A woman sitting next to other women and surrounded by colourful fabrics.

How I Launched: Lemlem

Member Liya Kebede has many guises: supermodel, actress, mother, UN Goodwill Ambassador. And now, with her ethical lifestyle brand, Lemlem, she's championing the artisanal skills of her birth country, Ethiopia

By Kuchenga Shenje   Tue, 28 July, 2020

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How does one make high-end fashion that is as sustainable as it is aspirational? Lemlem, the artisanal fashion line founded by supermodel Liya Kebede in 2007 is the comprehensive answer to that question. 

Hailing from Ethiopia, Lemlem – which means ‘to flourish and bloom’ in Amharic – empowers artisans. It brings their local weaving practices to a global market, coupling their strong philanthropic ethos to expand their business within the continent and elevate the lives of those with longed for financial independence. Garments are handwoven and handmade, and the brand encompasses women’s and children’s clothing, as well as homeware. 

The cultural significance of Ethiopia for the African diaspora is far-reaching. The only African country to evade long-lasting colonial administration, cotton production has endured for millennia. With a design team based in New York City, communication between the designers and weavers involves all of the back and forth one would expect – but without the increased carbon emissions of whole teams flying between countries.

Speaking with Kebede, I was reminded of the inspirational quote from the musician and motivational speaker Jana Stanfield, who says: ‘I cannot do all the good that the world needs. But the world needs all the good that I can do.’

With fashion being the second biggest polluter of the planet, its role within solving the climate emergency is of the utmost importance. Kebede’s appointment as Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization in 2005 started her mission to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality in her home, her continent and beyond.
A woman sitting next to a man happily weaving fabric.

‘Weaving is an old tradition in Ethiopia and a central part of our cultural heritage. I wanted to play a part in keeping that craft alive and creating sustainable jobs for the artisans’

‘I travel back home to my hometown, Addis Ababa, usually once or twice a year. Mainly, my visit is focused on catching up with family and friends, and spending time at the weaving workshop where Lemlem’s collections are made. I always try to do a few of my favourite things, too – starting with a sunrise run in Entoto forest overlooking the city, a macchiato at Enrico’s pastry shop in the city’s old town, and a visit to the main artisan market.’

The big idea
‘The traditional weavers in Ethiopia are the heart of Lemlem and the reason we began. When I was home for a visit in 2007, I started to see how the fashion market was changing. Ethiopians had started to shift away from wearing traditional clothes and the weavers were struggling. Many of the stalls in the artisan market were shuttered, and weavers were out of work, living under the poverty line. Weaving is an old tradition in Ethiopia and a central part of our cultural heritage. I wanted to play a part in keeping that craft alive and creating sustainable jobs for the artisans. We started with a small group of 50 weavers and now, 12 years on, we’ve worked with more than 250 artisans.’

Market response 
‘We’re striving to offer beautiful, versatile pieces that translate across our customers’ lifestyle – from a piece they can wear to work and then out to dinner on a summer night in the city, to the one they can’t forget to pack for a special getaway. I’m humbled at how positively the industry and our customers have responded. They love the collections. And they love our story and our work to bring African craftsmanship to the global fashion market.

‘One of the things we’ve also seen in market feedback is how highly customers in our target segment value environmentally friendly alternatives in fashion. Over the past few years, we’ve focused on mapping our footprint, looking closely at the inputs in our collections, and identifying ways to reduce waste. We’re especially excited to have launched a “green” swimwear line this year made from Repreve, which is a fabric fashioned from recycled plastic bottles. We’re working with our artisans to adapt how styles are cut so that we can upcycle excess fabric into belts, trims and accessories. And we’re also phasing in eco-friendly care labels, hang tags and shipping bags.’

Next-level sustainability
‘One of the developments I’ve been following is an initiative called Cotton Made in Africa. It’s a voluntary, international certification program started by NGOs and textile businesses that focuses on educating small farmers in Ethiopia and across cotton-growing countries in Africa. It also works on phasing out environmental and social practices that are harmful and disadvantageous to them. For example, it does not allow farmers to use artificial irrigation or engage in deforestation practices, and works with them to progressively reduce pesticide use.’ 

‘We’re working with workshops and small-scale producers in east and north Africa. In this past year, we launched our first Lemlem swimwear collection, which is made in Morocco. And we look for creative ways – both from a design and a sustainability perspective – to bring the collections together. One way we do this is by incorporating the tibeb pattern that comes out of traditional design in Ethiopia into trims, belts and patterns in our ready-to-wear and swim lines.’  

Lessons learned
‘The biggest challenges we’ve encountered at Lemlem spring from our commitment to working in emerging and developing markets, where there can be difficult limitations in infrastructure, regulatory systems, cross-cultural communications and other functions of doing business. That said, this has pushed us to become nimbler. Committing to a long-term partnership with our artisan workshop has meant we’ve established deep trust and mutual understanding, and we’re able to develop problem-solving strategies together. One of the creative challenges we have faced, for example, is how we can adapt and diversify traditional techniques and fashion elements into a broader market opportunity. With the launch of our first-ever swim line last year, we selected a few of our unique Ethiopian handwoven patterns and partnered with a fabric mill to recreate them in unique jacquard fabrics. The result is a stylish swimwear line that beautifully complements our handwoven resort collections.’

Eyes on the future
‘I always saw giving back as something I wanted to include in my career. And that goal has evolved through Lemlem and our foundation, which helps extend health and education services for women working along our supply chain in Africa. It’s very much a team effort. What motivates us most is working to grow, developing collections we’re eager to share that create the most lasting impact for the artisans that made them.’

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