Liya Kebede: 'The generations that come after us are coming into a world that is much more equal'

·6-min read
Liya Kebede during the L'Oréal Paris show

After a one-year hiatus, the world's biggest fashion show, staged by L'Oréal Paris, made its comeback in the French capital on Sunday. The show was staged on the Parvis des Droits de l'Homme, an esplanade overlooking the Eiffel Tower that takes its name from "human rights." The square's French wording translates literally as "the rights of man," leading it to be renamed for the occasion as the "Parvis des Droits de L'Homme et de la Femme." This is a symbolic move for the cosmetics giant, which has been championing women for decades and which advocates for many values, such as inclusion and self-affirmation. Liya Kebede, spokesperson for the brand, took part in this new spectacular fashion show. Ahead of the event, the designer, model and activist spoke to ETX Studio about the show and the many values she shares with L'Oréal Paris.

After months of pandemic, with almost no fashion shows, how are you feeling about this new show with L'Oréal Paris?
It's really great to be here because I missed everyone, I think everyone missed everyone, in fact. It's a pure pleasure to see everyone again. I've seen people I haven't seen in two years, it's amazing.

It's been 10 years since you joined the L'Oréal Paris family. Which of the brand's values do you hold most dear?
The very fact that I've been around for 10 years says a lot about the support for my journey as a woman. We change a lot in 10 years, but L'Oréal Paris still manages to celebrate this woman who is 10 years older, which is quite extraordinary. But the brand has always known how to celebrate all forms of beauty, all women. The cast has always been quite diverse, and today, it's even more diverse, and the brand is very committed to issues of feminism, women's rights, street harassment. Everything relating to women, in fact. And for the first time, there is a female president... All of that is quite extraordinary.

Inclusion is a value that L'Oréal Paris supports. Are the boundaries really shifting, or is there still a long way to go?
I think that the boundaries have shifted a lot, even if it's not done. I think the generations that come after us are coming into a world that is much more equal. They will still have work to do, but I think the bulk of the work is already underway, and that's great. I think women have really gained their voice. I'm not a big fan of social media, but it has a positive power because it gives everyone a voice. And it forces us to be aware of everything that's going on around us, and that's great.

Is it brands or users who are helping to drive change thanks to social media?
I believe that people contribute a lot to changing things. It's the democratization, brought about by social networks, that has made this world we live in today evolve. Of course, brands follow and get involved in an exceptional way, like L'Oréal Paris, but it's also nice to be able to hear people talk about what's going on around them. Without social media, that wouldn't necessarily have happened.

When you started modeling, there were few, if any, curvy models or black models on the runway. Do you think this will be the norm within the next ten years?
It's a tough question, and it's something I'm also wondering. Is this a trend, is it going to last? I don't know. I certainly hope it's not just a phase, but I don't have the answer.

For some brands, do you think it's more about marketing than a genuine commitment?
I think there are both. Some brands are really committed and it shows, and [for] others it's about communication. In the future, we're going to see which ones stay committed, and which ones don't. We will inevitably go through this. And maybe, I hope, those who have made commitments will be a majority, so that things genuinely change. In any case, things have changed, there's no denying it, and some of those changes are going to last in one way or another.

In fashion, inclusion also means more black designers who contribute to putting African fashion out there on the world stage. Since Lemlem launched in 2007, has there been real change?
Change has happened, but it's happening very slowly. Maybe there has been more momentum in the last two years, but again, we will see what will last and what will not. What I do like, however, is what's happening in Africa, because there are a lot of movements, a lot of commitments, a lot of designers, a lot of people who are producing there, and especially people who are embracing, adopting their culture much more, and that's great. There are a lot more Africans wearing African clothes, African designers, and that's very important. In the United States, there have been great changes and support since Black Lives Matter, but we have to see what happens long term. It's really important that it's not just a trend, we need to put institutions and regulations in place to support real change.

Today, many designers are above all keen to shine the spotlight on, and to sustain, African craftsmanship and expertise in fashion. Isn't this even more important?
Of course, that's why I started Lemlem. The objective was to preserve the art of weaving, of handicraft, but also to employ people because we want to give them their independence. It's a much more sustainable solution than financial aid because we really give people a chance to be independent, to take care of their family, to be able to send their children to school, and to break this vicious circle of poverty. For me, that's very important.

You will be walking the runway with L'Oréal Paris on the Parvis des droits de l'Homme, which has been renamed "Parvis des droits de l'Homme et de la Femme" for the occasion, in order to include women. What does this signify?
It's incredible, even if it's temporary. It's very much in keeping with our time. When you see all the muses who are here, all committed [to causes], it is truly exceptional. Each time, I discover women who do incredible things. There is a meaning to their life, to what they do, and even if it's fun to be on a runway, we know that we all represent something greater.

Can you tell us what you will be wearing?
I chose pants and a tank top. I thought it was cool, relaxed, because it's an outfit I could wear very often. I feel good, strong, laid-back when I wear it. I'm always looking for something that makes me feel good about myself, and this look does that perfectly.

With just a few hours to go before the show, are you feeling apprehensive about anything?
I am apprehensive because it is raining and it is also very windy. I'm a bit worried, and I hope it will ease, but otherwise, everything is fine.

This interview has been translated from French.

Christelle Pellissier

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