Sustainability is a Culture we Should all invest in. This is what displays on Céline Semaan-Vernon LinkedIn account. Who is Céline Semaan-Vernon (CSV) exactly? She is a designer, writer, an advocate and a founder of Slow Factory Foundation. In this post, I am displaying the life, career and work of CSV as part of a #InmarIdeasThatMatter series meant to bring light to rising figures working to elevate social justice issues.
Her career began as a user-experience designer for HUGE Inc., General Assembly, and Condé Nast. Semaan works in the open knowledge and access to information movement. She writes for:
Her work has been featured in:
- New York Times
- Scientific American
- Fast Company
- Teen Vogue
- Vanity Fair
- Scientific American
- Business Insider
CSV is on the Council of Progressive International, became a Director’s Fellow of MIT Media Lab in 2016, and served on the Board of Directors of AIGA NY, a nonprofit design organization. Her artistic work has been featured in the Museum of Modern Art and Cooper Hewitt in New York, the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Her collections have supported the efforts of the World Wildlife Fund, UNICEF, and ANERA. It’s a powerful résumé, definitely a figure to keep on the watch.
I became interested in CSV as I was a fan and avid Instagram follower of Slow Factory. What is Slow Factory (SF)? Slow Factory transforms socially and environmentally harmful systems by designing models that are good for the earth and people.
SF is nonprofit organization founded by CSV in 2012. It focuses on generating climate change solutions and systemic change for social and environmental justice through fashion. It grew to become world-renowned thanks to its high-quality silks printed with satellite images from NASA. SF gave Semaan the ability to expand the intersection of environmental sustainability, social good, and fashion. According to CSV, the fashion industry is very powerful because it impacts global processes including agriculture, imports, exports, labor and the supply chain.
We work to advance our vision of climate justice and social equity through regenerative design, open education, and materials innovation.
Through her work for SF, Semaan was credited with coining the term fashion activism. She widened the definition of “decolonization” to bring it onto popular fashion magazines. CSV is known for her social justice activism on refugee, cultural appropriation, and Arab identity causes. Her advocacy for sustainable practices in fashion, digital and product design fosters much needed political and sociological change through the unlikely source of design and clothing production.
This type of activism is the practice of using fashion as a medium for social and environmental change, a form of protest. It merges popular styles of dressing to implement social and political change beyond the designated channels of influence offered by the local politics. The activism includes raising awareness and civic mobilization, behaviour change and pushes for systemic impact.
Fashion Activism Garments
The term connotes garments worn daily, such as:
- clothes with peace sign symbols that were popularized in the late 20th century
- military dress as anti-war activism amongst the hippies in the 1960s
- ‘Make America Great Again’ hats sported by Donald Trump supporters
- controversial use of Hawaii shirts amongst proponents of the “Boogaloo” movement
- Bloomers, a garment suggesting unrestricted movement as opposed to the constructed figures of the Victorian age, were made popular by women’s rights activists in the 1850s.
- mini skirt made its debut in 1964 and quickly became a bastion of youth culture and defiance
- slogan T-shirt favoured by activists since its inception, and fuelled by the DIY ethos of the punk era, Vivienne Westwood’s subversive t-shirt designs brought the slogan aesthetic into the mainstream in the 1970s
- after the 1936 Arab Revolt, the Keffiyeh became a symbol of political uprising and rebellion. It was not until the rise of Arafat in the 1960s that the scarf came to symbolize Palestinian solidarity. The scarf has appeared among many leftist groups and anti-war organizations. The Keffiyeh is a fashion staple in the west, although few are aware of its rich political history
Slow Factory Fashion Activism
- ‘Dignity Key’ where having your key hanging around your neck is a tradition started by Palestinian refugees.
- ‘Banned’ scarf showing the universal impact of President Trump’s Muslim ban
- ‘1st Amendment Flight Jacket’ featuring text is written in Arabic, standing up to the rise in islamophobia and hate crimes against American Muslims
CSV fled Lebanon from the civil war as a refugee with her family at age 4. She lived in Paris, Montreal and New York. This global journey fuelled her passion for environmental awareness. Going back to her native country after the war, she witnessed the environmental and human rights cost. The vivid images of waste impacted her tremendously “Waste does not exist in nature, it is a human construct introduced by colonialism,” as quoted in Huff Post.
CSV envisions a world where all human activity is designed through the lens Good for the Earth, Good for the People. She seeks collaborations with brands that share her commitment of positive social, environmental and economic impact.
As an MIT director’s fellow, her research translates complex concepts and systems into approachable stories that resonate with all.
One of her particular design focuses has been steering clear from materials that pollute the earth, such as microplastics. Her priority is achieving beautiful designs through ethical production, to advance human rights and social equity. She worked with upcycled materials like plastic bottles to create garments.
More recently, Semaan-Vernon and journalist Sophia Li launched All of the Above. It’s a short-form video series discussing sustainability solutions to achieve climate justice. One of her Slow Factory endeavours has been One x One, an incubator project partnered with Swarovski and the United Nations. It aims to pair New York City fashion designers with scientists to work on the production and discovery of sustainable materials.
The Gist of it
CSV is a modern ambassador of cultures, fostering communication across industry, policy, academia and the broader citizen population. Her work underpins the power of remixing, collage, and juxtaposition and the need to embed empathy in our current world.
In the era of COVID-19 and racial justice awareness, Semaan-Vernon’s iterates…
“The fashion industry was built on a system of exploitation and white supremacy that continues to exploit today…There is no justice without acknowledging the harm of the past. My movement is a call to action for the fashion industry to reckon with its colonial past and to rectify it through developing new ways of manufacturing and producing.”
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