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How To Become a Fashion Activist

with Céline Semaan.

Céline Semaan, an advocate, writer, designer, founder of Slow Factory and The Library, and mother of two is an original thinker, whose intellect and creativity has been vital in understanding that fashion is political. (Versus politics is fashionable.) Her background in tech informs her advocacy for unfettered access to information and data, shaping her singular approach to fashion: prioritizing transparency and information sharing. (Yes, those things matter in fashion too.)

Semaan is unflinching in her critique of systems, people, and processes that benefit from inequality and oppression. Whether she is running her companies, writing for publications like The Cut or Elle, or hosting a conference with sustainable fashion leaders, she pushes difficult but necessary conversations into the mainstream—not just to be provocative, but to find solutions.

While it might be rewarding in times of triumph, it can’t be easy to fight those battles everyday—even with the deep stores of passion and drive that Semaan seems to have at her disposal. In these contentious times, standing up for what you believe in can be risky at worst and exhaustive at best. On her Instagram feed, she speaks with candor of the challenges, both personal and professional, inherent in her line of work. Which, for aspiring fashion activists, and sustainable designers begs the question: How does she do it?

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Meet Céline!

Hi, I’m Céline! I came from Lebanon to the United States in the 1980s as a refugee and then ended up in Montreal, Canada where I spent 10 years. When the war ended in 1995, my family and I returned to Lebanon where I finished the equivalent of high school and eventually started traveling. One of my earliest memories is looking at the earth from the plane—aerial shots of the earth from the airplane window. It has inspired me tremendously in the work that I do.

“Everything you make returns to the earth as food or poison.” The birth of Slow Factory.

A few decades later I started my career in tech. When I first started working I was doing all kinds of design—digital, user experience, interface, and interactive—and I was also advocating for digital literacy and open access to information and data.

Through this activism, I started working with an organization called Creative Commons. It’s an open license that allows other people to re-use and share work. NASA joined Creative Commons, and I helped launch their licenses in Qatar, Beirut, and Montreal. I thought it was a shame that NASA’s images would remain in a digital format and started thinking about how to put them in a physical format. The idea began as, “Can we materialize the immaterial?” So I tweeted to my friends, “Wouldn’t it be great to have these images on silk?” and my followers were like, “Do it!”

I knew that if was to do it, I couldn’t do it on material that was going to hurt the earth. I didn’t put words around it like “conscious fashion.” My background is in the digital space and we were focused on responsible design around tech and e-waste so when I began working with fashion, I brought these practices with me.

I found that fashion was a very opaque industry, it wasn’t open at all and coming from the open web with it’s open culture and open data, entering the fashion world felt like going back in time.

"I’m many Célines."

My first identity online, back in the 90s, was Celinecelines because there are many layers to a person; I’m many Celines. I’m CEO of my own company, I’m a creative, I’m a writer, I’m a researcher, I’m a designer, I’m an academic.

I wanted to start a brand that was different to Slow Factory. Slow Factory is very much about fashion activism, a term I coined, and raising awareness around social and environmental issues. I want it to remain wild and free.

My new company, The Library, is a sustainable literacy project in collaboration with MIT that I started in 2017. We host a conference series called Study Hall, and will be launching a sustainable fashion archive of iconic pieces, sustainably-made, to offer to the public. I wanted to share my research and The Library is about providing the information needed to make sustainability accessible.

What is sustainability? The big picture.

Sustainability, for me, is a Culture with a capital C. It’s less about what you purchase but about your relationship with the items. It can be anything from your food to your beauty products to your lifestyle. It’s how you relate to things and the level of consciousness that you have around these things. Some people say sustainability is about what you’re purchasing, the kind of brands you’re supporting, I think that sustainability is how you approach your life.

For example, I wrote a piece for The Cut called “Understanding Sustainability Means Talking About Colonialism.” When you look at the trade routes for cotton, silk, rubber, any kind of material that we are using in the fashion industry, they map identically to colonial routes, and the way that things are set up today, for exploitation and keeping people in extreme poverty, that’s unsustainable. The system is unsustainable. It’s designed in a way that benefits only a small group of individuals and it’s extremely racist. So, when I talk about sustainability, we have to have a global perspective. We have to have the poor people who are making our clothes be part of the conversation. They need an equal seat at the table with the large corporations who are making fashion.

How do you live a sustainable lifestyle?

For the individual, buying less is the best thing you can do. The one thing we focus on the most in my family is to reduce our waste. Packaging is one example. I was a big fan of Food Kick, and now we don’t use Food Kick because everything comes wrapped up in excess plastic and paper. Even recycling pollutes, so reducing our waste is what we focus on the most.

I'm really into refill culture and going to the store and refilling your detergent or things that are easy to fill. I also focus on natural products that don’t hurt the environment. It can be hard to find the right products because you might get excited about a brand and then you find out the brand is awful and it’s disappointing and then you have to find an alternative.

It’s important though not to shame yourself or others for doing what they need to do to get through the day or for what they have access to. I am aware of my privilege of being able to afford sustainable products. I understand that sustainability today is not accessible so shaming others for what they're buying is not understanding your privilege. It’s not very sustainable.

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On shopping clothing new and used.

The sharing economy is great, mending your clothes is even better than recycling them. We should all know a great seamstress who can tell us how to change your clothes the current styles.

In Lebanon, everyone knows five seamstresses, if not more. But I have a few good ones here, in Brooklyn. The last piece I brought in was a winter skirt that I bought on eBay. It was vintage and it was too small, so I had the button moved. And I actually wear it!

At the start of every summer I take my sandals to the shoemaker to polish them and re-make the soles—I don’t buy new sandals. And before I put my boots away at the start of summer, I take them to get the soles replaced and dye them. Sometimes I go darker or if I’m feeling crazy I’ll dye them a lighter color, something like red!

My friend Stacy London has a big, big collection of clothing. Whenever she has a party we go into her closet and it’s a dream! She also participates in clothing swaps. I recently got a vintage dress from her. I’m also friends with Patrick Duffy, who runs the Global Fashion Exchange, those big swapping parties. I’ve participated in a few of them. In terms of consignment, I love The RealReal and Tradesy. I’m also a big fan of eBay. I love the circular economy, knowing that whatever I buy, someone else can buy it when it doesn’t work for me anymore.

I bought Mara Hoffman a lot this summer because I had a lot of events and I love her clothes and her bathing suits. But Rachel Comey is my number one, only true love! I have ankle boots and wool sweaters from her first collections because her things last years. I love Grammar for white shirts, Veja for running shoes, and G-Star for denim. The pair I’m wearing now is Cradle-to-Cradle made with organic cotton and organic indigo dye.

I buy a lot of vintage, I love vintage Christian Dior! I have a suit from my grandmother and I love to wear it. I mix it up with other pieces so it feels more fun and current but when I wear the jacket and skirt together I look like my grandma! I love vintage Burberry, I have two trenches. I love vintage YSL shoes and jewelry, and vintage Céline, and Cartier. It’s so classic, it doesn’t go out of style.

What about the kids?

There are very few sustainable options for my kids right now. When they were babies there was fair-trade everything! But when they hit one and a half or two, it stopped there. There are some designer things you can buy like Stella McCartney, but I can’t afford Stella McCartney for my children. I can’t afford it for me!

For kids, what do I do? I swap! There’s a great community of moms in Brooklyn that I depend on. And I do shop at H&M, but I try to buy the Conscious Collection. My children don’t wear polyester — there’s no way I’m gonna make them wear polyester so I always go for cotton. Preferably organic cotton. I like Burt’s Bees for essentials and I do go to Uniqlo for my kids, but what we buy for them is minimal, just a few things for the season.

At the end of every season everything gets washed and pressed and prepared to be passed down to my second daughter, and after her, it is prepared for swapping. I try my best not to have much clothing waste.

My house is full of plastic toys. At first, we were only going to have wooden toys and recycled paper books, but it’s impossible. I used to make my own play dough and now I just buy Play-Doh at the store. As a working mom, it’s just not feasible!

I made a little video with one of my daughters, it’s called “Who will inherit the earth?” and I teach them about the manifesto of Slow Factory: “Everything you make returns to the earth as food or water.” When I buy them things that are biodegradable, for example, a biodegradable toothbrush, I explain to them that when they’re done with it, it can go back to the earth and it turns into a tree, their minds are blown!

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And, of course, we have to talk about food.

I believe in the aura and the energy of the objects you consume and surround yourself with. I really support local production, so we visit Fishkill Farm and Hemlock Hill Farm in upstate New York in the fall and the winter. I know the people who run them and it’s fun to create this relationship.

I also love the Union Square farmers’ market because it has everything and all the exotic vegetables I eat in Lebanon. They have veggies that I love: the weird cucumbers and zucchini that only grow in Asia and the Middle East. There’s a farmer’s market in Williamsburg by McCarren Park too.

I’m very annoying to go shopping with because I look at the labels of everything. I’m a big advocate for fair trade; everything we buy has to be well made. Nutella contributes to deforestation and the extinction of the orangutans and it’s made with palm oil. I love Nutella, but I’m not eating it anymore—my kids aren’t either. It’s heartbreaking what they’re doing and I can’t support it.

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The skincare routine.

We have a huge jar of First Botany’s Organic Almond Oil in our bathroom and the whole family uses it—for everything. I use it to take my makeup off, as a face cream, in my hair. I also use coconut oil, my favorite is Monoi de Tahiti Oil, and I make my own rosewater spray. I’m very low-maintenance when it comes to beauty, but when I turned 35 I decided I need to take care of my skin so I bought Tata Harper’s Natural Age-Defying Skincare Discovery Kit and I really love it.

Before Tata Harper, I was a big fan of Grown Alchemist, which is really well made. Diana Taborski-Tasa, a friend of mine who is a buyer at Les Étoffes in Montreal, has focused on sustainability, since way before it was popular, and she turned me onto Maison Louis Marie candles and perfume. She also introduced me to Susanne Kaufman, I love her Day Creme Line T.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Words: Dena Silver

Photographer: Angela Datre

Copy Editor: Sonija Hyon

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