Back in 2010, Lebanese-Canadian designer Céline Semaan coined a new term for the work she was doing to make sustainability central to the fashion industry: fashion activism.
This summed up her belief that fashion, as one of the world’s most creative industries, should lead the way with creative solutions to the biggest problems facing the climate.
“Fashion creates culture, and culture creates action,” Semaan explained to Vogue magazine earlier this year. “Fashion has tremendous power in impacting culture, but it also has to [embrace] education on these [climate] issues.
“It’s about making education accessible, transparent, and open, the same way fashion is.”
Slow Factory’s “Banned” scarf, which protested President Trump’s travel ban. Photo by Driely Carter for Slow Fashion
This push was formalised via the creation of fashion agency Slow Factory in 2013. It is a non-profit that works with companies to develop solutions to issues like waste and exploitative labour in fashion. These are incredibly prevalent issues: An estimated 150 billion garments are made every year, but 30 percent of them are never sold and, instead, sit around waiting to be buried in landfill or incinerated.
Slow Factory works with organisations as varied as the UN, Swarovski and Adidas to innovate on sustainability in fashion.
This has included the “Landfills as Museums” study, which took up-and-coming designers to a landfill site to help them to think about the future of sustainability —and consider changes to fashion’s ‘end of life’ cycle.
“We must not look at waste as waste, but as a new resource,” Semaan told Arab News. “I started (to look at it like) that over 20 years ago and I really think that I lived this way because I had to travel so much.”
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A series we shot two years ago, that I haven’t yet shared in full for so many reasons: 1. The theme is #decolonize and it is a sentiment we, in the Middle East, share with every single oppressed Nation around the world. That is an international invisible alliance we must protect and not destroy! 2. It was shot in a Historical home in Lebanon where all the 5000 years of colonialism were apparent in layers and layers of ruins the home was holding. I cried the entire day, I was moved to my core walking in that home my best friend Raïa introduced me to. And being there with her and her family friends who live in this home, brought me a sense of peace and belonging that is so foreign to my human experience that it took me months to unpack, absorb and release. 3. The t-shirt says « Jesus was Palestinian » and is a special collaboration with Taravat Talepasand (@artistvat ), when we originally tried to launch it, I was subject to oppression and negativity, it discouraged me to launch it, and after a few years of research, analysis and History mapping, I am even more convinced today of the magical relevance of this message. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. His teaching was of Peace and Love, which til this day, Humans cannot even fully embrace the magnitude of these two words. The contradiction of this statement is the key to Peace building, the key teaching is: we are one. That is the key teaching. So on International Women’s Day I want to celebrate our International bond with one another and to Freedom for all. Women hold the world. Photos by @tarekmoukaddem #lebanon #iwd #thawra Special thanks to my @raia_hai #iwd2020
Then there’s Study Hall, a free annual summit on sustainable fashion backed by Tesla and the Rainforest Alliance; and One X One, an incubator project with Swarovski that pairs a scientist with a designer to support them as they develop new styles of sustainable fashion.
The One x One project has seen designer Telfar Clemens and scientist Theanne Schiros collaborate on a bag made from a leather substitute grown from bacteria and a partnership between designer Philip Lim and researcher Charlotte McCurdy to make luxury products from carbon neutral materials.
Semaan’s fashion activism remains present throughout. The designer, who fled the Lebanese civil war as a child, made waves in 2017 when she launched a silk scarf emblazoned with the word “banned” over pictures of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—the seven countries from which people were initially barred entry to the US under President Trump’s Muslim travel ban (In 2020, the list changed and expanded to 14 countries).
Similarly, Semaan created a flight jacket with the US Constitution’s 1st Amendment, the right to free speech, printed in Arabic.
A proportion of the profits from each of Slow Factory’s collections are given to a charity partner. This has included 10 percent of sales from the “Endangered x Extinct Species” collection to the organisation Best Bees and sales from a new jewelry line to support education and job-training projects for refugees in Lebanon.
“What we need to design is a fashion system that has resiliency and sustainability and heart, one that meets the environment where it is, that has a scientific approach, that has respect to human rights,” Céline Semaan added to Vogue.
“Otherwise, we’re just engaging in exploitation [of people and land] at the benefit of profit. That system, as we’re seeing now, is not sustainable.”