Liya Kebede, Harper’s BAZAAR’s November cover star, has mastered the art of collaboration through her fashion label, Lemlem. Employing artisans in Kebede’s native Ethiopia, Lemlem has brought time-honored African weaving techniques firmly into the luxury fold through partnerships with brands and creatives including Moncler and Pierpaolo Piccioli, Pierre Hardy, and The Woolmark Company. The latest to join this illustrious roster is Italian cashmere specialist Agnona.
Lemlem’s supporters appreciate the label’s intricately woven patterns, sustainable materials (the core collection is hand-woven in Ethiopia from natural cotton), and, most importantly, its mission to provide financial stability to local artisans. “They love that they’re making an impact in a huge way,” Kebede says over the phone from Paris.
A labor of love, the Lemlem x Agnona capsule collection is a project nearly two years in the making. During a fitting for Agnona’s fall 2019 show, Kebede chatted with the brand’s creative director, Simon Holloway, about the work she’s achieved with Lemlem, whose name means “to bloom and flourish” in the Ethiopian language of Amharic. Since beginning work with an artisan collection in Addis Ababa in 2007, Kebede has expanded production and jobs across the African continent. Holloway was excited by the opportunity, as Kebede says, “to combine incredible Italian artisanship with incredible African and Ethiopian artisanship.”
“We immediately started to talk about a possible collaboration between Agnona, well known for noble fibers and high standard of manufacturing, and Lemlem’s creativity,” adds Alessandra Carra, CEO of Agnona.
The capsule collection, exclusively available at Saks Fifth Avenue, consists of three styles: a maxi dress and a top that come in ivory and navy, and a poncho in ivory. All the pieces effortlessly combine Agnona’s knitwear expertise and Lemlem’s mastery of hand-woven patterned textiles. The dress and top feature fitted crew-neck sweaters over flowing cotton ruffles. And the poncho effortless blends panels of cashmere ribs with textured cotton. “It’s comfortable and versatile,” Kebede says. “It can easily be dressed up or down.”
Originally set for release in April 2020, the launch had to be put on hold because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily closed many Saks stores. “As you could imagine, it’s been kind of a challenging year for everybody, and you do what you can,” says Kebede. “It’s been interesting to witness the shift in fashion, with online business becoming more of a force. That’s something that we’re also trying to work on a lot.”
Still, there was a silver lining that emerged during this dark period. In the midst of all the uncertainty, brands banded together to collectively find solutions. “Pre-COVID, designers didn’t really speak to each other that much,” says Kebede, explaining how Lemlem’s collaborative model is quickly becoming an industry norm. “And during the pandemic, a lot of groups and coalitions like the Rewiring Fashion group started in the fashion industry, with designers from across the world wanting to help each other. People collaborated, so a real community actually surfaced out of this challenging time.”
Having the support of Saks, a longtime Agnona retail partner, extends the brand’s messaging to a wider base of consumers. “It’s important also for stores like Saks to really embrace sustainability,” Kebede says. “People want to know what impact they are making when buying clothes.”
A true force in the fashion industry, Kebede, perhaps more than most, understands that it takes a village to create systemic change. Through Lemlem, she’s directed other labels toward the path of sustainability and showed them the abundance of creativity that comes from African nations. And the buck doesn’t stop there. When asked about how she sees the brand moving forward, she has no qualms about its ascendancy.
“To the stars,” she says. “How’s that for an answer?”
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