In 2007, the Ethiopian-born supermodel and maternal health advocate Liya Kebede traveled to her home country and noticed that something was changing. The local artisans of Addis Ababa — who for centuries had woven the traditional white cotton dresses known as habesha kemis — were losing business en masse, thanks to the growing preference for Western dress among the younger generations. “Weaving is an old tradition in Ethiopia and a central part of our cultural heritage,” Kebede explained to Soho House in 2020. “I wanted to play a part in keeping that craft alive and creating sustainable jobs for the artisans.” Out of this desire came Lemlem — an “artisan-driven collection of apparel and home goods made entirely in Africa,” according to the brand’s website. (It sits alongside the Lemlem Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that works in tandem with the brand to create a “pathway out of poverty” for Africa’s female artisans.) In the Ethiopian language of Amharic, the word “lemlem” means both “bloom” and “flourish” — and 14 years after its founding, the brand has done just that, employing over 250 artisans across the African continent. “We’re focused on sustainability and the giving-back aspect even more than the business itself,” says Kebede.
While Lemlem’s premium price point comes from the amount of handiwork that goes into the product, customers now have access to more affordable options from the brand, thanks to its collaboration with H&M which came out on April 22nd. The assortment of kaftans, cover-ups, sundresses, separates, swimwear, and accessories features Lemlem’s signature sun-kissed colour palette along with a sustainably-minded group of fabrics that includes organic linen, recycled polyester, and Tencel™ Lyocell. “It was wonderful to have Liya’s creative input at every step in this collaboration,” explains Maria Östblom, the Swedish retailer’s head of design. “We were also really happy to include more sustainable materials throughout the collection and just can’t wait to launch it around the world.”
Kebede has often referred to herself as an “accidental entrepreneur” and acknowledges that Lemlem exists to create opportunities for an at-risk, impoverished population. “There was a need to create a brand and I had no interest in designing,” the model told the Financial Times in 2019. “If Lemlem had just been about creating a brand, I wouldn’t have done it. What keeps me going is knowing that we’re changing people’s lives and doing something that’s impacting a whole community.”
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