Model and campaigner Liya Kebede on judging the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2018

The Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede is not only an enduring force in the fashion industry, but also one to reckon with in the philanthropic world. As founder and creative director of Lemlem, which collaborates with African weavers to create fashion and home goods, Kebede has been championing traditional craftsmanship since 2007, while helping to expand production and employment within these communities.

‘One of the reasons I started Lemlem [was] to debunk the misconceptions that a lot of people have about Africa and its poverty. I wanted to show [them] the beauty of our artisans and the work that they do,’ she explains. ‘I had just returned from Ethiopia, where the weavers were struggling to find new customers for their handwoven pieces. Lemlem was my solution. It was a way to help create new opportunities that preserved and celebrated their craftsmanship.’

Over the last decade, Lemlem (which means ‘to bloom’ in Amharic) has employed over 250 artisans in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Madagascar. Salaries have increased fivefold and, thanks to the label’s philanthropic offshoot, the Lemlem Foundation, five per cent of its direct sales go towards supporting the economic empowerment of women and improving maternal health, which is still a prominent area of concern.

‘From the start, our mission has been to help break down obstacles that women face in Africa. It’s the riskiest place in the world to give birth, largely because of a severe shortage of skilled health workers,’ Kebede says. ‘Since we began, my foundation has been fighting to change this by supporting efforts to train and place midwives in areas where mothers need them most.’

braille smartwatch

‘Dot’ braille smartwatch, $299, by Dot. See the winners of our Judges’ Awards here

(Image credit: Paul Zak)

‘Alongside better health, we’ve also seen what it can mean for the entire family when women have good job opportunities and can earn a steady income. We’re working on a new artisan training initiative with our atelier in Ethiopia to help women obtain job skills and connect to apprenticeships in the textile industry,’ she continues.

The Lemlem Foundation has been a committed supporter of Amref Health Africa, which trains midwives in order to dramatically reduce maternal mortality in six countries. Its past accomplishments also include training and equipping the maternity wards at two district hospitals in Ethiopia, and improving family planning and maternal health education among teenage girls.

None of this would really be possible without the legitimate appeal of the label, the effortless, wearable style of which compliments the simple yet exquisite workmanship evident in the garments – mostly based on the gauzy white cotton native to Kebede’s Ethiopia.

And despite being highly involved with both the label and foundation, Kebede is still one of the most in-demand models in the industry. ‘I usually get involved in projects when there is something that inspires me,’ she divulges. ‘This could be a wonderful creative team, or a really cool idea or a great brand I would like to associate myself with, and whom I can work with to include my charitable efforts.’

Kebede revealed a similar clarity when judging this year’s award nominees – particularly in the fashion categories, since she appeared in most of the contending runway shows. ‘All the nominated designers are people I admire a lot, so yes it was definitely challenging! I tried to see the impact they are having at the moment and went with that as a guiding principle.’

A perpetual traveller, Kebede particularly enjoyed judging the Best New Hotel category. ‘Where you stay has such an impact on your trip and each nominee in that category had such incredible spaces,’ she enthuses. ‘It made for a hard choice.’ Of the winner, Lisbon’s Santa Clara 1728, she admired ‘the clean, modern interiors within the ancient walls – it was a really interesting juxtaposition’.

It’s no surprise that the ‘Dot’ braille smartwatch, this year’s Life-Enhancer of the Year, got Kebede’s vote, too. ‘It’s just such a smart innovation that will really help a lot of people,’ she puts, plain and simple.

A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*227)


For more information, visit the Lemlem website

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.