in her shoes podcast

For Céline Semaan, Fashion and Activism Have Always Gone Hand in Hand

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Mary Kang for Riposte

If you’re not familiar with Céline Semaan, you should be. The Lebanese Canadian designer, writer, and advocate is known for her pioneering work in sustainable fashion, from creating the Slow Factory — a public-service organization working at the intersection of human rights and environmental justice — to, most recently, writing a book.

Semaan knows that working as an activist in the fashion world isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. “Fashion was for me a right that I could use to create awareness, to use it as a platform for social and environmental justice. And 2013, when my work became a little bit more known — that was before the change in the U.S. administration from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party — fashion and activism were considered frivolous,” Semaan told the Cut. “But we were convinced within the team that there is a need for this. Fast-forward to 2016, and fashion activism became the pussy hats and became all these T-shirts that were sold for awareness of feminism — or at least white feminism, as we saw. And it was an important moment to redefine it again and again so it wouldn’t get lost.”

On this week’s episode of the In Her Shoes podcast, the Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples speaks with Céline about her work with Slow Factory, how her experience as a refugee has impacted her work, and how she has managed to build systems for change.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Lindsay Peoples: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. Céline, I’m so excited for us to talk.

Céline Semaan: Thank you so much for having me.

Lindsay: We were on a panel together for Slow Factory, which is how we met, but that had to be five years ago?

Céline: That was so long ago.

Lindsay: I remember even then I was so intrigued by your passion for inclusivity and sustainability. You’ve done so many amazing things with Slow Factory. What brought you to start Slow Factory and continue to build in an industry that doesn’t take inclusivity or sustainability seriously?

Céline: So we started Slow Factory in 2008. And the name came as a commentary on the fast-paced world, everything going fast. Fast food, fast consumption, fast fashion, as you know. And I said, “What about Slow Factory?” So I bought the domain name in 2008. And from 2008 to 2012, I was researching how to best create that space, that platform to effectively slow down and look at the big picture. That’s basically how we started.

Lindsay: That’s amazing. You talk a lot about regenerative design. Can you orient us to what that means and why it’s so important to the mission of Slow Factory?

Céline: So regenerative design is essentially looking at how nature operates. In nature, everything gets regenerated. There’s no such thing as waste in nature. It’s a very foreign concept, if you will, from how our ecosystems are built. And the idea of regenerative design is looking at the end of life of an item and the end of life of things and creating systems in a regenerative way — in a way that is built on reciprocity, built on the fact that it returns to the earth as food, not as poison.

Lindsay: You’ve tied this in so well in discussing why: why regenerative design, why sustainability, why inclusivity. All these things are part of your story as an individual as well, and I remember actually on that panel that we were on together you were talking about the origins of your work and a trip that you made to Lebanon and your childhood. So I would love it if you would give the readers and listeners just a little bit of background about your childhood and the origins of your family and identity and how that’s tied into this work.

Céline: Yes, of course. I built Slow Factory based on my lived experience as a first-generation war survivor and as a child refugee that came to the United States with my family — my mom and my sister. We were among the lucky ones who were able to escape and find asylum in Canada. We came to North America through the United States and got escorted to the border. And that has built my awareness in this world — being an outsider, being someone who’s not from anywhere necessarily because I escaped a war. I was 5 and a half years old, and all I could carry were my plush toys. Then when we returned, I was a teen and the war had officially ended. We came back to Lebanon when I was 12 or 13 years old, which also has shaped my perception of this world in a way, witnessing the cost war had on my country. From an environmental perspective, human-rights perspective. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen, just the way that the war had destroyed our habitat. The ecosystem of our country has shaped me into the person that I am today.

Lindsay: So what then led you to want to have a path in fashion and design and bring all of that knowledge to an industry that is wonderfully creative but, I think, also thrives on exclusivity and hasn’t fundamentally cared about a lot of things that you do care about?

Céline: It’s true they don’t care. Honestly, it was a very difficult path. To rewind a little bit, as a Lebanese woman in my culture, fashion and beauty — and I wrote for the Cut about that multiple times — it’s a coping mechanism, especially after what happened to us during the war. I worked in refugee camps in Lebanon and worked with women who are teaching beauty within the refugee camps. And I remember I went to the refugee camp, filming and working with everybody there, and I didn’t put makeup on; my hair was a mess. I just left as I was, and when I arrived there, the Palestinian and the Syrian women that welcomed me looked at me like, “Come on, show some respect for yourself.” And they sat me down and did my hair and makeup, which made me realize how much fashion and beauty are coping mechanisms that are so important. They bring us dignity, something that cannot be taken away from us.

So fashion was for me a right that I could use to create awareness, to use it as a platform for social and environmental justice. And 2013, when my work became a little bit more known — that was before the change in the U.S. administration from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. At the time, fashion and activism were considered frivolous, or something so far-fetched. “If you’re so complicated, why do you need to talk about this? You are so annoying and complicated and troublemakers and all this,” but we were very convinced within the team that there is a need for this. Fast-forward to 2016, and fashion activism became the pussy hats and became all these T-shirts that were sold for awareness of feminism, or at least white feminism, as we saw. And it was an important moment to redefine it again and again so it wouldn’t get lost.

Lindsay: You’ve talked about this moment where you realized how important fashion and beauty were to you as a coping mechanism. Tell me about a time when you realized that fashion is incredibly wasteful and then you felt like, I need to do more work here, because there aren’t as many progressions or advancements as we think there are happening.

Céline: Absolutely. If you want to talk about sustainability, you have to address colonialism. And the reason why I mentioned that is that shortly after the war ended in the 1990s, the first conglomerates that opened in Lebanon were Zara and H&M. That changed our culture and created far more waste than we were able to cope with. As opposed to what our country already had troubles with — infrastructure such as wastewater — waste management is a big issue in our country and the global South in general. What happens oftentimes when you start tracing supply chain, which is what I was doing — in tracing these systems, you can understand that most of the waste that’s coming from the global North — USA, Europe — they’re being shipped to countries in the global South that have a very fragile infrastructure because they aren’t built to receive that amount of production and waste. And the reason why there’s so much waste in the global North is because there’s such a turnaround in fashion, especially fast fashion, that it is considered a cheaper option in the global North. But in the global South, when Zara and H&M opened, these price points were very high for us. So we don’t consume it as fast and as much as we would do here in, for example, in the United States.

Lindsay: You brought up so many things I want to break down for people, because I think for you, activism and fashion have always been natural partners, and there’s just obviously so much crossover, but I think even still, to this day, it feels like such new territory for people in fashion to think that activism has a place in what we are doing and how we consume and what we wear and how and what brands we choose to buy. What would you say to people who are still hesitant about having a conversation about activism and fashion together? I think it’s so important to what you were discussing and why we can’t discuss fashion without activism conversations.

Céline: Well, activism is a very loaded term. Before 2016, activists were not considered fashionable or cool or even someone to be on the cover of a magazine. But also I want to say that I’m not an activist, and because we work with so many frontline communities, some people are literally putting their bodies at the borders of these dangerous things that are happening. So I would like to say that I’m much more of an advocate, because I am safe and I take my safety very seriously, because I have been unsafe many times in my life as a first-generation war survivor.

So fashion and activism, it’s an awareness. What’s basically going on right now is people are asking these questions when we talk to the public through the conferences that we build through Study Hall, the first climate conference in fashion, and we address thousands and thousands of people. We always encourage the activists within the industry. Because with activism as well there’s always this notion that you are outside the institution with signs and protesting. We think that’s what an activist is, but an activist can also be within and can be someone who advocates within these industries and changes the industry from the inside out.

Lindsay: You brought up Zara and H&M and other fast-fashion retailers, and I want to ask you two questions because I’m curious about how you shop and how you consume, especially in this day and age with social media. I think we’re bombarded with so much, and also when you like fashion, you like to be creative; you would like to try different things. And so I’m curious about how you shop as a first question?

Céline: In the work that I’ve been doing since 2008, my relationship with fashion has changed. I was never really someone who bought so much from fast-fashion groups because I was a very odd person in my style. I spent many years just wearing gray from head to toe because I wanted to disappear. It was trying to figure out Who am I? What am I doing and what is my style? What is my identity? I had a lot of identity questions. But during the work that I’ve been doing with fashion, I started to shop with designers that I have met, that I knew their work because they are putting their heart and soul behind it, and I always wanted to encourage this type of industry, the person who has a specific idea and has a way to control their supply chain. And then again, when I go back and forth to Lebanon, I love buying Lebanese designers, some of my peers that are creating fashion in such a new and innovative way. So I purchase a lot of Lebanese designers whenever I can.

Lindsay: This second part of my question is because I spend a lot of time on TikTok and I always find it fascinating that people are obsessed with the Shein hauls, and just buying mass amounts of clothing, and everything is individually packaged in plastic, and they pour it out, and you can’t look away because it’s just the craziest thing. And I think especially in this day and age, and knowing all the information that we know about sustainability and fast fashion, it’s this sense of people feeling this pressure but also just wanting to consume more. What do you think when you see things like that, and what would you say to young people who are still participating in these massive hauls?

Céline: I would like to shout out two of my peers. Aja Barber, who wrote the book Consumed and is one of our board members at the Slow Factory. She has written and talked so much about solutions that individuals can do to break up with fast fashion. There’s an addiction to it, where you’re trying to fill up a void within yourself to purchase all these things, and fast fashion has become much more popular. And there were way more purchases in the Instagram era, like taking pictures of your outfits and wearing them only once. So I believe TikTok is experiencing the same kind of phenomenon, where you don’t want to show up twice with the same outfit. I don’t know if you’re gonna ask me about the metaverse, but a lot of people think that the metaverse is gonna solve it.

Lindsay: I don’t know about that.

Céline: It’s the same idea about consumption and filling up a void. So Aja Barber talks a lot about that, and another one of my co-founders of Fashion Revolution is Orsola de Castro, who is a professor and someone who has talked at length about one of the most sustainable items that you can purchase, which is the one that’s already in your closet. I’m butchering her quote, but that’s basically what she says. Both of them have really identified ways that individuals could really either break up with fast fashion or figure out how to evolve their style without having to engage with Shein and with H&M and all of these people. That being said, I also have written at length myself about the idea that shaming people for buying fast fashion is also not the solution, because fast fashion has allowed a lot of women and especially women from the global majority, Black, brown, Indigenous minority ethnic women, to enter the workforce because of the fact that there’s a better price point. I just want to bring back a notion of nuance here. There is no shame in this conversation. There can’t be, and, at the same time, we need nuances when we discuss these topics.

Lindsay: I totally agree. And I understand both sides of things. I think a lot of the fashion companies that are specifically fast fashion are a lot more inclusive of sizing, which is something that we’ve both been critical about with fashion not being inclusive of all sizes and only going up to a certain size. There have been a lot of gaps. I think on both ends that this whole entire conversation requires some nuance. I think, obviously, you come across so much information in having all of these conversations. I’m sure there are a million statistics and things that you’ve learned along the way. What do you think are the biggest things that people need to understand right now?

Céline: One of the things is that it is a systemic issue. So it doesn’t matter if you stop purchasing anything new ever again, we’re still going to run into the same issues because this is a systemic issue. Now, that being said, your individual action is welcome. It’s needed, but doing it out of guilt, out of this feeling of doom and gloom, is not conducive to any collective change at the end of the day. What we need and what we figured out within the team of the Slow Factory is that education is at the heart of this movement of change. The way that we are learning at school to design clothing, for example, the old way, if you will, you’re designing things from a roll of raw fabric. You’re cutting your patterns and throwing the excess in the garbage bin. Yes, there are groups, especially in New York City, like FABSCRAP that are going to divert that from the landfill. But at scale, this doesn’t make any sense.

So the way that we are educating the fashion students of the future is where the Slow Factory is playing the role in that it’s this type of new education that looks at regenerative design, as you mentioned. We allow people to start having a cognitive shift and experience where they begin to understand that “Okay, we need to figure out new ways and we need to be innovative. We need to put this creativity to action not to create more styles but to create better systems.” And I think that’s what the focus is on the most when we are discussing solutions. Solutions are in materials science, creating new systems, and changing culture.

Lindsay: I know there are a lot of young people who want to be fashion designers. What advice do you have for the people who want to be creative and want to make their own mark but want to do it in a sustainable and a better way for the planet?

Céline: I think the space of climate justice and human rights needs designers, needs innovation. We need to look at it not in an austere kind of way as with the lens of doom and gloom. We need to look at it through the lens of creativity. So if you are passionate about these types of things, use your creativity, your design techniques, and your magic to apply it in a way to climate issues, on human-rights issues, because we need the creativity there more than anything. We need to innovate in these spaces. They’re being underserved, at the moment, because they are sort of spaces that are wrapped around in a big barbed wire of guilt. And no one is really entering the space feeling like, “Oh, I can make a change.” But people are entering this space out of necessity. So I would love to invite the design community to enter the space of climate justice and human rights and bring your magic and bring your innovation to this space.

Lindsay: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Céline.

Céline: Oh my gosh. Thank you so much for having me, Lindsay. On May 6, and this is like an exclusive for you, I am releasing my first book. It’s called A Woman Is a School.

Lindsay: Tell me more about this book.

Céline: So A Woman Is a School is about education that exists outside of institutions. It’s about how I was able to build a school and, hopefully, a whole educational system that is applicable in the space of climate justice, but of course in other spaces as well. The book is talking to an 18-year-old woman in the global South that is trying to find a way out, trying to find her path, and hopefully understanding that the knowledge that she holds, this ancestral knowledge, is the very knowledge that we need to preserve and hold. And so that’s what the book is about.

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For Céline Semaan, Fashion and Activism Go Hand in Hand