Interview with model and designer, Liya Kebede

Interview with model and designer, Liya Kebede

Model woman

Dora Aljoofri-Shrestha

Not your average model, this Ethiopian beauty is changing the world one fashionable step at a time

A model and actress with her own ethical clothing label, LemLem, as well as an avid maternal health activist with her eponymous foundation, is there anything the 37-year-old can't do? We think not. She may very well have just shaken off all preconceived notions of what life after modelling looks like.

Having recently completed her shoot for The Outnet's exclusive High Summer edit campaign, 'Postcards From...', we sat down with the supermodel, mother, and entrepreneur to find out how she juggles wearing so many hats, and why it's her personal mission to fight for mothers all over the world.

What does a normal day look like for you?
I don't have a regular day. I work a lot on my phone and my computer from anywhere. I usually go into the office if I'm not shooting so it really depends. And when I can, I do school runs.

How do you juggle being a mom and having a career?
I think it's funny because we're trying to do a lot of things at the same time yet be perfect at everything and in every category. It's a lot of pressure and we always give it our all — whether it's in the workplace, at home or with the kids. I think we juggle a lot and it's amazing because it's made really incredible women who are really changing things and adding a lot of interesting things to the world. There's also a lot more liberty, which is important. Women are a lot more in tune with what they want to do and how they want to live their lives.

Kebede with her children, Raee and Suhul

How does it feel now that LemLem is in its eighth year?
It feels crazy. I can't believe we've been doing it for that long. I feel like we definitely started something. People are starting to look at Africa for its arts and craftsmanship. The shift has empowered and given ideas to a lot of small brands in Africa. That was the whole point of Lem Lem so it's really nice to see an impactful change happening.

Did you ever foresee how much of an impact it would have?
I didn't realise what it could become. I kind of jumped into it when I saw the need for it. LemLem started out for kids because I wanted my kids to wear something that was handmade in Ethiopia. But we were designing mini versions of clothes moms wanted to wear too. It only made sense to start a women's line.

How do you see the line expanding?
We're still bringing back a bit of the kid's stuff, and we're toying around with the idea of working on home and men's.

Lem Lem

What's the creative design process like behind each collection?
We have a design team. I don't really do the designing. We go to Ethiopia at different times, and then we come back to our New York City office and break everything down.

Where would you like to see the brand go in the future?
I think it's a lifestyle brand and we'd like to see it in every category and really become a staple. We are definitely looking into growing it, adding more categories and playing around with non-handmade things — which is kind of a new direction for us. We're exploring other cities in Africa to make things, which is really exciting.

How do you integrate The Liya Kebede Foundation with LemLem?
They're completely separate. I don't really combine them but we do a lot of promotional things around LemLem for the Foundation or collaborate on something for Mother's Day. The link on the LemLem website is the only way they're connected for now.

How can people get involved?
On one side, it's mostly donations and fundraising, and the other side is about helping us raise awareness. We did a social media campaign with Doutzen [Kroes] and Coco Rocha when they were pregnant, so that people would start thinking about other mothers that might not have the same possibilities, advantages and opportunities. It was amazing how the message spread so quickly.

You've also helped open maternal health clinics. Is it an ultimate goal of the Foundation to open more?
It's not the ultimate, but it is part of the projects that we want to support. On a small scale, you see the impact it has on the community. A lot of women have delivered there safely and it's quite rewarding. It may be tiny, but it still means something to help women and their babies stay healthy.

Liya Kebede - The Liya Kebede Foundation

What do you consider to be the main work of the Foundation?
The Foundation has an awareness and project arm. On the awareness side, we make sure that we cover the whole world and especially African countries, where maternal mortality is the highest during pregnancy and childbirth. We want to make a lot of noise and do a lot of campaigns around it. It's almost like marketing the cause to put it in front of people's noses, so that people, local and international governments are aware.

Is the cause as dear to you now that your children are growing up?
I think it's as important. To think that every time you're pregnant, you have to think whether you live or die is an awful situation to be in for anybody. And I think we can minimise that as much as possible even though it's not an easy battle. The best we can do is really garner awareness because this isn't an issue that people really think about. If we can achieve that, we will be in a good place.

What have been your 'pinch me' moments?
Finding out that I've been working on maternal health for 10 years now. I was working on a Huffington Post op-ed piece with my executive director and she told me that we're going to celebrate our 10th year of philanthropy work.

When you look back, what were your modelling career highlights?
There were so many different moments. Obviously my first Gucci show with Tom Ford and my first shoot with [Steven] Meisel. Then, there were the campaigns for Estée Lauder and L'Oréal. I also can't not include the covers I did for both American and French Vogue.

Liya Kebede French Vogue cover

Do you have any style icons?
I think more than anything, I learnt a lot on the job. Working with amazing designers and stylists and watching closely how they put things together — it's amazing. We're so lucky to have free education on set.

Do you have any favourite trends in fashion right now?
I find jewellery is really getting interesting. It has its own limelight. Jewellery is becoming more intimate and personal, yet bold at the same time. It's taking on its own life. I used to be apprehensive about wearing jewellery because it was big and overwhelming. Now, even if it's big, it's cooler and designed such that it feels less like a show.

Social media played an important role in The Outnet High Summer edit campaign. What's your take on it?
I think it's hard to know what to do with social media. Where's the middle ground? I feel like there are a lot of things out there and it's not all great; some things really shouldn't be up there. It also scares me because I feel like there's a thirst for something, but I don't know what it is. It can be amazing but at the same time, it makes everything a little banal. It becomes dull, there's no more surprise. I don't like discovering everything on Instagram, you know? I want to wait for the fashion story to come out, I want to wait for the campaign to come out and see it on the right space and platform and in the right size, as opposed to seeing it immediately and then three months later it comes out and you're like, "I already saw that!". It kills the whole thing. So I think it's really hard to know how and when to use it."

Liya Kebede x The Outnet High-Summer Edit

What do you think of younger models using social media to develop their personal brands?
I don't know what to make of it honestly. I don't know if anybody does. I think they're just going along and seeing what comes out of it. I'm not comfortable sharing so much. I think putting too much of yourself out there is scary. I'm definitely a bit conflicted on the social media thing.

What do you do in your downtime?
I try to do yoga, although I'm not very good at always doing it. I want to incorporate yoga and mediation more into my life. It's really hard to find the time and headspace to do it. I also like reading a lot. At the moment, I'm reading a lot of meditational books on mindfulness and nature. I also love reading fiction and watching films.

Do you shop online?
I'm not very good at shopping for fashion online. It's hard for me to buy something that I can't try on. I'm very specific about size and fit. The only things I sometimes buy online are kids apparel and basics such as T-shirts.

What's next for you personally and your brand?
I would love to do more films. As for LemLem, tt's been exciting to see it grow as a brand. We have so many things to look forward to that we're working on currently.

You're going to be collaborating with Soludos. How did that come about?
I bought a few pairs online and I fell in love with them. One of the girls that works with us actually knows the owner and was excited to introduce us. She knew we would love each other, and it started from there. 

What other collaborations would you love to explore?
I would love to do a swimwear line. I think it would be cool to find the right person to collaborate with.