Some people were born into entrepreneurship, others planned for it. Then, there’s Liya Kebede who considers herself an “accidental entrepreneur.” For most international supermodels, you can almost predict their trajectory—supermodel status, then brand ambassador, then beauty brand or clothing line will follow suit. But Kebede’s path wasn’t that clear cut. When she refers to herself as an accidental entrepreneur, she truly means the launch of her brand Lemlem was a mere coincidence birthed from a stroll through an Ethiopian market street.
“[Lemlem’s] designs share the story of the art of handweaving and amazing talent, diversity, and inspiration to be found in Africa,” she tells ELLE.com via email. During a walk through the Ethiopian market, Kebede noticed a group of traditional weavers struggling to sell their hand-woven garments. Given the name—an Amharic expression that translates to “bloom” and “flourish,” Kebede used her own money to build her team from the ground up to help the weavers do exactly that. Collaboration has been central to the brand’s DNA from its genesis, from employing weavers to combine traditional techniques and Western style, to designer collabs with Moncler, to Kebede’s latest trick: an H&M collection.
Launching today, May 6, in the US and Canada, Lemlem x H&M continues the mission-driven story of celebrating artisanship, creating job opportunities for traditional weavers across the continent. The collection features warm-weather staples (crop tops, caftans, dresses, jewelry and more) that marry H&M’s trend-forward aesthetic with Lemlem’s timelessness, doused in summer brights like yellow, orange, blue, and white. What’s more, H&M will donate $100,000 to the Lemlem foundation to continue providing opportunities for women artisans.
Ahead, Kebede talks her H&M designer collab, finding joy during a pandemic, and advice to “accidental entrepreneurs” like herself.
Joy was hard to find in the past year. How have you been making sure to celebrate joy in your life?
It has been a complicated year but also a time of reflection and learning. And I have found true joy in seeing the ways people have reached out to old and new friends offering support and caring for one another in this time.
A lot of clothing brands were birthed as a solution to a larger problem in fashion. What would you say was the problem Lemlem was created to fix?
Lemlem was created to share the best of the craftsmanship I grew up with at home in Ethiopia – and to help the incredible community of artisans there. That’s what motivated me and it’s the story of Lemlem. I never thought about having my own brand until I suddenly saw it as a solution to create sustainable jobs so traditional weavers from my country could make a good living doing what they love, channeling their incredible skill into the beautiful, modern collections that we sell around the world.
Where does the name Lemlem come from?
Lemlem means to bloom and flourish in my native Ethiopian language, Amharic. When our designer at Lemlem and I were first brainstorming – this name popped off the page at me immediately. Not only did it so perfectly reflect our story and our goals, but it was also a nickname my family used for my daughter when she was little.
How does the H&M x Lemlem collection continue this story?
The collaboration was about combining things we both love to create a joyful collection of beach and swimwear and accessories using sustainable materials.
When H&M approached you about this collaboration, what was the most important thing you wanted to bring to this collection?
From the start, we wanted to make a joyful collection that reflected the story and spirit of Lemlem– and this took on extra significance as we designed this together through the pandemic. We want people to jump to get every piece and have great times wearing them out and making new happy memories as we get out into the sun again.
Why did this collaboration make sense to you?
H&M has been at the forefront of doing cool collaborations with brands for years. So for Lemlem, it was a very exciting proposition to become a part of this. And we appreciate H&Ms incredible global reach. To be able to introduce our brand to the H&M community is a wonderful opportunity.
Where did you draw inspiration from this time around?
The beauty and strength of sisterhood—embracing things that connect rather than separate us—was the central idea that very much inspired me while designing the collection and the campaign.
What was it like designing in collaboration with a huge retailer like H&M versus how you operate on your own?
It was an incredible experience working with H&Ms teams and learning about their processes. When we first started planning back in 2019 I imagined that we would be in a design studio together, brainstorming, looking at fabrics, and fitting together. Designing the collection together virtually during Covid called on our creativity in a different way. We drew from our experience at Lemlem bridging the distance to work closely with our partner weaving workshop in Ethiopia. In the end, I’m so happy and proud of the group effort and what we were able to create.
What is the Lemlem x H&M guide to lounging?
Keep it loose! I love to size up and wear the trousers from our collection with a big shirt or caftan. That’s my repeat look at home.
Why were stripes the main style you chose for this collection?
It’s what we’re best known for at Lemlem – our bright, gorgeous stripes, inspired by traditional Ethiopian weaving, which typically incorporates an embellished stripe at the hems.
Has your daughter expressed interest in modeling? If you know now what you did when you first started modeling, what words of wisdom would you share with her?
We had so much fun working together on this campaign. It was a very proud moment for me and I tried not to give so much advice. I wanted to give her the space to come into her own with it. When you are new to a set with the cameras and all that energy it can be dazzling, sometimes chaotic. What I wanted most was just to help her get comfortable and be part of making it a fun, enjoyable experience.
What advice would you give to other “accidental entrepreneurs?”
I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is to stay present and take a chance— even a small step can make a world of difference. When I started Lemlem I had no idea how to run a business, I wasn’t entirely sure how it could grow to help the artisan communities, but I jumped in and learned to trust my gut, and move ahead step by step and now I’m so proud of what we’re doing.
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