This Semaine we are lucky to spend some time with Liya Kebede, the iconic Ethiopian supermodel. Since being discovered in her hometown of Addis Ababa as a teen, Liya has not only encountered success as a model but also as a philanthropist. One sustainable step at a time, inspired by her own personal experience and her strong desire to make a change, she became an influential maternal health advocate and ethical brand owner.
Her modelling breakthrough came when Tom Ford asked her to walk in Gucci's autumn winter show in 2000, and her catwalk presence has been uninterrupted since. She has been photographed by the best, from Patrick Demarchelier to Steven Meisel, appeared three times on the cover of the US Vogue, and featured in countless International ad campaigns (The latest, the Calvin Klein’s new Eternity Campaign with Jake Gyllenhaal is already iconic). She was also the first black woman to represent the Estee Lauder beauty brand in 2003 (and now L'Oreal ambassador), a campaign which ignited the discussion of racial diversity in the fashion industry.
But Liya wasn’t ready to settle. “I always felt a sort of responsibility: ‘What are you going to do for your country?’”. It is during a trip to visit her family in Ethiopia that she found the answer to this question. “The traditional craft of weaving was in decline, and I thought, maybe I can help” she smiles. With this in mind, she founded ethical clothing brand “Lemlem,” in 2007, which has a very special meaning to her that she reveals in the podcast - yes, no spoilers. Handspun and embroidered locally, mixing traditional patterns with a modern twist, she aims at supporting economic independence for talented local artisans, as well as protecting the craft and ultimately changing people’s opinion on products “made in Africa.”
After being a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization for six years, Liya set up her namesake foundation, which, in tandem with leading African non-profit Amref Health Africa, aims at reducing maternal, newborn and infant mortality in Africa. “Even though I was having my child in the US, It was in the back of my mind: Am I going to survive childbirth or not? And I remember when I brought it up to my American doctors, they thought it was ridiculous. I didn’t know it was something so normal, not to die. It was a huge awakening for me.”
Big subjects are not something that scares Liya. As an actress, in 2009, she portrayed Waris Dirie, the Somali born model, in the film adaptation of Dirie’s best-selling autobiography: The Desert Flower. Tackling the delicate subject of female genital mutilation, the movie received a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival.
In 2010, Liya was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”. “It’s funny; I am not quite sure who you are talking about when I listen to you listing this” she laughs as reel off her achievements. “Every project I do is a kind of extension of who I am. It is very natural”.
When we ask her what is next for 2018, she answers: “Definitely a lot of conversation like this” smiling. In this week’s very special podcast, you can hear for yourself, the integrity, coherence and consistency, between Liya’s personality and her major career achievements. So head to the link (above) now where we, with Liya, discuss education, creativity in the fashion industry and how social media is killing the mystery...
By Marie Winckler for Semaine.