LIYA KEBEDE

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Harper's Bazaar Art -

Liya Kebede has been modelling for more than 20 years, but she had never be­fore sat for an artist. It was a par­tic­u­lar thrill to sit for Cle­mente. “I didn’t know his work specif­i­cally, but when I found out that he had painted the por­trait of Gwyneth Pal­trow in [the 1998 film] Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, I was so ex­cited,” she says. “I re­mem­ber when I watched that movie, the por­trait re­ally touched me. I don’t know why. Then, to sud­denly see my por­trait done in the same way, it meant a lot to me.” It seems ironic that Kebede, 38, has never been painted, given her pre­cise, del­i­cate fea­tures. “The re­la­tion­ship with a painter is so dif­fer­ent,” she ex­plains. “He’s so fo­cused on you, and you’re al­ways won­der­ing, ‘What could he be look­ing at?’ It’s so pen­e­trat­ing. There’s some­thing quite beau­ti­ful about it.” Kebede posed in a glo­ri­ous Tom Ford evening gown, but in the cold of the stu­dio cov­ered her knees with her win­ter coat. So, Cle­mente couldn’t help a lit­tle bit of sub­ver­sion, adding the coat to the fi­nal work. “He said, ‘It will be the one thing in the pic­ture that’s yours—it brings it all to­gether.’”

When Kebede was grow­ing up in Ethiopia (where she re­turns twice a year for her cloth­ing line, Lem­lem, and her work for her ma­ter­nal health foun­da­tion), art wasn’t read­ily avail­able to her. But she was ahead of the curve in other re­spects, hav­ing had her two chil­dren, Suhul and Raee, by the time she was 27. Now sep­a­rated from her hus­band, Kassy Kebede, she says, “My 30s have been a re­ally trans­for­ma­tive decade. I feel like I’ve grown a lot.” How­ever, she’s lived a lot, early. “Chil­dren make you grow up very quickly,” she says. “You be­come a mum, so you have to be a mum, you know?” But to­day, with a 10-year-old and a 15-year old, she is of­fi­cially a cool mum. “I’m hav­ing a fun re­la­tion­ship with them right now,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I hope it’s nice for them, too!”

Kebede was only 15 when she started modelling, orig­i­nally spot­ted by a French agent in her home­town of Ad­dis Ababa. She fin­ished her school­ing be­fore mov­ing to Paris, where she caught the eye of Tom Ford, who put her on an ex­clu­sive for Gucci and also in cam­paigns for Yves Saint Lau­rent. Along­side in­nu­mer­able mag­a­zine cov­ers, she was named a face of Estée Lauder in 2003, and be­came a L’Oréal am­bas­sador in 2011. To­day, she works closely with Ni­co­las Gh­esquière at Louis Vuit­ton and oc­ca­sion­ally still hits the run­way for de­signer friends like Proenza Schouler. Fash­ion­wise, she’s never been one for trends. She re­fuses to wear “dresses you’re try­ing to fig­ure out! I grav­i­tate to­ward men’s sweaters. I love men’s sweaters, men’s pants—I love all that stuff.”

The nat­u­rally lean Kebede keeps her­self so with an ev­ery­thing-in-mod­er­a­tion lifestyle and reg­u­lar at­tempts at yoga. “I have a prob­lem fit­ting it into my life,” she says, not­ing the quirks of her travel sched­ule. “You know, when you’re jet­lagged and you’re like, ‘Should I sleep or should I get up and do yoga? I think I’m go­ing to sleep.’”

As she gets older, Kebede hopes to meet more women “who em­brace their age and im­per­fec­tions. I love women who do their thing, who aren’t caught up in the su­per­fi­cial­ity of things. In the world we live in, that’s harder and harder to find. We need to feel more se­cure in our­selves. When you look at Hol­ly­wood and what it’s pro­ject­ing at us about how you have to look,” she says, sigh­ing, “one wrin­kle is such a big deal.” And while less preva­lent than be­fore (see this port­fo­lio for ev­i­dence), ageism in the model busi­ness is ever lurk­ing. “Be­ing in an in­dus­try where im­age mat­ters,” Kebede ob­serves, “it’s def­i­nitely chal­leng­ing for me.”

Sure, but cur­rently she doesn’t seem to have a wrin­kle. “The minute you get one, let me know,” I say. “Har-har,” she replies. “We’ll have a big chat about how to han­dle it.”

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