Vogue: Liya Kebede & Her Daughter Bring A Touch Of Ethiopia’s Artisanship To H&M

Liya Kebede says working with her daughter was wonderfully emotional and a proud moment in her career. (Vogue)


Liya Kebede & Her Daughter Bring A Touch Of Ethiopia’s Artisanship To H&M

Liya Kebede has been quietly working to preserve the art of weaving in her native Ethiopia since she founded her artisanal brand Lemlem, which means “to bloom” and “flourish” in Amharic, in 2007. By employing traditional weavers and breaking their cycle of poverty – the once thriving industry creating custom habesha kemis garments suffered as young Africans turned to modern imported fashion – Kebede has reinvigorated a community, and kept an important element of the culture of Addis Ababa, where she was born.

Kebede is working with H&M on ways the high-street giant can benefit the Lemlem Foundation. Community is at the core of Lemlem and it was crucial that this was reflected in the H&M collaboration. (Vogue

The UN ambassador and maternal health advocate’s craft-focused business model can be seen as a lesson in sustainability – one that is spoken about less frequently than eco-friendly textile innovations and circularity initiatives. “Lemlem is about the human element of sustainability,” explains Kebede over Zoom, still as radiant as when she started modelling at the age of 18. “In philanthropy, there’s always this issue of making something sustainable. For me, enabling and educating people, giving them jobs and making them independent is a sustainable way of doing aid.”

The work of the Lemlem Foundation, which runs in tandem with the clothing brand and connects female artisans in Africa to healthcare, education and jobs, struck a chord with H&M, a pioneer in the high-street sustainable fashion movement. When the Swedish fast-fashion giant invited Kebede to design a capsule collection, she didn’t balk at the prospect, but saw it as an opportunity to spread the word about Lemlem’s mission. “The idea of H&M collaborating with a brand like ours, which is very much based on sustainability, brings that kind of awareness to their customers,” Kebede explains of H&M’s mammoth outreach. “I think that’s really important and great to be a part of.”

Effortless-yet-elegant is the style takeaway from the edit. Jewellery is to be worn stacked and passed down through generations. (Vogue)

After deciding that the shipping of fabrics back and forth between Ethiopia and Europe would pose major carbon footprint issues and that the quantity of stock would overwhelm Lemlem’s weavers, Kebede agreed to create a line of effortless daywear in the spirit of Lemlem’s archive, but made in Europe. Sustainably sourced organic cotton and linen and recycled polyester were selected to give the same texture as Lemlem’s artisanal pieces, while the joyful mood of the striped beachwear and breezy separates emulates the brand’s signature colourful aesthetic. “I love the whole energy of layering and everything sort of going with each other, even though it’s not the same,” says Kebede, who has been living in the samples.

Jewellery, a new category for Lemlem and one Kebede is thrilled to experiment with, comes in the form of stacking trinkets made from recycled zinc, among other materials. It’s designed, like the rest of the sunny edit, to be passed down from generation to generation, and Kebede chose her daughter Raee to star in the lookbook with her – an experience she describes as emotional. “These classic pieces are wonderful items that you can always wear forever,” she says of the seasonless Lemlem ethos she extended to H&M.

Raee, who loves the sustainable Lemlem X H&M crop tops and swimwear, and her friends, who mostly shop vintage, are indicative of the shift in consciousness around fashion’s negative impact on the environment. Kebede, who says there were no conversations around sustainability when she began modelling, is buoyed by this. “When people first started talking about it, everybody said, ‘If I make [clothing] sustainable, I’m going to be limited, so I won’t be able to make it as gorgeous as I want.’ Now that has completely changed,” she asserts. The healthy food movement, she believes, is helpful at illustrating this: organic food was once conceived as good for you, but lacking in flavour. Now, it is widely-accepted. With change-makers like Kebede spreading the message about quality, beautiful and ethical fashion, sustainability is firmly on the menu.

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Liya Kebede, who oversaw every finish, has been living in the samples since developing the collection. (Vogue)

Shop Lemlem x H&M, which is priced from £7.99 to £39.99, from 22 April. As part of the collaboration H&M has made a donation to the Lemlem Foundation to bolster its important work.

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