She was one of the world’s biggest fashion models and the first black face of Estée Lauder. But when Liya Kebede returned home to Ethiopia and saw the chronic problems of maternal health her career took a new turn. Her campaign continues – and now she has set her sights on sustainable fashion
Flicking through Liya Kebede’s pile of fashion magazine covers passes a calm and perfumed afternoon. In 2002, French Vogue declared May was “All About Liya” month, dedicating a whole issue to the African supermodel after the editor saw her in Tom Ford’s Gucci catwalk show. Describing the day they first met, Ford recalls: “She looked me in the eyes, and I was quite literally stunned. Liya projects an aura of goodness and calm that outshines even her extraordinary physical beauty. Later in the day,” Ford continues, “when trying to remember what she looked like, I could only remember her eyes.”
Born 32 years ago in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, Kebede was spotted twice. The first time, as a teenager, took her to Paris, where she failed, homesick. When she returned to Ethiopia, she met her husband, a hedge-fund manager 20 years her senior, and it wasn’t until the second time, aged 23 in Chicago, where the couple had set up home, that it stuck. In no time Kebede signed a £1.65m contract to become the first black face of Estée Lauder; her face and long, generous limbs sold underwear, handbags, evening dresses and Tiffany diamonds. She took a role in a Robert De Niro film, she was named 11th in a Forbes list of the world’s top-earning models, she had a son and a daughter, Suhul and Raee, then in 2005 she took a breath…
We speak as she dashes through Manhattan between meetings. Taxis honk and men yell as she quietly talks about her childhood, growing up under “vast blue skies”. She describes the “beautiful, raw land”, the space. And then the way that New York shook her up, “the way it does everyone”. It was when she returned to Ethiopia from the USA, where pregnancy is so celebrated, that she became involved in raising awareness of her home country’s maternal health crisis. In Ethiopia a mother dies in childbirth every minute, leaving her baby 10 times less likely to survive past the age of two.
“There’s a saying in Africa: To find out you are pregnant is to have one foot in the grave,” she says. “Every time I go back home I’m introduced to women who’ve barely made it.”
Her soft accent leaps from drawl to drawl as she remembers meeting an elderly woman who, after her daughter died giving birth to her third child, was forced to bring up her grandchildren alone. “She couldn’t afford food, let alone schools, so the baby was given away. It was such a tragedy – not only did she lose her daughter but the whole family was destroyed. When, in an African community like that, a mother dies, it affects everyone.”
In 2006 she set up the Liya Kebede Foundation. Her mission was to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality in Ethiopia, and around the world. Funding advocacy and awareness-raising projects, as well as providing direct support for community-based education and training, the foundation’s success led to her recognition by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. While Kebede’s aims are ambitious, she’s particularly good at promoting the small, gentle steps towards life-changing aid. She talks, for instance, about the importance of providing torches to villages in developing countries, to light midwives’ paths to the houses of women with no electricity, but she’s clear, too, that there’s no small solution to a global problem. “In these villages there are no roads, let alone hospitals. The last time I visited, I was told about a local woman who started bleeding halfway through delivering her child. The whole village carried her to hospital, but she died on the way.” These are preventable deaths, she stresses.
It was on another trip home, a star by now, that Kebede met the local traditional weavers, who were losing their jobs due to a decline in demand. She giggles quietly and sighs: “I promised to come up with something to help.” She launched Lemlem (meaning “to flourish” in Amharic), a line of cotton children’s clothes hand spun and embroidered in Ethiopia, as a way to inspire economic independence in her native country. “Once mums bought pieces for their kids, of course they asked for bigger sizes for themselves,” Kebede boasts. Now the label offers womenswear, gifts and accessories – simple, soft striped shawls and dresses. And as one of few ethical ranges to make it into high-end fashion stores Matches and Net-a-porter.com, it is doing phenomenally well.
“The Lemlem collection has almost sold out at Matches, as it’s quite hard to find stylish cover-ups in pure cottons, and the fits and lengths are really on-trend,” says Matches buyer Georgina Gainza. “Our customers are interested in the style, primarily, but it’s an added bonus that the collection has an ethical approach.”
“It’s always a tricky thing, trying to make aid sustainable,” Kebede says. “It’s important that we try and help the workers become independent, so by employing traditional weavers we’re trying to break their cycle of poverty, at the same time preserving the art of weaving while creating modern, casual, comfortable stuff that we really want to wear.”
“In today’s world, celebrity advocates are not rare,” Tom Ford admits. “What is rare is to encounter one whose devotion and drive come from a genuine desire to better our world. Liya’s work comes from a place of sincerity, and her beauty is much more than skin deep.” Ford is not alone in his adoration – Anna Wintour keenly supports her (“She’s so willing,” Kebede says of the American Vogue editor, “so wonderful”), and she’s still in demand to open fashion shows despite being 15 years older than her fellow models. Last month she was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, alongside Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
She finds a balance, Kebede says, between campaigning and fashion, though we speak in a month that also sees her at Cannes promoting her first lead role in a film – Desert Flower, based on the critically acclaimed autobiography about female genital mutilation by Somali model Waris Dirie. Kebede recently travelled back to Djibouti, where they shot much of it, to host a screening in the village where the film is based. “That was amazing,” she says, “to reach out to people and show them something and teach them without being forceful, or shoving it down their throat.”
As a model her success grows, and as a philanthropist she’s taking on ever more campaigns, ever more problems. I ask how the two sides of her life sit with each other, and she answers quickly: “Fashion has always given me a platform, introduced me to inspiring people, allowed me to balance my life, but most importantly, allowed me to do something quite amazing.” ■