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Fashion Culture | Liya Kebede in conversation with Elizabeth Way

Fashion Culture | Liya Kebede in conversation with Elizabeth Way

[Melendez] Welcome to the Museum at FIT’s
Fashion Culture Series. My name is Tanya Melendez. And I am senior curator of
education and public programs. Tonight we are honored to welcome the supermodel
and designer Liya Kebede. And FIT assistant curator
of costume Elizabeth Way. They will talk about lemlem. Kebede’s collection of women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing made
entirely in Africa. The core collection is hand-woven from natural cotton in
Ethiopia. And women artisans are at the heart of this brand. Which is committed
to connecting these communities to jobs, education, and maternal health programs
through the lemlem foundation. This talk is organized in conjunction with our
exhibition fabric in fashion. And at the end of the talk Liya and Liz will answer
questions from the audience. We have handed out cards where you can write
your questions during the conversation. And we will collect them nearing the end.
Please join me in welcoming Liya Kebede and Elizabeth Way. [Applause] [Way] Hello. First of all thank you Liya so much for coming to be here with us tonight. Very very excited to
have you here and talk about lemlem. It’s very very it’s such a
special company and we’re very happy to have you here to talk about it. And thank
you all for joining us tonight. So we’re gonna get started and I want to talk a
little bit about the role of Ethiopian textiles for you personally. So thinking
about growing up. What kind of memories early memories do you have of kind of
traditional textiles. And what kind of role they played in your life? [Kembede] I mean
definitely growing up you know we all had traditional dresses. My mom she had
many many many of them. And everybody almost has like at least three four you
know beautiful dresses been made by an artisan weaver.
And usually wear it for weddings or going to church or any kind of special
occasions. That’s usually when you’d wear you know a traditional dress. For
me I have a special memory with our traditional clothing. Because in high
school I started modeling when I was in high school and it was in Ethiopia. And
we started modeling with the two women designers that existed at the
time in Ethiopia. Because usually we don’t really have designers. It’s just
you go to the market and you look at it. You go to this artisan and he might have
a few dresses. Or you can ask him can you make me a dress like this and he
makes, you take it, that’s how it’s done. But then when I was in high
school there was a few women. Who were kind of interesting and sort of
forward-thinking. Who decided that they wanted to create this kind of design
idea and hiring artisans. And then sort of drawing more of a modern dress that
then you can wear for wedding. So you suddenly you’re looking a bit more cool.
And I started modeling at the time with one of these wonderful woman who was
doing fashion shows. She had gone to fashion school in Italy and had
come back. And so she was drawing these very interesting new shapes and made by
traditional weaver’s. And so when I graduated from high school I
commissioned one of the. She was really wonderful enough to gift me and
make me a special dress that was all handmade by the artisans. But had this it
was like very body conscious and beautiful. And I had like the most
amazing dress. So had this I’ve always had I guess a sort of special
attachment to that. And a nice memory of it. [Way] That sounds really I mean.
So ahead of its time. So we talked a little bit about how everyone
had some traditional pieces that they wore for special occasions. But did you
find kind of in your own experience. You grew up in the Capitol and a very urban
setting. Were traditional textiles more prevalent in kind of countryside. Or was
it you know everyone kind of had you know their everyday clothes and then
their more special clothes. Whether you’re in the city or the country. [Kebede] It’s
definitely something that’s everywhere actually. Whether it’s in the city or in
the country. Of course when you walk around in the countryside more people
wear it more daily. So it’s more their daily outfit versus the city where
everybody’s wearing work wear or jeans, t-shirts, and things like that. But yeah
they all everyone always does have in their closet a few traditional outfits.
Because you need it for a wedding. You need for this. You need for that. Or
Easter or whatever it is and so yeah so it’s quite prevalent. Was very prevalent
obviously. And also you passed through the market and there’s like all these
you know. Weavers sitting and selling their things so it’s very much. It’s very
common and also it’s quite identifiable. Mostly in Ethiopia they use local cotton
And so they spin the cotton by hand before they weave it. And so it’s all
natural cotton. So then most of the clothing the base of it is
kind of this natural white color. And so when you see a lot of people
walking around. You see a lot of this white dress and this white outfit and
you know white gorgeous like headdresses. And things like that. But then
you’d have that gorgeous border. That is either really you know gold or color.
All those things come in as like borders and trims and things like this. So that
was very much the traditional. And also sometimes when it’s like you know the
church is a big part of Ethiopia. And spirituality is a big part of our
culture. And so almost every day is some sort of a saint day somehow. And
you’d pass by church and everybody would be in this white outfit.
And the women are all covered in this white you know sort of shawl and
everything. And so it’s quite beautiful. [Way] It sounds like amazing sense of occasion and this beautiful kind of background. That sounds
absolutely gorgeous. So and you touched a little bit about this but if you could
say a little bit more. So you think about spinning and the weaving and the dyeing.
Were these kind of visible industries? You talk about buying in the marketplace.
But you know did school children growing up, people, everyday people were they very
aware of these industries. And you know had a lot of people knew a lot of people
who worked in them. Or was it something that was you know like today for us in
this country. These are invisible industries. We don’t really know anyone
who spins or weaves or dyes. Was it different for you growing up? [Kebede] Yes because
they’re not really I guess you wouldn’t really call them industries. It’s
not a factory where there’s people. You know you see them
everywhere. And or even at home like you know sometimes grandmother’s
will sit and just spin cotton. And so it’s you know it’s kind of in your
life a bit. And they’re also in the marketplace. So you see the weaver.
He’ll be sitting with his loom weaving on the side and things like this. So it’s
quite there. You know it’s quite visible actually. [Way] That’s great. So it seems a lot
like it’s more kind of base in the community. So I would imagine that people
just in general know more about textiles in the way that they’re made and
where they come from. [Kebede] I mean they know it’s woven and
things like that. But where they come from and everything
is gonna be different depending on each ethnic group would have a different. So
that’s not obvious. I mean people have a general idea. Because you’ll say
oh I want you know the dress from this ethnic group today.
You do do that. So women mostly are aware to some degree. But not
extensively. [Way] And I find that you know kind of in the research for my
exhibition. That in the past people really knew a lot about textiles and how
they were made and what they’re made of. And today we definitely, we’re less aware.
As things you know kind of as a process gets streamlined. So could you tell us a
little bit about lemlem and how you founded it. I know this is a really
beautiful story. So if any of you guys haven’t heard it I’m sure you’d love to
hear about it. [Kebede] So lemlem started from a trip. I went back home to visit my
family. And one of the places that I visited was my parents are from the
capital city. And so one of the places that we visited when I was back was
actually the marketplace. And where all these Weaver’s were. And there was a lot
of push from the country and the government to really push the artisans.
And push this industry and push manufacturing. And so there was you know
there were everybody was asking like you know what can you do.
What can you do. What can you do about it. And so I went to visit this area with
all the weavers. And saw that there was a lot of them. And also that most
of them were not selling their clothes anymore. Or at least enough of their
clothes to survive. Because you know most people were wearing less and less of
that. And wearing more Western clothing. And so on top of it usually
weaver’s will you know sort of work by piece. So they’ll do
one piece, sell that piece, and then go home and things. You know so there’s no
consistency. There’s no like work you know ethics and things like that. And
nothing secure. And so I never really had any desire
to start a brand or anything. It wasn’t even in my head at all. It was just
really looking at this and saying okay what can I do given my position. Giving
you know my opportunity that I have being in fashion. And having access
to all these different people. All these different media. What can I do to solve
this problem basically. So it’s more of a problem-solving type of situation. And
saying how can we because really the art of weaving is beautiful. And the people
who know how to make it. The less they make it the more you will lose that art.
And so I wanted to help preserve the art of weaving. And at the same time also
I’ve been working a lot in philanthropy. And I know the problems of aid and
sustainable aid. Of you know always needing to raise money to find
and give money to people. But for me I think the best way to help people is to
enable them and to give them jobs. And make them independent so they can you
know break down the cycle of poverty. And help their families and send their kids
to school and be employed and have a skill. And so that’s basically the basis
on how lemlem was founded about 12, 13 years ago. [Way] Can you talk a little bit
about the design process each season. Do you develop the fabrics first? Or the
silhouettes first? Just a little bit about that process. [Kebede] So we design
everything here in New York. And then they make everything there. But firstly
we always start with the fabric. Because the fabric has to be woven and so how we
started at first. We’ve definitely evolved a lot by working with our
artisans and working in collaboratively with them. And working out the
limitations and the kinks and all of that and it takes a while. And so our
vision was let’s keep the traditional way of making this. But then we have to
give it a spin of some kind. So that a women in New York could wear it and it look
seamless here. Or anywhere in the world you want to be. So
the idea was how do we look at colors differently. Maybe look at shapes
differently. And you know use their. We look at the techniques that they know
how to do and use them in the colors that we want. In the way that we want. So
we first start with a fabric. And it’s the hardest process but we have a great
team. And so we get swatches. Sometimes you don’t
really know. You kind of you sort of imagine it and then it goes. And
then when it comes back it’s like wow amazing and incredible. And so once we
have sort of the fabrics in our heads and the colors set up. That’s when we
start getting into shapes and then bodies and all of that stuff. [Way] And you
started with childrenswear? It’s great that you know you
can start with this smaller market and then expand. It’s a
really smart kind of business model. So you were talking
about colors and designs. And putting a spin on traditional Ethiopian designs.
How do you create recreate those to appeal to an international
market? Do you have kind of a formula or is it like season by season. You kind of,
this idea evolves each time. [Kebede] I think it usually evolves around
things that I love. Things that I see. Things that inspire me. Shapes that I
really like I feel comfortable in. And then you know all the colors and all
these things. But I think that at the beginning you know we were thinking more
about we had to first look at what are the capabilities. And what are the
limitations of what we have. So for example the fabric. Because
it’s hand woven it has no stretch. So then you have to work around that. So we
said okay everything has to be sort of loose. So that’s has to be the style. And
then we look at what are cool things that are loose that we can wear. And
then because of also the weight of the fabric and we have this very airy fabric.
We gravitated towards thinking about resort wear. And think something that you
wear. Like I mean I’m wearing one of them obviously. But like you know how do you wear that but then also how do you wear it in the city. How do you
make it cool enough to wear in the city.
And that you know so you can kind of go in and out. [Way] Talking about international markets. It’s great that you really let the fabric guide you. [Kebede] You sort of have to. I think when you work in something like this you have to go almost backwards you know. Like
usually here first year like oh I want to create a brand. I want to do this,
that you know. It doesn’t work like that. You go to what do we have. What’s
available. What are the capabilities. Okay great. This is what they can make. What
can we do with it that’s different. How can we spin it. How can we make it cool. And whatever else we
want to make it. And then you know kind of produce it. So it works the other
way around. So also like we look at other different African countries.
And we look at what our artisans doing in other countries. You know what are the
capabilities. Oh that’s amazing they do this. Okay what can we do with that you
know. Does it make sense to us. And then you sort of work backwards with
them. [Way] Speaking about that. So you started in Ethiopia and you’ve since expanded
working with beaters and crocheters in Kenya and Madagascar. Can you talk about
knitters. Can you talk a little bit about how you found these artisans and
incorporated them into lemlem. [Kebede] I mean I think you know ideally Africa is so vast. And every country is really different. And every country
brings their own thing you know. They have their own skills, their own
natural resources, their own way of doing things. And so there’s so much richness
there. And you know I wish and it’s hard because it’s quite challenging. Because
there is no place you can actually just go and tap in and be like oh that’s
amazing Ghana does this. Or Oh Rhonda does this I want. There’s no place so
it’s really hard. You have to have somebody on the ground who’s like going,
looking, testing because it’s really hard. When you have you know a small group of
artisans and you want to work with them it’s great. But then once you make
something and then you say okay now we’re gonna produce and I want it by
this time. And I want this much of quantity and then everything sort of
sometimes falls apart. Because it’s not easy because they’re not really
organized yet. And so it’s a long term process and
you have to create a long-term relationship with the people that you
work with. And we also don’t want to go in and do a one-time thing and then say
okay thanks. That was great and now we’re leaving. Because then you you know
you’re not really helping them. If anything it’s I don’t know. It’s worse you know
so yeah. It’s tricky so you have to really do a
lot of due diligence. And really work collaboratively with them
to try and find a way to stay connected. And do more things with them and get
them comfortable and you comfortable with what they can do and stuff like. So
it’s a process. It’s definitely a process. [Way] What’s amazing about that is you are putting in so much of the work. And creating an industry and all these places that other people can come and
start working with artisans as well. So I mean you’re laying so much groundwork to
build something so much bigger than even one lab. [Kebede] Yes. I mean for sure that was one of my you know wishes when I started lemlem. Was apart from just
you know preserving the art of weaving and employing artisans. It’s
really also about you know kind of setting a trend and setting a model and
facilitating it. So that other people can come in because we do want an industry
to get created. We do want more people to be employed. Because that’s how you’re
going to reverse and really make a change. And so I mean that is one of that. Because you know we’ve all sort of actually to be honest like I
was very much inspired by Bono and his red campaign. And when they started doing
that they were really the first ones to start
thinking of Africa. As a place to make things at the time. And sort
of wanting to change also this image of Africa. And what is known as you know
what is Africa. And the image that it represents. And trying to change
that into actually a place where all these beautiful things are made. And it’s
great and changing the view of people. So I was very much I think when I was going
back to Ethiopia and looking at all the the artisans. The bono thing was very
much present in my mind. And so I think it probably inspired me to to go that
way. [Way] Have you had any feedback from your
artisans about kind of creating these more contemporary fashions? And what do
they think about that. Do they think it’s cool. Do they think it’s too different from
what they make traditionally. [Kebede] I mean we have a lot of funny stories about that. You know I mean it’s tricky
because when you go into something like this you know. There are things that
they’re really comfortable making and that they’re used to making. And there’s
ways that they look at something and they’re used to looking at a certain way.
And so when you come in with all your New York attitude and your you know I
want them to be like this. And I want this to be one centimeter. Not 1.5
because that doesn’t work and things like this. It’s quite a challenge.
Because they’re like if it’s one or two what’s the big
difference. And you’re like but it is a huge you know. So all these kind of
things you have to kind of work at it at them. And so at the beginning there’s
definitely there was resistance to like. Oh they’re in New York they don’t understand
how it works. And you have to learn. On our side
we had to do a lot of learning as well. And knowing how to work with them and
showing them. But then what was interesting what started happening was.
Suddenly we had weavers who are like so in awe of this of the garments they were
producing. They loved it. And they were so excited by what they were making you
know. And so now we had some because we work with a workshop that’s run by this
one woman. Ethiopian woman. And so we’re not the only ones they work for you know.
But then we had some Weaver’s who were basically saying okay we just want to do
lemlem stuff now. That’s it. That’s all. And so it’s really wonderful.
But yeah but it’s funny. I something I remember the first few times
when I went back to visit. And I go and I walked through the the workshop. I had
some of the weavers be like oh you guys are the New York people. No like I’m
coming in peace. [Way] One of the things I really love about some of the
collaborations you’ve done. With you know other fashion brands like Moncler
and like Sonia Rykiel is that you’re – you’re like this bridge. That’s looking
at these beautiful traditional things that you have a personal connection to.
And then amplifying them into this kind of international fashion world. That you
know we kind of we see in the magazines. Talk to me a little bit about
those collaborations. [Kebede] I know those are really always so fun to do. I mean the
Moncler and Pierpaolo was kind of insane and beautiful and otherworldly.
But also as the [inaudible] we did one with Pierre Hardy as well. I mean it
really usually comes from you know some of the relationships that I have with
all these you know these people. Then talking about what we’re doing and
really everyone. And I feel like we get so much support also from the fashion
industry for doing something that is you know sustainable. And that you know sort
of is a feel-good brand. So everybody’s really happy to help and wants to
support us. So and I think it’s also really exciting for you know the other
designers to do something that they don’t normally do. And then they
have to work also with the limitations of the fabrics and then how do they look
at it. So they all look at it differently and that’s kind of exciting to work with
them. And when we did the Pierpaolo he totally just you know he literally just
lifted off the you know the designs. And put that on these incredible parkas. And
it was like it gave something completely different.
With Sonia Rykiel we actually used the fabric and we did their
sweaters. Because that’s what they’re known for. And we connected it
with like a sweater dress. And so it’s it’s all these different ways and it’s
exciting. Because you’re basically bridging you know cultures and views and
opinions. And I mean it’s really really magical and in a way you’re
erasing the divide and the lines. And so it’s kind of it’s really
wonderful. [Way] People talk so much about cultural appropriation. But what I love
about this is that people are never going to stop being inspired by other
people’s cultures. And they’re definitely amazing ways to do it. And I think you
know this is a great example. So I think we have time for one more question.
Before we take some questions from the audience. So I just want to ask you about
your opinion. How do you see Africa’s influence on international fashion
expanding in the future? I know that you are helping to lay this amazing
foundation. So what do you kind of predict for different countries in
Africa as being a kind of in at the forefront of fashion. [Kebede] I mean I think
there’s a lot going on in Africa right now. Like really it’s kind
of really really interesting time. I was just actually in Lagos for Fashion Week. It was my first time. And it was really incredible. Because you know it’s
a fashion week that sort of embraces all African designers to come. I mean they edit it obviously but it’s open to all African designers.
So there was people from Morocco. There’s people from South Africa. There’s people
from Ghana. There’s all these incredible designers coming in showing. So people
are getting used to that. Which is actually really interesting. I think that
it’s not so much only African designers coming into the West and impacting the
West. I think there’s something exciting about also just locally becoming an
industry for the local consumer. Which i think is actually even almost
cooler. And so there is a lot of movement. I think it’s really amazing
and one of the I think he’s Nigeria. One of the Nigerian designers I think is up
for an LVMH Prize and things. So stuff is happening. So I feel like Africa is the next. I don’t want to say the next because I
think it is now. [Way] Like a huge proportion of the population is under 30.
It’s such a young country. So it’s such a young continent and there’s so much
going on. There’s so much going on, yeah. It’s exciting. [Way] Well it’s great
that you are kind of at the forefront of that in creating this industry.
So if anyone has any questions. So here’s one. Where did the name lemlem
come from and what does it mean? [Kebede] So lemlem is an Ethiopian, the
Yamaha Amharic is the language. And it means to bloom. And actually how
it happened was we had we didn’t know what to call the brand. And I
felt like I was too close to the brand to come up with a name. And so I asked my
team to just send me names that they thought were cool. Because that sounded
cool, that’s easy, and all these kind of things. And so out of the names that I
received from actually one of my designers. There was ten names and then
one of them was lemlem. And it was funny because it stopped me. Because my
daughter her name is Raee. But her grandmother had refused to call Raee and
always called her lemlem for whatever reason. I don’t know. And so when I saw
the name on that list I thought okay. Well maybe it’s you know sort of
serendipity. [Way] So the next question is what inspired you to pursue
modeling? [Kebede] Probably what inspires everybody to pursue modeling. I mean I
don’t know growing up in Ethiopia the idea of modeling was you know
very exciting. The glamour the you know. I mean I don’t think I really
knew what I wanted to do when I was younger. But we had fashion shows that we
were like what I was explaining earlier that were happening. And also in our school in
high school we had for graduation we used to organize these small fashion
shows. And being part of that fashion show was like basically the
ultimate thing to do in high school. So we all wanted to be part of that. And I
think that’s kind of how we started like this buzz of being you know. It made you
like the cool girl or whatever. And then I saw what was happening in Europe. And I
used to watch like all these amazing old footage of catwalks. You know with the
girls and in Italy and all these things walking. And it was so I don’t know it
was so glamorous and exciting. And so I was really really skinny. Also
growing up very tall and very skinny and and so I don’t know I thought maybe I
could try. [Way] Did you ever cross your mind that you
might go into design before you kind of came up with the idea of lemlem? [Kebede] Absolutely not. [Way] What do you think the future of sustainable
fashion looks like? [Kebede] I don’t know. That’s a really hard question. I definitely think
we are going into sustainable fashion for sure. It might take longer than we
think. But I think eventually everybody’s going to go to that I think. But I mean sustainable is such a difficult word because it really implies
so many different things you know. For us how I look at sustainability is working
with artisans and making sure that their lives are sustained. You know their
incomes are sustainable and have consistency. And we’re
changing their lives around. You know it’s not for us. It’s not about you know
technology or materials or things like that. So there’s all these different ways.
We’re trying also for us like we want to use our scraps.
And you know make them into something else. And so which you know we’re trying
to have zero waste and all these. I think everyone is really making an effort to
do sustainable things. At the same time I think trying to be sustainable is also
very very expensive. And I don’t know if people really realize how expensive it
actually is unfortunately. And so I think there might be a lot of
resistance because of that. I think the bigger brands will have a
better chance at probably paving the way. Because it really costs a lot of money
to really be sustainable from top to bottom. [Way] Kind of piggybacking on that. Would
you mind talking a little bit about the foundation that’s also apart of lemlem.
[Kebede] I was working on maternal health before as a philanthropic effort. And you know one of the things when I was growing up in Ethiopia
that struck me. Was that a lot of women were dying in childbirth. And it was a
very normal thing to happen. And so when I was pregnant with my
son I was lucky enough to be here. And I had my children here. And so I saw the
difference of delivering in a place like this. And delivering in a place like
Ethiopia. Where you’re basically wondering whether you’re gonna live or
not make it through the delivery process. Because at the time. We all assumed that
women were dying because you could not prevent their death. Because it was
something so extraordinary of a problem that was happening to them. But actually
I realized now when I was here. That more than ninety percent
of women who were dying were dying of things that were easily preventable or
treatable. But didn’t have access to skilled health attendants or clinics or
you know all these simple things. Because all the things that they’re dying from
are like very basic. It’s like the infection or hemorrhage or having you
know with the babies too big and they can’t get a c-section. It’s very simple
things. And so I decided to work with the WHO and help raise awareness of this
issue. Because it wasn’t being talked about and through that I started my
foundation. Also to work more on that and to expand on that and to do more small
programs. To sort of show how to make a difference. And so we’ve been continuing
to do that. And now we work with a wonderful organization called Amref Health as
well for the last four or five years. Who actually focus a lot on training
midwives across Africa and third-world countries. So you can have
a healthy pregnancy and childbirth. And then for when we hit ten year mark of
lemlem we decided to sort of merge the foundation and the brand together.
Because we also decided that it would be interesting to as a foundation work
around our artisan communities as well. And also introduce our customers to our
artisan community and what that means. And so we started working on training
programs actually for more weavers. Traditionally weaving is a man’s sort of
job. And it goes from father to son is how the skill is transferred. And so
we’re like trying to encourage more women to come into the
workplace that way. So we’re doing training programs for you know women to
train how to weave. And then giving them jobs immediately after. And sort of
trying to change things around like that. We’re also working in Kenya
with a wonderful workshop as well. Where we’re training sewing and because really
it’s about helping get skill. And then helping them get jobs. And then I feel
like that’s how you change their lives completely. [Way] Absolutely. Not just
the person, their families as well. So what is one piece of advice
you would give your younger self that would have prepared you better for
today’s world? Perhaps it’d be something of a piece of advice you’d give your
children. [Kebede] It’s so different though. [Laughter] I guess maybe that even if you don’t know how or which way to go. I think you eventually figure it out and it’s okay. I think it would be
something like this. [Way] I work with students a lot and I feel like everything is so life-or-death.
But it’s like it’s gonna be okay So I think we have time for one
more question. So I think this one you’re looking for
the future. What are your goals for lemlem? [Kebede] Big big goals. So well it’s
definitely expansion. It’s definitely growth. We are actually very excited
because we’re launching swimwear. So that’s very exciting. All the team is
very very excited. And it’s really about trying to create more and more the world
of lemlem I guess. Is basically the goal to
create like a lifestyle. Made in Africa. [Way] Thank you so
much for joining us today. If you guys would like to see the lemlem piece
that we have on exhibition right now. It’s across the street in fabric in
fashion. The show has been extended until May 11th. And we’re open at the gallery until 8 o’clock tonight. So please come and see lemlem. Please help me in thanking Liya Kebede.

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  1. Good presentation that night and always wanted to meet Liya……she was so sweet. Happy to see LemLem doing great things. Cheers!

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