Liya Kebede is in New York, “enjoying it very much,” she tells BAZAAR.com over a video conference call. “I’ve been going to restaurants and stuff. I wear my mask, but I’m out. It’s so nice.”

For most of 2020, the model and founder of sustainable fashion label Lemlem has quarantined in Paris, communicating with her teams virtually. She admits that it’s been difficult, but that the job was getting done—and seemingly very well. The proof of her remote work prowess lies in the imminent debut of her largest retail collaboration to date with H&M.

Launching on May 6, Kebede stayed true to Lemlem’s ethos, maintaining a penchant for natural fabrications, fun colors, and easy stripes. The assortment of styles—including a striped maillot that evokes the colors of ocean at sunset, a sultry slip in the same pattern, a linen crop top and a matching paper-bag waist trousers, and a pencil skirts perfectly capture Lemlem’s aesthetic: bright, full of joy, versatile, with an aesthetic nod to Kebede’s homeland of Ethiopia.

Kebede founded Lemlem in 2007 with the goal of creating an eco-conscious fashion brand (well before it became an industry trend) that provides economic opportunities for women in her native country. These artisans employ time-honored weaving techniques that give Lemlem a level of authenticity that, by and large, is lacking in the marketplace today; every warp and weft is assembled by skilled hands. But when creating a collection for a global retailer with many demographics to cater to (and huge orders to fulfill!), Kebede had to make adjustments.

“The idea was to be able to reach more customers with this collaboration, and make it affordable also to more people,” Kebede says. “We went with the materials that H&M works with that are all sustainably sourced: organic linen, organic cotton, recycled poly. We even did jewelry and swimsuits, which was very exciting for us. When you’re doing a collaboration, it’s really fun to also try another category that we didn’t have.”

Kebede explains, “We wanted, of course, to make the collection with our weavers, but it was impossible.” Still, the visibility that the collaboration offers is something that Kebede doesn’t take lightly.

“What’s exciting about partnering with H&M is the way that they reach an immense audience across the world.” she says. “H&M’s interest in a small brand that is sustainable, that is promoting artisans, puts a focus on us and gives us an incredible platform to all these other people, customers who would not have looked at us. They understand the importance of sustainability and community and artisan work. The exposure is priceless.”

What’s more, H&M will donate $100,000 to support the Lemlem Foundation, which aims to create a pathway out of poverty for women artisans in Africa. “It’s an exciting time of growth for us and for the women we support.” says Kebede. “This collaboration was just kind of incredible. The timing was incredible. And I can’t wait to see the impact that it’s going to have for us this year. It’s fun. I’m excited.”

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