Lebanese designer leads fashion toward sustainability

Céline Semaan’s Slow Factory is causing quick change

Slow Factory founder Céline Semaan. Photo: Simbarache Cha
14 March 2019

Back in 2014, a curious collection of scarves rippled through the media. But it wasn’t Vogue or Harper’s BAZAAR covering the accessories; rather, it was the likes of Fast Company and Scientific American whose eyes were caught by NASA satellite imagery of cityscapes, natural environments, even galactic wonders adorning Italian-made silk scarves, with a portion of proceeds going to aid organizations.

Was it fashion? Was it charity? Was it science communications? One scarf produced in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, entitled Phytoplankton Bloom, was printed with the bioluminescent creatures of the Berants Sea, as seen from space.

Now in its seventh year, New York–based Slow Factory is far less of a niche brand than it was when it garnered its first attention as a small but imaginative leader in sustainable fashion – so much so that its founder Céline Semaan, a Lebanese refugee raised in Montreal, is taking a sabbatical from designing. With an MIT fellowship and numerous bylines to her name, Semaan has become a leading voice on the future of fashion, and is pivoting to work in collaboration with the U.N. and other organizations to put on educational events and grow Slow Factory’s research and development capacity into a lab of sorts helping expedite the fashion industry’s clean-up. Here, Semaan tells Landscape News more on what’s in store.

Slow Factory’s Phytoplankton Bloom scarf. Slow Factory

What have you learned about the natural world through fashion?

I’ve always been a science geek. I wanted a career as an astronaut but quickly discovered I didn’t have math skills. My studies were in art and cyber art. But when NASA released imagery under Creative Commons, I had the idea to spread that information into another field – to take that information and apply it to fashion. I began to see how fashion is very much part of the natural world through fabrics, fibers, the life cycle or end-life of a product. That’s when I began to learn about biodegradable fibers, natural dyes and circularity, so that production that doesn’t harm the natural world.

You’ve coined a term called ‘fashion activism,’ which means using fashion to say something or speak out on an issue. How did this idea come about?

I think it was by accident I entered fashion. I never felt I fit. I either wanted to disappear or blend in, so I would wear a monochrome of gray or black or blue and try not to stand out. But all desperate attempts to be invisible were not working, and I was always the ‘other’ – the only Arab in the class, or the only one with traditional clothes.

The moment I realized I wanted to do things for myself and dress to feel good, I realized that no matter what we do, fashion has a meaning, it carries a story. Whatever you decide to wear, you can’t disappear, because you’re there. That’s where this whole notion of ‘fashion activism’ came from, and that everything you wear is telling something about you.

This year at New York Fashion Week, you partnered with the UN to host the Sustainable Fashion Summit. How was that?

It was one of the most talked-about events. Everyone was telling me it was incredible. And it’s so refreshing to be doing things in the fashion space that are welcomed and can inspire the industry. I really love the way the culture around Fashion Week is evolving. A lot of designers are getting attention for not showing, which is sign that we are going way too fast and must slow down.

In your talk at the Summit, you said you wanted to wrap people in the natural world with your scarves. How do you think this affects people?

Historically, the clothes we wear are our armor. They protect us from the world and they connect us with the world, and the fibers we wear come from the earth. They are woven and put together in a way that tells a story. For me, adding a print on it, and that print being the world and the universe, makes it feel like there is mythology around it, in a way. What if we wrapped ourselves with the world – would we then realize that we are part of this world? That we are this world?

When you talk about understanding that you are nature, it’s very easy to understand with the analogy of food. We need to eat organic or at least be careful what we put in our mouths. But when we think about clothes, it’s not as much of a natural relationship. So that’s mainly what drove me to try and create a relationship between garments, fabric and the natural world around us.

You’re originally from Lebanon. How does this influence your approach to your work?

Developing countries have a different relationship to sustainability because they have an understanding of lack – lack of resources, and of everything, really. In Lebanon, for example, having lived with war and with scarcity, we have a different relationship when it comes to sustainability. We know how to mend clothes and pass clothes down. We invest in our pieces. We all know a tailor who has altered our clothes over and over in our time.

And we have a different relationship to fast fashion. When H&M and Zara infiltrated our market, we were teenagers. It was like luxury, it was so expensive to shop there. I’ve compared my notes with other people living in developing countries – we don’t indulge at the same rate as developing countries do when it comes to fashion.

Semaan (left) speaks alongside Dio Kurazawa, founding partner of Bear Scouts, a company that helps brands develop circularity in their supply chains, at the Sustainable Fashion Summit. Photo: Simbarache Cha

Could you describe more about this relationship with sustainability?

Sustainability is a culture, and that’s something I deeply believe in. Right now, the way the media is discussing sustainability is from the perspective of a developing country awakening to the situation, when in developing countries, we’ve known this. We don’t have the luxuries of a developed country. We are also the landfills. When we discuss sustainability, we must look at the colonial empire in which we exist. I wrote a piece about this for New York magazine, how developed countries must observe sustainability as something that existed before they saw it.

In what ways should this relationship translate into industry change?

We have to heavily, immediately invest in renewable energy and recycled fibers. We have to divert from landfills. We have to actively use waste as a resource in every single industry. We have to stop looking at natural resources as our only option for making products.

Do you think this needed change starts with the supply or the demand – the brands or the consumers?

I think consumers are being empowered by the Internet to access information and have their voices heard. The communities gathering online are able to amplify one another’s voices, because people have always been saying things, but brands were not ready to listen. I think the Internet has disrupted every single industry to make them more human-centered than they were before.

Also, journalists have a responsibility to amplify those voices and put forward people who are positive influencers. ‘Purchase, purchase, purchase’ is a terrible way to influence. We have to highlight the people already out there doing the work and bringing a change.

As a consumer, we must demand from bigger brands that they adopt sustainability practices now. We can’t wear polyester, or if we do, it must come from recycled plastic bottles and not virgin oil; and after we finish wearing it, it must be recycled and not dumped in a landfill in a developing country.

And it also takes looking at your behavior of purchasing – are you compulsively buying to feel better? Because our insecurities are being amplified to the point that we need to buy something to feel better? It’s very related to wellness.

Participants at the Sustainable Fashion Summit held in Febraury 2019 at the UN headquarters in New York. Photo: Simbarache Cha

What parts of fashion industry do you see as doing particularly well?

I think the higher-end luxury, because they have the margin, they can begin to implement different solutions. But G Star Raw, with a lower price point, is incredible example. They have the most affordable cradle-to-cradle pair of jeans that ever existed. Brands like J. Crew and Madewell are committed to fair trade. There are companies taking back T-shirts and recycling them, and groups like Everybody.World that are working with recycled cotton. Mara Hoffman has changed her entire business model to be more sustainable. Yes, it’s expensive, but they are pieces you will be keeping.

I think it’s important to look at what you buy as an investment. Of course not everyone can by a USD 300 dress, but if you don’t buy something every month from fast-fashion just to feel good, maybe you will have a bit more money to indulge in something interesting. There is also swapping and second-hand stores, The RealReal and Tradeeasy – groups that give things a second life.

What is your definition for fashion?

I think it’s a beautiful, accessible, utilitarian, very democratic art form. It belongs to everyone. Everyone has to put clothes on their backs. Is everyone skilled to create and make clothes? I believe so. I look at it from a very bottom-up perspective. It belongs to us. Style, how you make and wear things – it belongs to you.


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