On a cold evening in New York – temperatures barely reached 12 degrees, an icy wind seemed to be holding downtown Manhattan in its frosty grip – supermodel, maternal health advocate and clothing designer Liya Kebede is sitting on the leather banquette of Italian restaurant Sant Ambroeus, in Nolita; her long frame is wrapped in a comfortable sweater and dark jeans. For the past few months she’s been travelling between Paris, New York – where she spends most of her time – and Addis Ababa, where some of the artisans behind Lemlem, the clothing brand she created in 2007, work.
Kebede, who’s now 43, is a silent warrior – when she speaks, her voice has the confidence and firmness of those who are on a mission; back in 2018, on that cold night in NY, she is trying to bring more awareness and interest around Lemlem, but it’s a fine balance to catch, between publicity and keeping the brand’s ethos of sustainability and 100% production on the African continent. Yet, it’s essential, if anything for the artisans behind the garments and for the astonishing craftsmanship they are weaving into each collection. It’s important not only to shine a light on the savoir-faire and weaving traditions found in her native country that, if not protected, might get lost, but also to secure and create more employment, especially for Ethiopian women.
In 2018, Lemlem – which means “to bloom and flourish in the Ethiopian language of Amharic” – is still a niche brand, sold online and in a few selective retailers; Kebede has been building the label slowly but steadily, focusing on sustainability, and manageable quantities and orders, rather than massive growth at the expense of quality and craft. The clothes are hand-woven in cotton, which has been “cultivated on Ethiopian farms since ancient times”.
“Traditional clothing is hand-woven using white cotton with a finely decorative ‘tibeb’ border – which means embellishment in the Ethiopian language of Amharic. It is this tibeb pattern that is a component of many lemlem looks.
“Hand-spinning and weaving of cotton cloth is an important family tradition passed down generations, with intricate patterns often telling stories of social and political significance,” says the brand’s website.
Back then, in pre-pandemic times, Kebede was pondering the challenges of exporting garments made in Ethiopia to the US and Europe, and what it meant in terms of export taxes, as well as the challenges of producing and selling collections on different continents while coordinating teams in multiple countries.
“At the core of (Lemlem’s) craftsmanship are artisans and livelihoods. I’m keeping alive the art of weaving… We used to wear a lot of traditional clothing every day. And then, as the world became more and more Westernised, less and less people [were] wearing traditional clothing, and it only became for weddings or other ceremonies,” she explains.
“We had all these incredible weavers that were losing their jobs, and they were not living in great conditions, and they didn’t have a market for their goods anymore.
“I would go to the (markets) where artisans come with the pieces that they’ve made to sell them, and they just sit there for days and hours and hours, and a lot of them go home empty-handed. It was really trying to solve this problem of what do we do with this?”
The idea, thus, was to create a brand that would maybe give these artisans a new opportunity, or what Kebede calls “a new lease on what they’re doing traditionally. You know the concept of, ‘instead of giving a fish to a man, teach him how to fish’… it was really about enabling people to make independent (work), finding a sustainable solution to help,” she adds.
“I had been working on a lot of philanthropy at the time, and I saw that everywhere, where there are problems, you have to find funds, you have to find funds all the time.
“You know that at some point, you’re going to hit a bottom and you don’t know how to always keep finding funds. So, the idea was to do something a bit more sustainable. For me the definition of sustainable even today is very, very wide… it’s not just about materials and things, it’s about the human elements.
“I thought that this would be a way to help preserve the art of weaving, and (create) employment. And with that, make artisans independent, and then they can help their own families, send their children to school, and give a better opportunity to their children, etc. It’s a nice virtual cycle, if you will. That’s really what was at the core of Lemlem, that is still today, and even though we’ve expanded to different African countries, and we’re doing other things as well, the goal is to really support African craftsmanship, and staying on the continent. We make everything 100% in Africa, and that’s really, really something that we’re really proud of.”
Fast-forward to 2021 and Kebede’s mission hasn’t flinched – if anything, it is even stronger, and more defined than ever.
“I feel like our job was and is still today to elevate (African luxury) and make it the same as in Western countries. There’s no reason why not. Just because it’s made in Africa, the quality and the value should be different?… Craft is craft and art is art,” she says, smiling across the screen.
It’s early May, she’s wearing an iconic Lemlem plunge neck dress with a Lemlem swimming costume underneath and we’re talking via the now ubiquitous Zoom platform, thousands of kilometres away from each other; her soft and resolved voice once again grounds the conversation, past the unbearable lightness of talking about fashion in times of hardship, pain and loss, that has been afflicting the world for the past year.
“At the beginning, when we first met, and we had this conversation with H&M, we all wanted this to be something to ‘feel good’.” Except it was in the middle of a pandemic, which meant many more challenges and obstacles.
And yet, as Kebede puts it: “It was an amazing godsend opportunity because it kept us busy and it kept us engaged during these very difficult times.” In fact, like many other brands and creatives around the world, the halt on production and sales following lockdowns, put the business seriously at risk so the opportunity to collaborate with a retailer the size of H&M was not only great in terms of a cash injection, but also in terms of exposure, reach and future growth.
“We did everything on Zoom. We did everything virtually, we never met. We still have not met in person. We designed everything, and everyone was everywhere. And we had to Zoom on everything and do the fittings on Zoom.
“But, you know, we somehow managed! We also made sure that we were going to be as close as possible to sustainability for H&M and sustainability for us and for our items. We used sustainably sourced materials and natural materials. So that you can still have the effect of the texture that we have on our handwoven (garments),” she explains.
“And then, we also brought in a lot of our colours and our happy stripes and our sort of joyous feeling of what Lemlem is about. In a way, that’s what we transcribed to the capsule that we did, and we had a lot of fun with that; we were also able to create jewellery, which is the first time; for us, we work things backwards in a way. We don’t go, ‘Oh, I want to do a jewellery line. Let me see. Let me go’. Because we are committed to doing things in Africa… it starts off by saying, ‘okay, what’s out there on the continent, which supplier is doing something that’s interesting that we can work with?’ And then you approach them, you try to work with them, you see what’s doable, what’s not… whatever they’re doing is kind of what we create products from, as opposed to having an idea and then going and saying, I want this made,” she notes.
Indeed, with H&M, they had to compromise – on producing the pieces in Ethiopia (“we looked into it really, really deeply, over and over and over again. But unfortunately, there’s a problem of units and quantities that we’re not going to just be able to deliver, with the limitations we have in terms of numbers. On top of that, there’s also a question of pricing… when someone is sitting there doing (hand weaving), the pricing is not going to be the same. That’s why our prices are what they are, and H&M targets a bigger audience, a wider audience, and is more accessible in terms of pricing.”), on using weavers and artisans from the African continent, or mimicking exactly the original Lemlem collections. But that wasn’t unique to Lemlem – all past collaborations between international designers, from the late Karl Lagerfeld to Isabel Marant or Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain, brands had to compromise to fit into H&M’s fast-fashion requirements to offer accessible and cheaper clothes to a broader market.
Kebede is clear about what she had to settle on, yet, what was important for her was the bigger picture: The light shone on the brand and the many hands creating the garments. In her mind, what mattered was H&M’s undeniable reach, its global influence; what mattered was having the Lemlem “voice” heard, even if it meant tweaking the concept slightly for one capsule collection. “We were happy to share a little bit of our ethos with a wider audience. And then also, it allows us to educate a wider (number) of people about who we are, what we do, what we stand for, and how important our partnership is for us today,” she says.
That wasn’t all: H&M also committed$100,000 to the Lemlem Foundation, to “help us educate more weavers and especially more women weavers. And we’re doing a lot of workshops for them.”
Beyond this, there’s also the simple beauty of being inspiring to others – “you’re showing others a possibility, something that maybe they didn’t think was possible… I kept thinking like now even for all the other African brands, they’re looking at us and saying, ‘Wow, they did it. It’s possible. I can do it too’. I mean, that’s priceless… you’re suddenly opening up so many doors to everybody, right?”
And so, the Lemlem x H&M collection was born; it will be available in South Africa in October 2021. In the meantime, Kebede is already thinking about what will come next – but as always, it will come slowly and steadily.
“I know that sounds kind of crazy. But I would love (Lemlem) to be like a Hermès (writer’s note: the French luxury fashion house, known for its “controlled” growth, focused on quality rather than quantity)…
“Not necessarily on the quantity and the money and everything… It’s just what they’ve created, this home, this house that they’ve created, they are an artisan brand. It’s the epitome of how amazingly beautiful, how far you can take an artisan-based brand; the way they upcycle, the way they create new products from their leftover materials, etc… And I feel like, we don’t have one (here)? I mean, not that I should be the only one but I’m just saying right now, you know, there isn’t one… I would love to be one of those places where you go to because you know we’ve created a world for you,” she says, adding: “I’m wearing a dress right now. But, you know, (the artisans) sat there and made this by hand, and so, you have to understand how special that is because someone sat there and gave it so much love, right?” DM/ML
The Lemlem x H&M collection will be available in South Africa on 14 October in the following H&M stores: Sandton City, Mall of Africa, V&A Waterfront, Canal Walk, Gateway Theatre of Shopping.
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