Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede feels a deep connection to the cause of Born Free Africa, which is seeking to save African children from contracting HIV from their mothers. Billionaire‘s Britt Collins explains….
When the fashion world gets behind a cause, you can be sure it will be attention-grabbing and glamourous. American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, designer Diane von Furstenberg and a few dozen other industry superstars have kicked off a global initiative to save an entire generation of children in sub-Saharan Africa from contracting HIV from their mothers. And so Stella McCartney, Donna Karan, Vera Wang and 20 other designers have created a unique capsule collection of mother-and-child pieces and accessories using renowned Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu’s eye-catching prints in aid of Born Free Africa.
Ethiopian supermodel-designer-advocate Liya Kebede features in the glossy campaign, shot by Patrick Demarchelier, along with other models and their kids, all wearing the Born Free collection. “It’s humbling to be able to work with incredibly talented designers who, as mothers, recognise what the devastating loss of a child could mean and how easily that loss can be avoided,” she says from the New York home she shares with her husband and children. “The fact that you’re born in some geographic location or another shouldn’t determine whether you live or die.”
Kebede, who already has her own charity and eco-fashion line Lemlem dedicated to maternal health in her native country, feels a deep connection to the cause. “A lot of women in third world countries aren’t aware that they could prevent their child from having HIV,” she says. “Just one pill a day can prevent a mother from transmitting HIV to a baby. In a way, you’re giving these women the rights to life, the right to choose, how they live their lives and to be there for their children.”
Kebede has sold everything from couture and lipstick for Chanel to diamonds for Tiffany and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret. She has also broken molds, becoming the first black face of Estée Lauder and has peered out of enough covers to be ranked by Forbes as one of the world’s highest-paid models. Since 2005, the 36 year old mother of two has been a World Health Organisation Goodwill Ambassador, striving to raise awareness of the health risks new mothers and infants face in the developing world, and was recently named among Time’s 100 Most Influential People, alongside Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Kebede’s rise from a shy, skinny young girl from Addis Ababa to the international catwalks began when then-Gucci creative director Tom Ford, turning out to be something of a fairy godfather, hand-picked the budding model for an Yves Saint Laurent campaign during a Milan catwalk show. The first time they met, 16 years ago, Ford was mesmerised not only by her beauty but her big-heartedness, saying she “projected an aura of goodness and calm.”
Kebede could have easily been swept away by her successes. Even before her career started skyrocketing, she was exploring ways to improve the lives of others. “It’s important to look at the world, to be passionate, to have a dream,” she says in her soft, silky accent. “Growing up in Africa surrounded by poverty made me want to help and shed light on issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. That feeling never left me.”
Having become involved in maternal health issues, she also created designs from her Lemlem label for Born Free. “Right now, HIV and complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the biggest killers of young women in Africa,” she says. “We have the healthcare solutions at hand to make these preventable deaths a thing of the past.”
American philanthropist John Megrue, chairman of private equity firm Apax Partners, founded Born Free Africa. He says, “If you spend time in a paediatric AIDS clinic in Africa and you realise the incredible mortality and the ease with which one can stop that by giving a pregnant mother a pill a day, you come away feeling you have to do something.”
The figures are stark: currently more than 90% of HIV infections in infants result from mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy or birth. Born Free Africa is tackling the epidemic by helping local governments make the pills readily available to any expectant mothers who need it. In 2012, the organisation helped bring down the rate of babies born with the disease to 260,000 per year.
The idea for the project started with a lunch with Megrue, Anna Wintour and Diane Von Furtenburg. Teaming up with the fashion industry seemed a natural collaboration in his mind. “It was the very first industry to be involved in HIV in the early 1980s and raising millions,” he says. “Global health issues can easily fall off the radar, but when you get a group of women who are mothers, who are legendary designers, all throwing their energy in, it really is inspirational. I think it’s magical. The hope is to have a generation born free of HIV.”