A conversation with Gagosian director Antwaun Sargent at Frieze London 2021 unpacking his exhibition exploring the dimensions of space within the context of the African diaspora.
Liya Kebede in conversation with Kimberly Drew
Photography by Erik Madigan Heck
Inside A Magazine Curated By Pierpaolo Piccioli, curator Kimberly Drew discusses changing perceptions on the ‘Made in Africa’ label with lemlem founder Liya Kebede, including her collaboration with Pierpaolo Piccioli for Moncler Genius.
Our exclusive digital fashion portfolio by Erik Madigan Heck styled by Natasha Royt features designs from their Moncler Genius collection alongside the Valentino and lemlem Spring Summer 2020 collections.
KIMBERLY DREW Can you talk about your transition from muse to maker? It was almost as if you decided to get back in the ring in a different way, especially as a person from East Africa, knowing the ways in which that part of the world has been mined for ideas and creativity.
LIYA KEBEDE I was motivated to change the story and idea people have about products made in Africa and the image of Africa. Before that, I never wanted to start a brand. Today people already understand the idea of the artisan when it relates to the big couture houses, and for my brand lemlem, it’s the same thing. Theirs happen to be French or Italian, mine happens to be Ethiopian, But it’s the same work: sitting for hours hand-weaving a fabric or beading. We’re both celebrating artisans. My hope is to get the same appreciation for the work and to take away the preconceived idea that because it’s in Africa it should be looked at differently. And to find a solution for our problem that these artisans were unemployed and couldn’t feed themselves, because everyone [in Ethiopia] is now wearing imported clothes. Their art was dying. When we started, the idea of social impact, being a social entrepreneur, didn’t exist. We started with about 50 people; now there’s 250. Their lives are changing. And we’ve enriched the world because we brought in something new and celebrated an art that wasn’t being looked at. Now I have a different relationship to fashion, so I guess I was getting back into the ring.
KD Within this industry one needs to be self-aware: you have to fight for your words, for a sense of self, to articulate all these things. What I find particularly great is that with lemlem you’re coming in with something new – you’ve seemingly started from scratch. There are so many ways within creative industries where people are like, ‘I found my space. I’m going to stay in my space because it’s comfortable.’ But to come out and say, ‘I’m going to do this new thing because I have to see it succeed.’ Those are fighting words. I was reading the piece on you in the Financial Times: ‘The garments are beautiful, but the dress costs $250.’ In luxury, that price point makes a lot of sense.
LK It’s people’s perception. If something is made by hand in Italy, a customer might pay a lot. But this is still a harder sell, a challenge.
KD Why is that? How do we deprogramme that from our brains? It’s such a strange moment we’re in within the garment business. Especially at a point when people are crying out, ‘We want more voices.’ I wonder how we might do the work of putting black voices forward. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way you’re building your brand because there are no short cuts.
LK That’s the goal.
KD I’m curious if you think it’s important for black-owned houses to collaborate with more established houses in the way you did with Pierpaolo and Moncler?
LK Black-owned brands collaborating with bigger houses – or whatever size – is a way to come up with something new, ex- panding the audience for both, having another language and putting new angles together. People want something else, but all that they know is themselves. It was epic for lemlem. Do I feel it legitimises us? Maybe. Suddenly because everything you’ve worked for is coming into something bigger than you thought possible. That was a moment that transcended all these things I had in my mind about what we do or what aspire to do.
KD How was it working with Pierpaolo in this new way?
LK I love Pierpaolo. I said to him once, ‘Darling, I would love for you to do something with lemlem.” I thought: ‘Okay, you’re ridiculous asking him.’ But a few months later, he reached out: ‘This is crazy, but I’m doing the Genius collection with Moncler. I thought it would be cool if we did it as a three-way collaboration. I was like, ‘Where do I sign?’ There’s Pierpaolo, this incredible designer doing fabulous things. And then there’s us, artisans in Africa. And there’s the puffer jackets at Moncler. I wanted my fabrics because that’s what represents the weavers, so we lifted the designs and made them in the puffer material. The idea was to marry three competing heritages to create something new representing everyone, with everyone’s hand in it, that connects everyone.
KD Real substance.
LK I have to think also about how Pierpaolo is so openminded, because you don’t have to be. He was courageous to try something new – a visionary. And I love that he was fearless in trusting the process.
KD One of the ideas central to his issue is how everything below Rome connects to everything above. That’s interesting in a kind of dualism of sorts. Do have any feelings about Rome as a city?
LK I love Rome, I think it’s beautiful. Actually, I lived there for a year when I was five or six because my dad worked for Ethiopian Airlines and was stationed there. When we went back to Ethiopia, people wondered who these kids were who came from Italy. We spoke Italian at the time – my brothers still do, and I still understand.
KD But there’s also that extreme tension because didn’t Italy try to…
LK They colonised Eritrea, which was the northern part of Ethiopia at that time. They tried to colonise Ethiopia many times, but somehow, we won the war. There’s a weird relationship. There are a lot of Ethiopians and Eritreans in Rome because of that. I remember walking down the street in Rome and these old ladies stopping me and saying: ‘Oh you’re so beautiful.’ It’s funny I have that connection in some way. When I think of something impactful though, I think about a runner named Abebe Bikila who ran in the marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He ran barefoot because his shoes didn’t fit – it was a huge deal. It was like us going back there and winning.
KD And in the cultural context of the 1960s, as well.
LK He was like, ‘I’m barefoot, but here we go.’ Speaking of Pierpaolo’s idea about bringing worlds together, I guess this is one of those moments, right? ■
Photographer: Erik Madigan Heck @ Maison d’Esprit
Stylist: Natasha Royt @ Art & Commerce
Stylist Assistant: Nicholas Centofanti
Make-Up: Kevin Cheah @ Kramer & Kramer
Hair Stylist: Pasquale Ferrante @ The Wall Group
Casting Agent: Kiaan Orange
Digital Tech: Matt Occhuizzo
Set Design: Andrea Huelse
Talent: Luisana @ Next
Entitled Rhapsody In The Street, A#22 responds to the tradition of Black poetry, literature and portrait photography of the 20th century, featuring a curation of archival portfolios and other historical ephemera, as well as newly commissioned essays, poems, paintings and portraits.
An exclusive portfolio of behind-the-scenes images from the Comme des Garçons Spring Summer 2022 collections in Tokyo, Japan, photographed by Noam Levinger.