Liya Kebde by Kamin Mohammadi

The lemlem clothing line not only helps preserve traditional crafts and communities that could be lost in the rush to western- style modernisation, but since its inception in 2007, it has also empowered hundreds of workers to lift themselves and their family out of poverty and into prosperity.

Trade not Aid

As one of the world’s top supermodels —  Forbes magazine named her as one of the 15 highest earning models in the world — Liya Kebede could be forgiven for resting on her fashion laurels. But instead, the Ethiopian born fashion icon devotes herself to philanthropic work and running a fashion label rooted in sustainability and the empowerment of traditional craftspeople in her native country.

Appointed a World Health Organisation Goodwill Ambassador for maternal, newborn and child health in 2005, the mother-of-two was so appalled by the rates of preventable deaths in Ethiopia, she set up the Liya Kebede Foundation to focus on international advocacy efforts to improve access to maternal health services in her home country. As the foundation’s mission statement puts it, “there is something desperately wrong about dying while trying to give life.”

It’s this urge to improve the lives of those living in Ethiopia that continues with Lemlem, the clothing line she started in 2007. Lemlem means ‘bloom’ in Amharic — and with it, Liya is helping a group of traditional weavers in Ethiopia to do just that — bloom. “I grew up with people wearing hand-woven clothes — that’s our culture,” she explains. “I was working in fashion in New York when I went home to Ethiopia and visited an area of weavers. They make incredible work but don’t have the market to sell their clothing. So I thought I would see how I could help…” Lemlem soon expanded from patterned scarves to cover-ups, dresses and skirt-pants, and now shoes and home accessories.

While providing aid is an important aspect of international development, employment creates sustainable economic change by empowering people to help themselves.

Although they are designed in New York, Lemlem’s pieces are made from hand-woven materials crafted by traditional weavers in Ethiopia. “They are incredible craftsmen, and we are taking the weavers somewhere they haven’t been before, in terms of design and shape,” she says. “At first there was some resistance, but now they think how cool it is that they are part of something that’s such an innovation. We’ve created products that appeal to consumers worldwide, thereby providing them with steady work. Supporting the weavers and their craft has remained our central mission, and we’re proud we can sell beautiful products while also helping these artisans thrive.”

The Little Sun

Another great example of a socially conscious business initiative is Olafur Eliasson’s The Little Sun. A work of art that works in life, Olafur’s attractive, high-quality solar-powered lamp in the shape of a hand-sized sun was launched at the Tate Modern — where the artist famously installed a giant 30 foot wide artificial sun in the middle of a typically gloomy British winter — in July 2012. Revenue from the €20 light is invested into the sustainable distribution of lamps to some of the 1.6 billion people that live without electricity in a business model that helps create off-grid jobs, support local entrepreneurs and generate local profits.

Liya’s ambitions are not to build a fashion empire. Instead, as a social business, Lemlem has given employment to hundreds of weavers over its seven years, and profits are channelled directly back to the business so they can “grow the company, hire more weavers, and expand our impact.” Discussing the pros and cons between trade and aid, Liya tells Ever Manifesto that, “while providing aid is an important aspect of international development, employment creates sustainable economic change by empowering people to help themselves. When a person has a way to provide for their family, their loved ones are more likely to have access to health and education, and the circle of prosperity grows.”

She aspires to inspire other brands to follow her path of engaging with the highly skilled manufacturers and craftspeople of Africa. “I want to show them that they can have confidence to go and make clothes in Africa, so that they [people of the African continent] can get more employment. That’s the only way you can have an impact in a bigger way than I am doing.” In her vision, fashion can be a positive force for empowerment and sustainability. “The industry is unique in that it impacts just about everyone — after all, everyone wears clothes. So, if we push for new industry standards that promote ethically made goods, it will have an enormous impact worldwide.”

Lemlem’s products are already available at boutiques around the world from Bahrain to New Zealand, and at retailers like Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s. But the best moment for Liya Kebede is indisputable. “When I see someone wearing Lemlem in New York, it’s just mind-boggling because I know that this piece came from a little man sitting in Ethiopia and weaving this little product.”

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