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Supermodel Liya Kebede on Running a Business and Modeling

Liya Kebede made her name as a model, but she’s building her legacy as a philanthropist and businesswoman. She’s the founder and head of Lemlem, a brand known for breezy and colorful pieces that look as appropriate on the streets of Manhattan as the beaches of the Hamptons. Not that Liya set out to run a fashion empire, exactly.

“[Running a business] is not something I was thinking about or imagining — it’s been an amazing education for me,” Liya said. “I have a better understanding of the fashion industry in general, as opposed to when I was just in front of the camera. ”

The idea for Lemlem came to Liya back in 2007, when she came to understand how women in her home country of Ethiopia were losing their jobs because of a lack of demand for their traditional handwoven garments. So Liya went about setting up Lemlem, with factories in Ethiopia and a sales team that was global.

In addition to helping bring employment and stability to the weavers’ lives, five percent of all Lemlem sales go to Liya’s foundation, which is dedicated to enhancing maternal health in Africa; Liya is also a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for maternal, newborn, and child health.

The company’s growth has taken place during a time in which the conditions of how things are made matter more than ever to consumers. It’s a change Liya is happy to see unfold.

“I think the consumer is becoming much more demanding in wanting to know how things are done. I think we are all going towards that as human beings — to be a part of something bigger, to participate, and to give to something that has impact,” she said. “Brands like us fit very much in that space.”

Lemlem began as a children’s line and has expanded to include womenswear. The label is carried by a number of high-end partners, including Net-a-Porter, Moda Operandi, and Matches Fashion. Liya’s also brokered deals for Lemlem to collaborate with other major brands, including J.Crew and Soludos. When it comes to those partnerships, Liya’s not afraid to work her industry connections.

“It either comes from me liking the product and reaching out to the brand — or vice versa,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have the support of the fashion business, and so that’s how we function. It’s very organic.”

Running Lemlem takes up a great deal of Liya’s time, but she’s still in the modeling game. She chooses projects more carefully now that she’s got a business to run — and two children to bring up. It all comes back to the calendar.

“I feel like my whole life revolves around scheduling,” Liya said.

One gig Liya was able to accept was modeling at Kanye West’s February Yeezy Season 3 show during New York Fashion Week. It was something, Liya said, that she couldn’t pass up because of the “life experience.”

“It was the kind of project you just get on board with because it’s amazing and crazy, you know?” Liya said. “That’s sort of what Yeezy was — it was different . . . he’s changing the way you do shows.”

Though their labels are plenty different, Liya and Kanye have something major in common: they both came to the world of design as second careers, Kanye after music and Liya after modeling. Their paths are relatable to anyone who wants to write their own second act or branch out into something new.

“When I became a model, I had in mind that I wanted to be a model,” Liya said. “Sometimes you just evolve into something — and life is kind of unpredictable that way. You have to be open and willing to go in different directions. Sometimes you find beautiful surprises. For me, Lemlem is that: a beautiful surprise.”

And speaking of surprises, Liya’s consistently delighted by seeing real women and children rocking their Lemlem.

“Friends have to stop me from going up to people and saying ‘Oh, you like Lemlem!’” she said. “I love sharing it with the weavers, who are also so excited to know that someone in New York or St. Barts is actually wearing something that they made with their hands.”

Liya is dreaming big for Lemlem’s future. Citing female entrepreneurs like Tory Burch, Diane von Furstenberg, and Natalie Massenet as her role models, Liya’s looking to be a substantial brand — but is also appreciating the success she’s already had.

“Uh, yes,” Liya laughed when I asked if she would call Lemlem a success. “You see Lemlem in different places, and a lot of people know the brand. I think it’s wonderful. We’ve gone from having 10 to 20 weavers to around a hundred — it’s amazing. So on a small scale, I really believe that it’s successful. We have an identity, and that’s hard to do.”

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