It is almost impossible to assign a job title to Lebanese-born Céline Semaan, since her work in fashion casts such a wide net: Besides being founder of Slow Factory, an online fashion “tech lab” that manufactures clothing and accessories, she also helped create The Library: Sustainable Fashion Archive, a partnership with MIT Media Lab, designed to foster collaborations for sustainability in the fashion industry. In addition to designing her own accessories, Semaan also designs for clients that include Condé Nast, Seed Media Group, General Assembly and Tribute. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Refinery 29, Fast Company and The New York Times.
How did you get into fashion initially?
My background is in both tech and digital literacy. I have worked as a community lead for Creative Commons in Canada (a tech company that develops and stewards legal and techincal infrastructure to provide open research and education to online users), and have helped launch open licenses on the internet in both Qatar and Beirut. I stumbled into fashion by accident. When NASA joined Creative Commons, I tweeted, “Wouldn’t it be nice to wrap yourself with the universe?” I received such a positive response to that tweet, that I began printing digital NASA images onto fabric, like scarves and T-shirts. That is essentially how it happened.
What exactly do you mean by fashion activism?
Fashion activism is using fashion as a medium for social and environmental change. It is about respecting both the people as well as the environment in the process of execution. It is also a linear vs. circular model. Fast fashion is similar to fast food, where fabrics, clothes, accessories are quickly used and discarded. With slow fashion, the product has a different process and model and is made to last; and oftentimes, has a life after it is discarded (resold, passed down. etc.). In addition, everyone involved in making the products earns a fair wage and has safe working conditions. It is a holistic process.
Tell me about the MIT Media Lab, and the type of
innovations it is making that are contributing to fashion today.
I am a Director’s Fellow, essentially a collaborator at the Lab. The Lab does research work for a variety of diffferent academic disciplines, including technology, media, art and design. In September 2017, I started The Library, focused on sustainable literacy and education in the fashion industry. We launched a conference series called Study Hall in partnership with MIT Media Lab and Ace Hotel. Our first conference kicked off during New York Fashion Week in February 2018, and we are now launching a denim-focused conference in Los Angeles, and planning another Study Hall in NYC for February 2019. Our goal is to introduce to the fashion industry some of the innovative methods we have at the Lab.
What designers would you point to as being fashion activists, and why?
Mara Hoffman, because she uses her platform to advocate and fund social justice organizations. She also is dedicated to sustainability and improvement in production. Melody Ehsani is also a great example; her work has a very strong focus on activism. The designer Ashish is an activist with his statement T-shirts and bold messages. We have seen a surge in fashion activism after the 2016 elections: That is when we finally saw momentum. People thought I was crazy before then.
If consumers are interested in shopping with a fashion-activist mindset, how would you suggest they get started? What should they look for?
First, when advocating for a cause, you need to have a global perspective. For instance, if a T-shirt says, “Save the Earth,” and is made with polyester, or is not fair trade, I don’t understand how you can proudly wear it. People looking to support fashion-activist brands also need to ask #whomademyclothes—and, I would add, what were the materials used? It is important to be curious. The more you learn, the more you’ll be into reusing, mending your clothes, swapping, buying vintage, etc. ... It becomes a lifestyle and a culture.