing local skilled workers, and Africa’s ability to be a hub for manufacturing.

“Helping others isn’t a chore; it is one of the greatest gifts there is.” —Liya Kebede

This blog was originally published on February 16, 2018.

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