Having spent roughly half her life in the fashion biz, Liya Kebede has come a long way in the industry since leaving Ethiopia at the age of 18 to model in Paris. In the following decades, Kebede has established herself as a bona fide icon—not only as a “super” still busy with runway and editorial work, but additionally as a philanthropist/advocate for maternal health and an emerging entrepreneur. Back in 2007, she launched her ready-to-wear brand, Lemlem, as a way to create new opportunities for the traditional weavers and artisans based in her hometown, Addis Ababa. The word lemlem means “to bloom” in Amharic and is also a nickname Kebede gave her 8-year-old daughter, Raee. Indeed, the line itself—comprised of beach-ready wares that are handwoven and embroidered in Africa—has been flourishing in a big way: Just this week, Kebede was announced as a new member of the CFDA.
Fresh off of the haute couture and menswear circuits (in Paris, she walked Dior and posed for pal Haider Ackermann’s presentation), Kebede joined Style.com to preview her new collection. At our appointment, the supermodel was the epitome of summertime casual in a gray T-shirt, striped Lemlem skirt, and canvas sneakers. While the has introduced new jersey and merino wool categories in recent seasons, Resort ’15 focused on best-selling gauzy tunics, caftans, and scarves in vibrant hues. Kebede personally gravitates toward some of the more directional silhouettes, including strapless jumpsuits, raw-edged maxi ponchos, and long boy shorts. Our takeaway? Both Kebede and her beachy clothes are beautiful in every way. Read on below for five things we learned about Kebede and Lemlem.
1. Kebede started Lemlem on a whim:
“The whole thing came about when I was at home in Addis [Ababa] and walking around with the mayor. He wanted so much for me to do something, and I initially didn’t know how I could give back. We went through this big bazaar in Shola, where all the artisans work, but the market hadn’t been doing well because Ethiopian people are wearing machine-made outfits on an everyday basis and saving traditional clothes for special occasions like church or a wedding. We were talking about how amazing all these incredible weavers are, and that got me thinking that maybe I could start a line.”
2. Lemlem launched with kids’ clothes but is now primarily focused on womenswear:
“I had my kids back then already and thought it would be cute to start Lemlem as a children’s line because every mom would love a nicely handmade little dress for her daughter. Then every mom—including me—loved it so much we decided to make the clothes in larger sizes, which is when things really took off.”
3. Kebede maintains a close relationship with Lemlem’s artisans:
“I was most recently in Ethiopia in May. I actually went for my foundation [Liya Kebede Foundation], but every time I go there, I’m always multitasking. So we do the foundation thing for a few days, and then the family thing, and then we see the Lemlem weavers. It’s mostly men that weave, and the craft is passed down generationally, from father to son, father to son. But it’s women who hand-spin the cotton and do all the sewing. It’s been interesting to see how our weavers have grown to see Lemlem. When we first started with them, we were so demanding and they thought we were these, like, neurotic New Yorkers. It took a while to really gel and understand each other. Now they’re so proud of the product and exclusively want to work for Lemlem. It was great to see them last time all listening to the radio and throbbing to the music while they weaved.
4. Kebede believes there’s room in the market for both fast fashion and more conscious design.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about fast fashion versus slow fashion lately, and I think there’s space for it all to exist. If you want a Zara shirt, you want a Zara shirt. But I also believe that more and more people are becoming increasingly conscious of how and where their clothes are made. Aside from the fair labor aspect, many of our customers are simply coming to us for something that’s unique.”
5. Lemlem will continue to grow, but will always keep its roots in Africa.
“I really see Lemlem as a lifestyle brand and something that can ultimately be quite impactful. The whole motto of Lemlem is “Made in Ethiopia.” That will always be our signature and what makes our story a bit different. Even now as we’re introducing jersey and new categories, we’re going to stay true to our original Made in Africa mission. We want to prove ourselves and prove to the world that there’s a new destination for clothing production.”
Lemlem ($135 to $325) is carried by retailers including Barneys New York, Net-a-Porter, and Selfridges. For more information, visit www.lemlem.com.
If Michel Gondry’s films such as The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are known for the liberties they take with reality, his latest, Mood Indigo, fairly flies in the face of it. Following the acclaimed indie The We and the I (and 2011′s somewhat less-than-acclaimed blockbuster The Green Hornet), Gondry has returned to his native France and pulled out all the stops when it comes to art direction and sheer whiz-bang whimsy. His CV directing sumptuous music videos for the likes of the White Stripes and Kanye West lends much of his work a kinetic feel, and Mood Indigo is no exception.
Based on Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours, the film chronicles a well-to-do man’s (Romain Duris) fanciful courtship and marriage to the girl of his dreams (Audrey Tautou). But it’s not all elastic limbs, trips through Parisian skies in cloud-shaped vehicles, and boxcar races to the altar; things take a turn for the tragic when the story’s heroine is discovered to have a water lily growing in her lung.
We sat down with the director to talk his new flick, parenting a young artist, and actors who take home Oscars for the wrong reasons.
Do you consider yourself a dyed-in-the-wool romantic?
I think so. My father called me a pervers naïf. That’s not very romantic! I am romantic, [but] with a bit of weirdness to it.
You first read the novel that Mood Indigo is based on as a teenager. What was your initial connection to the text?
It described the world in the similar way that I was feeling. Very intimate, very detailed, and very intriguing in the way it treated physical phenomena, like lightning, or what water sounds like—stuff like that. Very romantic and very obsessed with death. That was appealing to me.
Did you always know you wanted to do something with L’Écume des Jours ?
Yeah, sort of. In fact, I had some images that stayed with me since I read it the first time, even though I had no idea I would become a director. Like this idea of the film starting in color and finishing in black and white—it’s the image I had when I read the book. But I had no ambition to make it a movie, because I had no idea how to use a camera at the time!
What are the greatest challenges of taking a text like that and turning it into a screenplay?
There were a lot of things that seemed to be overscaled, overly complicated, or technically challenging. I had to find ways to make them really come to life, to find an original way to construct them or to make them look in a similar way to the text. [The novel] was written by mixing words, sticking pieces of them together, so I did the same with objects. For instance, the car [a transparent limo in which the couple embark on their honeymoon]…it was a car stuck together, and it had to work. So making those physical objects based on these plays on words was really part of the challenge. It was really important to me. And, of course, carrying the love story of a tragedy through this crazy world.
What is your process like with your production designer, Stéphane Rosenbaum? Do you come to him with ideas fully fleshed out?
I think I have a precise idea of what I want. Of course, he brings his vision too; he has a huge basement with tons of objects he collects, all these details and furniture, props, and we build a lot. So we try to imagine how it could work, then I have people working with mechanics or soldering—that brings them to life. It’s really fun to watch.
Did you always know this would be a film made in France, or did you ever entertain the idea of making it in the U.S.?
No, I think it had to be French, otherwise it would not be faithful to the spirit of the book. It’s a very French story. You can see the influence of American culture, but it’s important to see it through the eyes of the French author. You can tell there are some American references there, how American music influenced the way of life after the war in France. Jazz music was part of this particular heritage. This is really important to see through French culture. And surrealism was born in France, and even though Vian wasn’t really part of surrealism, he was on the edge of it.
Do have to be mindful to maintain a sense of humanity when you’re working with such fantastical stuff, or do you think that the storyline does that itself?
I think it’s very important for me to keep some humanity. We don’t shoot on a blue screen—we shoot with a back projection, a lot of lighting effects. It’s complicated, but it’s very important that I find a way of capturing the humanity of the actors. That’s been the most important thing to me since I started doing movies. Some directors, specifically from music video directing, they glorify the actor—they make the actor like a hero. That’s not what I do. For me, it was always the most important thing to feel as if the actor is my brother or my cousin; a very human connection that makes you feel natural and welcomed into a space with him, even if the film is being created from scratch. Some actors I’ve found are very renowned and very appreciated in America; I really don’t like them because they do too many tics and mimicry and imitations.
Can you name a specific example of that?
There are some actors who win Oscars for the wrong reasons, because they portray a character with a lot of transformation. I think a lot of times the Academy Awards get confused about what’s really important as an actor, all the effort it takes. They can’t appreciate a painting because there are a lot of details. Sometimes acting is like that, when they can do a lot of imitation, like when they portray a famous character, and it’s really an imitation. This is not acting to me. It’s a performance. You don’t bring a heart into the story. It doesn’t interest me.
Did you always have a clear vision of who would be your leads in the film?
In this film, yes. I always wanted to have Audrey, and then I had to find somebody who worked with her, and I thought my friend Romain would be perfect. But Audrey was the first person I imagined.
And I read that you’re working with her on another film; is that true?
Yes, she has a small part in my next project.
Can you speak at all about that?
It’s a movie I start to shoot in two to three weeks with two teenagers who are sort of outcasts in their school in France. They become very close friends and they decide to build their own car so they can drive across France for the holidays.
Your son [Paul Gondry] is an artist, yes?
Yeah. He makes art videos, and he has a collective called Tiny Leg, and they create movies and art and design.
What do you try most to impress upon him about the creative process, if anything?
I tried to stimulate him as much as I could when he was a kid, and he was super-talented at a very young age. I separated from his mother when he was 3, and I saw him regularly between 3 and 11. When he had issues with his mother, I said, “OK, you’re coming to New York to live with me, but there will be no TV, no computer games. You have to find other ways to entertain yourself.” So he started to do skateboarding, comic books, and he became super-creative. And now he’s very good with computers, but he didn’t waste his time doing video games. He’s always been creative. His mother works with us on movies—she’s a costume designer; she’s a great artist. I think he inherited [his creativity] from both of us. And he’s really a very accomplished artist. But I don’t try to interrupt him. Actually, I don’t really understand what he does; I think it has to go over my head, because he’s the next generation, so he has to be above me.
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You won’t be seeing any more of Andrej Pejic, the androgynous male model who rose to fame in 2010 after Carine Roitfeld had him photographed in womenswear for Paris Vogue. An onslaught of editorials followed (including a shirtless Dossier Journal cover that was essentially banned by Barnes & Noble for fear their customers would think he was a naked woman), and he even walked as the beautiful bride in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring ’11 Couture show (below). But Andrej’s days on the runway are over. However, Andreja’s career is just getting started.
Earlier this year, Andreja underwent sex reassignment surgery (SRS). She always knew she was a woman, but her body, or at least parts of it, didn’t match up. Yesterday, the model trekked from her current Williamsburg digs to LGBT advocacy group GLAAD’s Chelsea headquarters to speak, for the first time, about her transition. Donning a white crop top and embellished Ports 1961 skirt, Pejic, who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina but was raised in Melbourne (hence her charming Aussie accent), looked as angelic as ever. “I feel good,” she told me before sitting down. It showed.
You can bet you’ll be seeing quite a bit of Andreja Pejic—she has a role in Sofia Coppola’s forthcoming rendition of The Little Mermaid, and plans for fashion week are already in the works. Here, the six-foot-one stunner (who, it should be noted, has cheekbones that could cut glass) opens up to Style.com about her SRS, the challenges of being a transgender model, and why, at long last, she’s “ready to face the world.”
How do you identify?
I identify as a female.
How did you identify before the sex reassignment surgery?
I figured out who I was very early on—actually, at the age of 13, with the help of the Internet—so I knew that a transition, becoming a woman, was always something I needed to do. But it wasn’t possible at the time, and I put it off, and androgyny became a way of expressing my femininity without having to explain myself to people too much. Especially to my peers [who] couldn’t understand things like “trans” and gender identity. And then obviously the modeling thing came up, and I became this androgynous male model, and that was a big part of my growing up and my self-discovery. But I always kept in mind that, ultimately, my biggest dream was to be a girl. I wasn’t ready to talk about it before in a public way because I was scared that I would not be understood. I didn’t know if people would like me. But now I’m taking that step because I’m a little older—I’m 22—and I think my story can help people. My goal is to give a human face to this struggle, and I feel like I have a responsibility.
You seem to have had a firm understanding of your identity at an early age. Was growing up as a boy difficult?
Gender dysphoria is never an easy thing to live with, mainly because people don’t understand it. For most of my childhood, I knew that I preferred all things feminine, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t know that there was an explanation. I didn’t know about the possibilities. And then I went on sort of a boyhood campaign from age 9 to about 13. I tried to be a “normal” boy because I felt like my options were either to be a gay boy or a straight boy. I didn’t feel that I was gay, so I didn’t know that there were any other options until the age of 13, when I went online and discovered that there’s a whole community of trans people out there. There are doctors, there’s medical care, there’s research, and that was an eye-opener for me. From that day on, I knew what I had to do.
Some people write off SRS as a purely cosmetic surgery. Can you speak a little bit about that, and why it’s not the case?
Yeah, a lot of people view it as a plastic procedure, like you go to a surgeon and say, “Oh, I want to be a woman.” It’s so much more complicated than that. You have to get a psychiatric evaluation, which I started at the age of 13. I started seeing psychiatrists, and then I stopped when I started modeling, and I started again about a year and a half ago. But medical attention is crucial for any trans person because it helps you figure out who you are. You go through some really strict testing before you’re even allowed to have the surgery.
Are there any other myths you’d like to debunk? Or is there anything else you want the general public to understand about SRS and transgender people?
I would like them to understand that we are people. We’re human beings, and this is a human life. This is reality for us, and all we ask for is acceptance and validation for what we say that we are. It’s a basic human right.
You’ve legally changed your name from Andrej to Andreja. Why was that important to you?
I added an “a” because it’s not a full transformation —it’s just an evolution. I thought about whether I should change it or not for a while. In the West, Andrej isn’t really a masculine name. But I think [the name change] is something that my mom really wanted because, traditionally, Andrej is a Christian Orthodox name, and in that religion, it’s definitely a male name. So I kept the “j” and added an “a,” which actually becomes a name that I don’t think exists. But I wanted to keep the “j” because that’s me. That’s my name.
How did your modeling agents react when you told them you were having SRS?
It’s been an interesting experience. I had the surgery early this year, and I told my men’s agent at DNA about two weeks before the operation. I just said, “This is what’s happening,” because I didn’t want anything to stop me. I had decided. And then recently, I had a meeting with the women’s [team], and they’ve been very positive about moving from the men’s board to the women’s board, which is amazing. It’s something I guess no one’s ever done.
Weren’t you on both the men’s and women’s boards before the surgery?
Actually, all over the world I was, but not in New York. I guess the American market isn’t as progressive.
How do you feel your transition from an androgynous male model to a female model will impact your career?
I hope everything goes well. [SRS] was a personal decision. I took this step, and I said to myself, My career is just going to have to fall into place around it. So I hope that I can continue my success. I think I’ve shown that I have skills as a model, and those skills don’t just go away. I’ve had experience. I’ve been around the block.
Androgyny and the transgender community seem to be at the center of the cultural and, more specifically, the fashion conversation at the moment. Hood by Air by Shayne Oliver, who enlisted voguers to model at the Fall ’14 show, is a prime example. Where do you think this focus on the transgender community is coming from?
The trend of androgyny and the exploration of trans beauty started around 2010, and that’s when Lea T and I both started [modeling]. Everyone was kind of saying, “Oh, it’s just a trend, it’s going to go away,” and it hasn’t. I think that’s because it represents a social layer of people who feel that they don’t want to conform to traditional forms of gender—who feel traditional forms of gender are outdated. That social base feeds the trend, and it feeds the exploration in fashion.
Do you feel the fashion industry has been welcoming and supportive throughout your career?
I got my success very quickly, and the media attention has been pretty positive. People like Jean Paul Gaultier, Carine Roitfeld, and Juergen Teller have been extremely supportive. But my biggest challenge was to not always be pigeonholed, and also to make [androgyny] commercially successful, because when I started, it was such a new thing. Still, there are a lot of roadblocks, particularly when working with cosmetic brands or perfumes or those sort of commercial, corporate things. It’s been more difficult to break into that world than “fashion” because it hasn’t been done before. They don’t have any market research, and people in that world aren’t risk takers. You have to prove to them over and over that you are liked by people, you have a skill, and you can sell a product.
Is landing a beauty campaign something you aspire to do?
It’s a goal for any model! It would be cray cray. But we’ll see. I’m happy to keep doing what I love, and for me it’s like I’m already living the dream.
Have you had any experiences in castings, etc., that have been particularly frustrating?
Oh, yeah, especially in the beginning, when I first moved to London. It was like, I’d walk into the boys’ casting, and they were like, “No…you don’t belong here.” And then at the girls’ casting, they were like, “Why are they sending us boys?” So it took time for everyone to get on board. It wasn’t all sweet sailing.
What do you think the fashion industry can do to further embrace the transgender community?
It would be lovely to live in a world where trans-female models were treated as female models, and trans-male models were treated the same as male models, rather than being a niche commodity. I think that that is the biggest struggle in all this. It’s almost like African-American models back in the nineties. It was like, “Oh, you can do this, but you can’t do that. You can do runway, but no print.” So I think that’s what needs to change.
When I first met you last year, you already seemed like a pretty confident individual. Do you feel more comfortable—or more you— since having the SRS?
I think from my teenage years, when I decided I needed to express my femininity, I was happy with the way I looked. But SRS is kind of the last part—it’s sort of the icing on the cake. It makes me feel freer than ever. Now I can stand naked in front of a mirror and really enjoy my reflection. And those personal moments are important.
But you’ve always been gorgeous. Did you not enjoy your reflection before?
Not fully naked.
I know you’re close with your mom. Has she been supportive throughout this transition?
I came out to my mom at the age of 14. She didn’t understand it at first, but she’s been very supportive since.
Has going through this transition as a public figure been very difficult?
There’s a difference between coming out to your family and close friends, and coming out to the whole world and opening yourself up to judgment. When I was younger, I just wasn’t ready for that. Even now, it’s hard to navigate. I try to concentrate on myself and what I really need, but there are so many other factors that go into it. You have to figure out timing, you have to figure out agencies. Public perception influences that. It’s a lot of pressure, and modeling is a lot of pressure anyway. I think most models have to live up to something, and they struggle with that. So to have that on top of this, there have definitely been difficult moments.
If I may ask, how do you think the SRS will impact your personal and romantic life? Is that something you’re excited about exploring?
Yeah, I’m very happy with this new situation, and I’m happy to keep exploring.
Are you dating anyone?
No, I’m single. I’m open to love, so I’m taking some time off for myself now. I think that’s necessary. We’ll see. But you know, I feel more comfortable than ever, more confident than ever, and I’m ready to face the world.