Is Fashion Made in Africa Sustainable? Look at Liya’s Ethiopia Brand Lemlem

Brands like Lemlem have proven that scaling in some corners of the continent is possible. But is it sustainable? (Photo: Lemlem)

Business of Fashion

Can You Build a Fashion Business With a Manufacturing Base in Africa?

NEW YORK, United States — Liya Kebede made her first Lemlem garment in 2007 as a way to give back to Ethiopia, where the successful model was born and raised; a crucial stop before starring in Tom Ford campaigns and walking Miuccia Prada’s runway. She found a group in Addis Ababa, her hometown and the sub-Saharan African country’s largest city, to produce garments handwoven in the traditional technique, with the gauzy white cotton she wore growing up but had since been replaced by more Western-style (and often second-hand Western) garments.

“When I created Lemlem it was about trying to create a solution to a problem,” Kebede says, smiling from behind her desk in a sunny office located in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighbourhood. “The market of the weaving had gone down a lot and there were all these artisans that were looking for jobs and not finding any. What can I do to help move the needle a little bit along?”

Kebede modernised the silhouettes and instructed the artisans to weave in stripes of fluo-coloured yarn, which soon became Lemlem’s signature. In that first year, she manufactured 200 units and secured three points of sale. Collaborations with the likes of J.Crew — including a successful kid’s line — followed.

In 2017, production will exceed 25,000 units, with 300 points of distribution across six continents. She now employs 250 weavers and craftspeople in Ethiopia, with salaries increasing five-fold in the past decade. In recent years, Kebede has expanded parts of her production to Kenya — where she produces trend-driven fashion items — and sources materials in Rwanda, Madagascar and Mali.

The success of the line has compelled Kebede to change her namesake non-profit to Lemlem Foundation, which has expanded its mission of promoting maternal health in Africa to supporting the economic empowerment of African women. (The for-profit business donates 5 percent of all of its direct sales and proceeds from one-off collaborations to the foundation.)

While Kebede declined to disclose annual revenue figures, her 2017 goal for Lemlem — other than to expand the label’s fashion offerings, with plans to host its first-ever live presentation during the Resort 2018 season this spring — is to raise capital in order to scale further. And she plans to do so in Africa, where she has managed to achieve success.

And yet — expansive production, especially at the higher end of the market — still seems extraordinarily difficult to accomplish on the continent — if not impossible — with commonly known challenges such as unstable infrastructure, the bog of bureaucracy and a lack of information on how exactly to do it.

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