Sustainability has become more marketing tool and T-shirt slogan than truth. Not so with Lemlem, one of the first social good fashion brands founded by supermodel, actress, maternal health advocate, non-profit founder and designer, Liya Kebede. Kebede started Lemlem after a trip to her native country of Ethiopia. Cotton has been an important part of Ethiopian tradition for centuries. The art of hand-spinning and weaving has been passed down from generation to generation with intricate patterns often representing stories of social and political significance. These handwoven clothes used to be worn every day but have since been replaced by t-shirts and jeans and Kebede saw how traditional weavers were losing their livelihoods.
Lemlem isn’t just about creating sustainability for the environment and the materials. “I think if you can enable people [to make money themselves], it’s much more sustainable,” Kebede told Fashionista. “We’re enabling people, we’re hiring, we’re employing, we’re skill-building, and then they go on and help their families and send their kids to school. We can break the chain of poverty that way. And also, we want to change the idea that people have of what Africa is. We’re saying, look at these beautiful pieces we’re making there.” Having no experience in design other than a 20-year modelling career, never having written a business plan and with few examples of social good centred business models to draw from, starting Lemlem was a gamble. Yet, Lemlem went from hiring 30 artisans to employing 250 today with plans to expand production and jobs across Africa.
We love Lemlem because this is ethical fashion. Each piece starts in the hands of a weaver in Ethiopia, who carefully arranges stripes, embellishments and rows of embroidery, requiring immense skill and technique… yet the end result looks effortless. As Kabede says, “[We’re] preserving the art of weaving while creating modern, casual, comfortable stuff that we really want to wear.”