Interview by Kaylee Warren
Photos by Echo Chen
Designer, activist, and writer Céline Semaan is proactively leading the march against unsustainable practices in not just the fashion industry but the world at large. Having coined the ubiquitous and galvanizing term #fashionactivism, Semaan is bridging the gap between fashion and environmental justice with Slow Factory, the agency she’s founded that produces clothing and accessories stitched with social change--each item is 100% eco-friendly, fair trade, and made to last. I stopped by Semaan’s Brooklyn studio one afternoon to talk the politics of identity, fast versus slow fashion, and the wide-ranging effects of colonialism on the fashion industry.
Having been born in Lebanon and lived in Canada, Paris, and New York, how has your global perspective influenced your position in the fashion industry?
Because I was uprooted as a child [from Lebanon] and travelled a lot, I feel like, without knowing what I was doing, I was being an ambassador of where I came from because I found myself always [dispelling stereotypes], explaining “No we are not like this, no we’re not like that, this is not what we do.” I like to imagine myself as an ambassador between the East and the West.
At a very young age, I noticed how fashion plays such an important role in politics. Before I even coined the term #fashionactivism, I really felt that fashion and politics were so intertwined, especially coming from a country like Lebanon where fashion and beauty play such an important role culturally. What you choose to wear has meaning. How you choose to do your hair, how you choose to cover your hair or not cover your hair, the sweaters you wear, the shoes you have on tell a story not just about your self-expression but literally about your sociopolitical reality and/or how you’re trying to not be in that reality because in Lebanon it’s all about show-off and being “extra.” [laughs]
Why do you think that is?
It’s just been a big part of our culture, even before the war. French colonizers coined Lebanon the “Paris of the Middle East.” Our ancestors, the Phoenicians, were merchants. They introduced the color red to the European Empire, they were bringing in new fabrics and luxuries. They were all about beauty and adornments. I feel like that’s been carried throughout our culture, a culture of beauty and aesthetics.
Would you say that the personal is political? If so, how does this imbue itself into your work and how you approach design?
Yes, the personal is political. In fact, we are all political beings. In my identity as a woman from the Middle East, I come [to America] and I am labeled an Arab. That in itself is a slur and a prejudice, as well as its own identity. This identity is political because to come from that part of the world embodies so much conflict. So for me, being a human has always been a political experience. Wherever I went, I went with the problems of my entire region and had to explain what was going on. The education never stops.
When I moved to Canada, I noticed how fashion played a role in power structures. If you didn’t have the latest shoes or the latest running shoes, you were stupid. You were something not good. I realized that this need to belong, to be unified was very much so global because when I moved back to Lebanon when I was 13 or 14, I realized that [in Lebanon], it’s a different aesthetic [than Canada’s]. It’s more European, but it’s the same need to be unified, to belong to a group.
For people belonging to a marginalized identity, there is that inherent politicization of your body and of your being. So with fashion where your clothing is communicating something to your viewer, this message becomes intensified because not only is it what’s on your body but your body itself that’s delivering a message to your viewer. You’re always just being tossed around in this exchange you might have not even asked for.
And it enters into cultural appropriation.
It’s such a tricky subject. Amongst minorities, there is a forgiveness in borrowing from one another, but when it comes to the white power, there is no more forgiveness. It’s still so subjective. What is cultural appropriation? Can we really define it?
I’m also very interested in your sustainability practice. Was there a specific moment or event that inspired you to adopt a hands-on approach to bringing sustainability into the conversation of fashion?
My first memories were realizing that lipstick is made out of whale fat. That was my first realization of like “What?! They’re killing animals to make lipstick? That’s fucked up.” I’m a child of the 80s, so I grew up with the idea of recycling. When I left Montreal and went to Lebanon, the war has just ended. Seeing the cost of the war both on the environment and on human rights reaffirmed everything in me. It’s basically been my mission since then.
We hear a lot about sustainability today, particularly as it pertains to slow versus fast fashion. For young people striving to become more ethical consumers, sometimes a conflict arises of “Yes, I want to be sustainable, but how can I make this happen on a practical level? Yes, I want to be sustainable, but I can’t afford a $200 pair of recycled denim pants.” Are there any misconceptions about sustainable fashion that you would want to dispel? What are your thoughts on grappling with this economic versus ethical dilemma?
I wrote a piece for The Cut about how we can’t talk about sustainability without talking about colonialism. The way that sustainability is presented to us today is “Buy more, buy more!” which is super counterintuitive. [Overconsumption] is why we’re here, feeding off of people’s insecurities to push more purchases onto them. I also saw how sustainable fashion’s sort of mainstream message was around “Buy more expensive, buy less but choose well!” That’s not super accessible, and it’s not at all affordable to most.
When I was in Lebanon, there wasn’t any fast fashion back then. In [the late 1990s], Zara came to Lebanon, and I really saw the difference - before and after - in how we would buy. When Zara came in, it wasn’t seen as cheap because it was expensive for us. I compared notes with some of my peers who are in South America and Latin America, and they also think that fast fashion is expensive. So, it’s not about the cost of it. Maybe for the middle class Americans, fast fashion is a great option for cheap, accessible, disposable items, but for the rest of the world - which is not white, middle class America. It’s expensive; it’s not affordable.
When we look at the world before fast fashion, everyone knew a seamstress. Everyone had things done custom. Everyone mended their clothes, fixed them, altered them. We looked into quality, but it wasn’t expensive. It was actually the most efficient way to look into fashion, so the quality, the fabrics, the wools, the natural fibers - that’s what we would go for. There was a relationship with education and mending these things that are lost in the process. [Similarly,] now, the best thing to do is recycle, but in the 80s, recycling was the last resource. Now, everyone’s like “We better use paper, it’s better than plastic.” Before, we were so aware of deforestation and killing wildlife, but now we see all of these YouTube videos of orangutans being displaced because of palm tree oil and no one cares. It’s not a conversation. “It’s buy more, buy organic, buy vegan leather etc.” And it’s wrong, it’s not what we should do.
Because it has that underlying consequence.
I am curious about consumer culture. Should we look into changing customer behavior and bringing them back to the roots, back into a more traditional relationship with nature? Or is it a fact that we are moving towards a disposable culture? Therefore, we must have our items adapt to a disposable culture - we can’t use anything that can’t be recycled, and recycling becomes the base in terms of sustainability? I don’t know the answer, but that’s what fascinates me.
Speaking of “Buy more expensive,” in my observation, it seems that high fashion can be slower in adopting sustainability into their practices.
There are two schools of thought in high fashion. The fast fashion high fashion, the expensive high fashion, the one that is still made in the same way that fast fashion is made, except that it has a bigger, better logo and it’s about class and inaccessibility - that is a problem. Even though they are in the category of luxury, they inherit the same problems as fast fashion. They are, in fact, perpetuating the wrong even though it’s more expensive. It counteracts this rhetoric that if you buy expensive, you’re good. That is bullshit. If you buy expensive, it doesn’t mean it’s good - it just means it’s more expensive.
The other school of thought in luxury is that there are some luxury brands that are focused on craftsmanship and traditional, well-made items. They are exorbitantly expensive because they are focused on craftsmanship in a way that it becomes an art piece. Chanel, for example, saved a bunch of artisans from going bankrupt. They bought their company, their businesses, and expertises because [their skills] were going extinct. There’s so many other problems culturally, politically, and racially with Chanel, but [as it pertains to] sustainability, they are looking into luxury as a positive [part] of the [sustainability movement].
It’s nice to see that they’re still engaging in it in a way that fits their market.
Exactly. I wish there was a way to [incorporate] that in a more affordable way. To keep that beauty, to keep that aura of magic. Fashion oftentimes wants it to be so exclusive and that’s the only way to make it beautiful and special, but I argue that it’s in fact the opposite. Not in making it easy to find everywhere, but in making it accessible. I think making it accessible and sustainable is the next luxury.
You’re also a MIT Director’s Fellow. In your profile, you mention how “the need to humanize and embed our current world with a deeper sense of empathy” inspires much of your work. This line in particular struck me because I feel like our current world does lack a sense of empathy, with our neighbors at home and abroad as well as with nature. We slip into forgetting about how our actions have implications on other people and animals and things. This becomes very relevant when we thinking about a “disposable culture” and shifting consumer behavior. How can we shift this behavior? Or is it just one of those things where the individual consumer has to develop the desire to be more compassionate on their own?
There is a need to feel responsible but not to the point of feeling guilty. Once we get to the point where we are feeling so guilty, we stop ourselves from moving forward and coming up with solutions. It is important to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, but I question the people who call themselves activists and basically propose a model that is unattainable, like the perfect human. The person who doesn’t waste anything, who eats vegan only, who buys only the things that are sustainable. I wonder if this is even an effective model because it is completely unattainable to most people. Is it a model for a few to feel so good and righteous about themselves? What do models like this do, culturally? I do believe that we need to be responsible and careful, but it is also not our sole responsibility. We are within a society and context that is equally responsible, and it is something I feel that people of color only understand because that is our reality.
What inspires your designs?
Ever since I started Slow Factory, everything came to me on a whim. I wouldn’t really think twice about it. I would be like “Yay that’s great!”, launch it, and then. I would put all of the work and photos together and then I would start seeing the kind of story it was telling me. It came to me and then I looked at it as a collection. Then, it started to make sense. It’s almost like a message from the beyond. It’s a very vivid emergency.
What fuels your creativity?
I just feel curious and aware. I like to be aware of current politics because the sociopolitical context is important for me. I have the problem of having too many ideas, so in the beginning of Slow Factory, it was almost like a big explosion. Later, I started to become more specific.
How do you think social media and the Internet has affected your work?
The Internet has shaped who I am. I’ve lived in the era of non-Internet and the Internet, so I consider myself a web-native. I learned everything online, and I contributed very early on to online communities and turning them into global movements. The Information Age has been a wonderful invention that I feel very lucky to have observed in its birth. It’s been wonderful to see how the Information Age has forced every industry to question their colonialism. Everything has been affected by the Internet and has forced every single industry into accountability and transparency.
If you could imagine a vision for the future of Slow Factory, what would it be?
A plot twist is about to happen at Slow Factory. The future of Slow Factory is going to be big.