The Innovators: Liya Kebede on the Origins of LemLem

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Shortly after becoming the World Health Organization's UN ambassador for maternal, newborn and child health, supermodel Liya Kebede decided to launch her own line, dubbed LemLem, which benefits traditional weavers in her native Ethiopia.

Three years and one very fortuitous partnership with J.Crew later, LemLem has become a go-to source for gauzy woven scarves, colorful sundresses and even kid's clothing. Here, Kebede talks about making these ancient crafts feel fresh, and what it feels like to give back to her country.

When did you decide to launch LemLem?
I always wanted to do something. The moment I knew it was right was when my husband and I went back to visit [Ethopia] and I saw that the weavers I grew up seeing no longer had a place to sell their goods. I loved seeing them growing up and I knew there was something I could do.

Where does the name LemLem come from?
Lemlem means "to bloom" or "flourish" in Amharic. As the line is all handmade in Ethiopia from natural cotton and rooted from tradition, I thought it was the perfect name for the line.

In what ways does working with the brand benefit the Ethopian weavers?
It’s not just a job for them, it’s a growth in their creativity because we ask for their input as well. They find it really fun -- how different our needs are from what they are used to doing.

There's something both traditional and modern about LemLem pieces. How do you work with the weavers to come up with design concepts?
It really is a collaborative experience -- we design the pieces and they will gives us their honest feedback. We all work together.

What has the response been like in the fashion community?
We have been really fortunate to have had the amazing support that we have. I love walking the streets of New York and seeing people wearing our scarves and pieces!

What do you find most satisfying about working on LemLem?
Being able to keep a tradition alive and to support an economy while continuing to evolve the collection -- it doesn’t get any better than that.

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