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Céline Semaan Pushes Conversations on Sustainability and Fashion Activism Forward

Her advocacy-focused projects — Slow Factory, The Library and Study Hall — are shaping how we can make the fashion industry, and the world at large, a better place.
Céline Semaan. Photo: Pam Nasr

Céline Semaan. Photo: Pam Nasr

Céline Semaan is a lot of things. The designer, writer and advocate is the founder of Slow Factory, a fashion label and lab that partners with different non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on products that raise consciousness about different social issues, and The Library, a non-profit increasing sustainable literacy within the fashion industry. On top of that, she also works with the MIT Media Lab and often pens powerful pieces for outlets such as The Cut and Elle Magazine. But more than this, Semaan is a thoughtful person who cares deeply about the planet and its hazy future, working tirelessly to bring lasting change so that we can provide for our children and our earth.

Adding to her vast mission, Semaan's latest project is a series of sustainability conferences called Study Hall, which brings together some of the world's brightest minds across various industries, providing a much needed space where individuals can engage in thought-provoking discussions and propose actionable solutions towards sustainability. So far, Semaan has hosted Study Hall during New York Fashion Week last February and in Los Angeles over the past summer. The latest event — organized in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Partnerships and with support from brands such Adidas and G-Star Raw — will take place on Friday, Feb. 1 at the United Nation Headquarters in New York City.

Ahead of the upcoming conference, Fashionista sat down with Semaan to learn more about her advocacy work, "fashion activism" and what new sustainable design approaches have caught her recent interest.

How did you first become interested in sustainability, especially within the fashion industry?

I was born in the middle of devastating war, a war that has destroyed both people and planet, and the toll of the impact of that has shaped me forever. From having fled my country under bombs to my experience as a refugee abroad and being fortunate enough to be able to return to my country, the apocalyptic landscape I witnessed made me the person I am today: Someone who advocates for human rights and the environment. My work began as a designer, using design as a medium to inspire empathy, but also devoting myself to open knowledge; open web initiatives, access to technology and digital literacy were very important amidst the Arab Spring. My work in fashion was an accident. All I wanted to do is wrap people with the earth so they stop killing each other.

How does your work on Slow Factory and The Library go hand-in-hand? 

Slow Factory started as a brand of accessories, known for printing NASA satellite and telescope images of the Earth and the universe in an attempt to connect us with both, and our humanity. It quickly became political because Earth is related to human rights. When we printed an image of Gaza at night to raise funds for displaced women and children living there under siege, Slow Factory became the example of what fashion activism is. Our collaborative work with the World Wildlife Fund is a political one that invites serious debates about whether or not climate change is a hoax.

That brings us to The Library, a non-profit I started that focuses on open education, which is my background and how and why I began my work with NASA and dedicating this initiative to sustainable literacy. The sustainable movement has its roots deep in education. With The Library, this is exactly what our mission is: Bring education to the industry and break the barriers between different disciplines, such as science, technology, human-rights and the world of policy.

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Slow Factory has inspired the work at The Library in a way, from materializing scientific open data images into physical products and infiltrating the fashion industry to turning campaigns into tangible impact. But I wanted to ground the work in a more academic way; sharing knowledge and creating learning environments is what I love doing and it seems to flow naturally out of me, which is how the Study Hall conferences were born.

Are there any new sustainable design approaches you're particularly excited about right now?

Enrica Arena, the co-founder of Orange Fiber, will be speaking at Study Hall, but essentially all food waste and fashion companies that are dedicated to circularity — the idea of whatever we make returns to earth as food, not as poison. That is our only mission at Slow Factory; our scarves are biodegradable. I am also a big fan of Veja's running shoes and its dedication to sustainability. Eileen Fisher's Tiny Factory is also a brilliant example of refurbishing damaged clothes and giving them a new life. I also am thrilled to have Sanjeev Bahl from Saitex join us at Study Hall to talk about his factory.

Since you first coined the term "fashion activism," how have you seen the industry respond and evolve?

The concept of fashion activism has entered the mainstream from a wave of slogan T-shirts related to different campaigns, and with the various exhibitions dedicated to fashion as a medium for social change. For example, Slow Factory's scarves were listed in the exhibition book for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit "Is Fashion Modern?" The de Young Museum dedicated an entire exhibition to contemporary Muslim fashions where our flight jacket with the U.S. Constitution written in Arabic and our "Banned Countries scarf", which shows a NASA image of the Middle East and North Africa at night — with the seven countries from Donald Trump's travel ban — on display. Not only has the concept been celebrated in the museum space, it has been the subject of academic and mainstream conferences and is now being embraced by the fashion industry at large.

Would you say that it was a trend at first, and now it's a mainstay industry issue?

When I first started talking about this concept seven years ago, it wasn't welcomed by the fashion industry. In fact, at that time fashion was still meant to make you dream or escape reality, not something that you would use to push a political agenda. Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss has said in interviews that his political pieces in response to the Black Lives Matter movement cost him buyers and the venue of where he was meant to show his collection. This example portrays the climate of the industry before and after the new administration. Amidst the dark political times this country has been enduring since 2016, there is reform happening in every industry and fashion is definitely one that is speaking about activism.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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