Liya Kebede isn’t out to build a fashion empire. “As much as I want it to be humongous,” says the Ethiopian super model, “there’s a limit to how big it can get.” That’s because Lemlem shirts, scarves, and dresses are designed in New York, but made from handwoven materials crafted by traditional weavers in Kebede’s home country. That said, “humongous” may be a relative term: Lemlem’s products are already available at boutiques around the world from Manama, Bahrain to Jackson, Mississippi, and at large retailers like Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s.
The clothing line provides employment for practitioners of a centuries-old tradition that was facing extinction. “I visited an area of these incredible weavers that we’ve always had in Ethiopia who make incredible work but don’t really have the space to sell their clothes anymore,” Kebede says in this week’s episode of Innovation Agents. “It’s one thing to donate money. It’s a whole other thing to give an opportunity for someone to make his own money.” And that’s how Lemlem–which means “to bloom” in Amharic–was founded five years ago.
In a 2010 Time magazine article, fashion designer Tom Ford wrote of 32-year-old Kebede, “In today’s world, celebrity advocates are not rare. What is rare is to encounter one whose devotion and drive come from a genuine desire to better our world.” Kebede leads a foundation dedicated to improving the lives of women and children around the world, and was named the World Health Organization’s Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal Newborn and Child Health in 2005. She is also one of the heroes on our League of Extraordinary Women list.
For many activists, the results of their good deeds can only be seen far from home. Not so for Kebede. “When I see Lemlem walking around New York City, it’s just mind-boggling, because I know it came from this one man sitting and weaving this little product.”