Kebede was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A film director spotted her while she was attending Lycée Guebre-Mariam and introduced her to a French modeling agent. After completing her studies, she moved to France to pursue work through a Parisian agency. Kebede later relocated to New York City. She has remarked that the modeling industry in Ethiopia is quite different from the catwalks on which she is now ubiquitous because in Ethiopia she had to provide her own shoes for each runway show.
Kebede has been seen on the covers of Italian, Japanese, American, French and Spanish Vogue, V, Flair, i-D and Time’s Style & Design. She has been featured in ad campaigns including those for Shiatzy Chen, Gap, Yves Saint-Laurent,Victoria’s Secret, Emanuel Ungaro, Tommy Hilfiger, Revlon, Dolce & Gabbana, Escada and Louis Vuitton.
In 2005, Kebede was appointed as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.She then founded the Liya Kebede Foundation, whose mission is to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality in Ethiopia and around the world. The organization funds advocacy and awareness-raising projects as well as providing direct support for low-cost technologies, community-based education, and training and medical programs.In one health center that the foundation works with, hospital deliveries rose by over 50% in 12 months.
Her Clothing Line
She launched Lemlem, a clothing line, in 2008. Lemlem, which means “to bloom” in Amharic, features hand-spun, woven and embroidered women and children’s clothing.Kebede founded the line to help preserve the art of traditional weaving in Ethiopia and to offer work opportunities to local artisans. Lemlem is sold at Barney’s, J.Crew, Net-a-Porter.com and numerous boutique shops. Kebede says she hopes this will be part a sea of change for her home country, saying that “It’s wonderful to be able to donate and help people”.