Starring in Calvin Klein’s Eternity commercial with Jake Gyllenhaal would make anyone seem cool. But Liya Kebede’s had major fashion cred since before Donnie Darko hit cinemas. The African supermodel made her Gucci debut in 2000; 17 years later, she’s still a catwalk star for Louis Vuitton, Céline, and Dries Van Noten. She’s also an ambassador for the World Health Organization and the founder of Lemlem, a clothing line with flowy fabrics and a sustainable, female-focused work ethic.
We got some life advice—and Gyllenhaal scoop—with the Ethiopian native in New York City.
Growing up, was Calvin Klein a big deal in Ethiopia?
Oh, the CK One ad [with Kate Moss] was monumental for us. The jeans and the tank top—what a cool girl looked like changed so much for me because of those ads! It was quite impactful on me in many different ways.
Did you start trying to dress like Kate Moss in high school?
We didn’t have uniforms at my school, which was really cool… but you couldn’t get Calvin Klein jeans in Ethiopia. You had to wait until someone you knew was going overseas. And if it was one of your parents, it was like—you would beg. “Please get me a pair of Calvin Klein jeans! I’ll do anything!” It was the biggest deal.
And now Raf Simons is in charge. What's it like working with him?
Well, Raf is interesting, because he’s great at making things classic... but not. He’s really, really cool and he’s twisting the look a bit, and I love it. But you don’t ever have to give up the denim and the tank tops. Those are forever.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Raf Simons on one photo shoot is like a fashion girl's dream. What was it like on set?
It's involved. There’s a lot of creative input from a lot of different people. So it wasn't just Raf, it was [photographer] Willy [Vanderperre] and Calvin Klein’s entire creative team. Then it was their ad agency’s creative team. And then Jake [Gyllenhaal], because his production company was producing the commercial, he was really involved in creative choices, too.
So was Jake, like, your director?
No, but he worked with Raf on the concept for the commercial, so he’s explaining the idea and what it means to him—but then we shot [our parts] separately. The first day, I went on set to visit, because I wasn't shooting yet. [Jake] gave me the [e.e. cummings] poem that we recite in the video, and said, “Here, study this. Come back tomorrow.”
It must be cool to get a literature assignment on a fashion shoot.
It was, but also, learning that poem was hard! That poem has no punctuation and lots of versus. It was tough. When I finally memorized it, I was like, “You know, this is a perfect poem.” But getting there took time. And then throw in a four year old...
Leila. She was amazing. She was a really special girl. But, you know, she's four. So she'd start rubbing her eyes and the director would pick her up and zoom her around to get her laughing again. But that adds another layer to a photo shoot.
You have two kids who are teenagers, right? Do they want to be models?
They're 16 and 12. My son, the 16-year-old, 100% is not interested. He’s not into clothes. He wears the same thing every day. My daughter is more seduced by it, but I try to keep her away from it for now. She’s 12. I think she’s way too young [to model], unless we’re shooting together, I’m there, I know the photographer, and it’s a nice environment. We’ll do that. But I’d like her to be at least 18 before she starts working. If she wants to do it then, okay. But it’s a hard industry. It’s a hard place for a young person to be, and I don’t want it to mess her up. I want her to have her full childhood, and enjoy that.
You're a mom, a model, a designer, and an activist. Who gives you the best advice?
There isn’t just one person that I talk to. The key to doing different things is to have different people in your life—for modeling, I talk to my agent. For Lemlem, I have designers or people in the industry that I call… you trust your gut on who to call, but sometimes, I’ll be honest, your gut says nothing! It happens.
What do you do when you can't trust your gut?
You have to make the most informed decision possible. You look at all of the information you have, and your goals, and you go for it.
What do you wish you'd known as a new model?
Not to take things personally. Which is hard when you first start. As you keep working, you realize that often not getting a job has nothing to do with you, really. And there are always more jobs.
What do you wish you'd known as a new mom?
Oh, as a new mom, you’re so nervous about everything. I wish I knew that it all worked out.
What do you wish you'd known as a new business owner?
I sometimes think the less you know, the better. If you actually know all the challenges that are ahead of you in business? You won’t ever go through with it. So ignorance is bliss as a new business owner. [Laughing] I'm glad I didn't know anything.
What do you wish you'd known as a teenager?
Oh wow. What do you wish you'd known?
To calm down; you don't have to be everything to everyone.
Yeah, calm down! Calm down and go to class! Show up for school, and it’ll all be okay.