World Class: Liya Kebede weaves her way into retail with Ethiopian wear and a J.Crew deal – By Mark Ellwood (New York Daily)

March 29th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

On the kids: (From l.) LemLem sun dress ($138) and Crewcuts boys’ blazer ($118); LemLem embroidered dress ($158); LemLem sun dress $138); LemLem hoodie ($150) and Crewcuts jeans ($98) handout (more…)

On the kids: (From l.) LemLem sun dress ($138) and Crewcuts boys’ blazer ($118); LemLem embroidered dress ($158); LemLem sun dress $138); LemLem hoodie ($150) and Crewcuts jeans ($98) handout

Supermodel Liya Kebede was born and brought up in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and started catwalking there.

“It was so much fun – the girls brought their own shoes, and we helped each other with makeup, then par-tied together afterwards,” she recalls.

Kebede was quickly talent-spotted and whisked off to Europe, where she was championed by Tom Ford and tapped for campaigns by Chanel, Vera Wang and Michael Kors. She was even the first black model to land a cosmetics deal with Estee Lauder, netting $3 million to be part of the clan that includes Liz Hurley and Gwyneth Paltrow (and she didn’t even have to fake an English accent to do it).


On the kids: (From l.) LemLem sun dress ($138) and Crewcuts boys’ blazer ($118); LemLem embroidered dress ($158); LemLem sun dress $138); LemLem hoodie ($150) and Crewcuts jeans ($98)

This month, she’ll be the sole model to grace the pages of J.Crew’s catalogue.

Yet though Kebede, 31, now lives in Manhattan with her husband and two kids, she still makes regular trips back home to Addis Ababa. It was on one of those jaunts that the idea for her clothing line, LemLem, came to her.

“Even now, on holidays, we wear these dresses made by weavers – our traditional cloth is all hand-woven. Some of it is also hand-spun, the cotton, so it gets really super-soft and very comfortable and cozy,” Kebede explains from her New York home as her daughter plays noisily in the background. “The weavers are all men and we have thousands of them in the city, but they don’t live in great conditions.”

Exporting the exquisite craftsman-ship would not only introduce the world to Ethiopian artisans, but improve their lives, too. “I’m doing my bit in helping start some kind of manufacturing industry there – giving people the trust they need to come work in Ethiopia,” says Kebede.

In the year since it launched, Lem-Lem has been a runaway success, picking up celebrity mom fans like Mary-Louise Parker and Julia Roberts.

“I’m a mother of two and the most fun, I find, is shopping for my kids,” Kebede says. “I wanted to do something cute to start. The colors were really beautiful, fresh and very ethnic, with a little bit of everything.”

She quickly broadened from children’s wear into women’s accessories and also started creating signature designs: Initially, LemLem just used traditional Ethiopian patterns, but now Kebede is one of the handson designers. In fact, the only thing she doesn’t do is weaving.

“Traditionally, it’s a man’s job in Ethiopia – the women do the spinning and sewing,” she says. “Doing designs on a loom takes a lot of talent and experience and, trust me, I won’t be able to that. And my husband (Ethiopian financier Kassy Kebede) would probably be worse than me.”

The clothes caught the eye of Jenna Lyons, J.Crew’s design director, who approached Kebede for a collaboration. J.Crew will sell LemLem as a stand-alone line this season.

“The first time I saw the clothes, I was bowled over,” says Lyons. “You get two feet away from them and can’t believe how beautiful they are.”

It is a major move for the retailer. Since each LemLem piece is handmade, mass production isn’t possible. The solution was to carry them online and in the catalogue only, as well as at one store: 99 Prince St. in SoHo (prices run from $80 for a scarf to $175 for a party dress).

Steep, sure, but it’s shopping for a cause. “Everyone’s trying to do something to give back right now, making donations or using organic materials, but this was more than that,” says Lyons. “You’re helping support a community and an art form that’s gradually getting lost. And the clothes looked great, too – they’re so beautiful paired with our collection.”

To hype the collaboration, J.Crew even surrendered its entire catalogue to Kebede, much as French Vogue dedicated an entire issue to the model seven years ago.

That endorsement catapulted Kebede into the supermodel superstratum, and during the J.Crew shoot, Lyons learned why, first-hand.

“We were apprehensive doing one model, but she was amazing,” Ly

ons says. “She’s the most unbelievable model I’ve ever seen. She gets onto the set and a lot of the time we’re picking the second or third picture that’s shot. She has such control over her body and facial expressions.”

Despite her natural talents, Kebede is moving away from modeling. She has been taking acting lessons and has a lead this year in the upcoming movie “Desert Flower,” a biopic of crusading Somali model Waris Dirie, who has become a powerful advocate for women.

But Kebede is also committed to Lem-Lem and the impact her company can make back home in Ethiopia. It’s as much a mission as a business for her.

“Craftsmanship like that still exists there today in 2009. It’s a shame to let that disappear and things be machine-made and all the same,” she stresses. “These are precious things that we should all try to keep forever.”

Put on the map by the First Family

Ten years ago, J.Crew was a fashion footnote, making serviceable khakis and sweaters for the preppie set.

Today, the brand is that rare combination – a fashion editor fave that’s also popular and well priced. (No wonder it snagged an endorsement from all the women in the First Family).

“This is a huge J.Crew moment,” says stylist Ellianna Placas. “It’s clued in to the idea of affordable luxury – giving people a really exceptional product at a fraction of what anyone would have thought it would cost. It used to be a little less sexy, more dowdy, but now they’re making classic styles that just come in luscious, delicious, wear-me colors.”

Reinvented and reenergized, J.Crew 2.0 is like a factory of must-haves, with its twin design teams (women’s is headed by Jenna Lyons and the men’s by Frank Muytjens) churning out affordable treats just when we need them most – from beautiful ballet flats and jewel-colored cashmere to the perfect polo shirt.

Mrs. O has been a significant part of the company’s newfound popularity. After she and her $340 ensemble appeared on “The Tonight Show” in October, JCrew.com saw an immediate 64% increase in traffic from women looking to buy the look. She also wore a J.Crew skirt and cardigan the night before Inauguration Day, which solidified her status as off-the-rack icon.

Its appeal is also down to the slew of fresh ideas that the firm keeps trialing; Liya Kebede’s LemLem is just one of them.

Take casual sister chainlet Madewell and the men-only shop in Tribeca housed in a converted bar (a second men’s store is coming soon to Paramus, N.J.). And then there’s kids’ line Crewcuts. After supplying Malia and Sasha Obama’s high-profile inaugural outfits, not only did the J.Crew site reportedly crash from increased traffic, but the stock rose nearly 10% the next day.

Of course, the company has also staged a stealth takeover in the bridal business to the relief of meringue-sporting veteran bouquet-catchers everywhere.

“You can get a whole wedding party’s outfits for thousands of dollars under what you’d ordinarily spend,” Placas says.

The label’s renaissance has even birthed fan blogs – from J.Crew Aficionada to J.Crew-a-holic – that drool over the buzzed-up brand.

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