One day after watching the latest news from around the world, Celine Semaan tweeted in 140 characters what is today known as an international fashion must have. The Lebanese designer wished to wrap the world with wearable art to remind humanity of the universe’s unity.
Semaan left NASA to bring the diversity of the universe right into the wardrobe of women around the world. Slow Factory is her fashion brainchild that aims to connect conflicting nations and shed light on major humanitarian crises.
Growing up as a Lebanese refugee in Canada gave the fashion entrepreneur honest insight on the tormenting results of political conflicts. Therefore, her fashion label aims to address the international catastrophe through the universal language of fashion.
Semaan’s keys of dignity have attracted global attention towards the Canada-based fashion label. The contemporary accessory originates from an old Middle Eastern tradition that was born in the heart of occupation.
For years, displaced Lebanese and Palestinian women have worn the keys of their original households around their necks in anticipation of the day they finally return. The trending necklace, Dignity Key, is a silver replica of Semaan’s household key.
The necklace does not only aim to raise awareness of the increasing number of refugees, but is the core of an ongoing charity project that aims to provide job opportunities to many in need.
Daily News Egypt talked with the entrepreneurial fashion designer to learn more about her inspiration, how she managed to spread awareness regarding her authentic concept, and the impact Slow Factory has managed to create.
What encouraged you to establish your brand?
I always thought fashion has purpose and a meaning. Whether you wear a scarf, a hoodie, baggy pants, a leather jacket, or a beret; all these have meaning and express something beyond just your personality.
Slow Factory was designed out of a necessity to explore the connection between fashion and activism.
When NASA joined Creative Commons, where I was working as Community Lead, a spark occurred in my head and I tweeted: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could wrap people in a silk print of the universe and the world so they stop killing each other?”
I got such an encouraging response, that I took it on as a challenge to make it happen.
How did you come up with the main concept behind the dignity key?
My family and I fled Beirut on a refugee status when I was a child; when we returned in the 90’s after a temporary ceasefire, I began exploring my country from the perspective of an expat teenager.
I saw grandmothers wearing an old key as a necklace, and I asked my mother what it is about? She explained that it was a Palestinian tradition to wear the key of the home that you have left behind as a symbol of hope.
This idea inspired me to mold the key of my home in Beirut and to turn it into a symbol that raises awareness and funds in support of the refugee crisis.
What was the main message that you aimed to send through the dignity keys?
A message of hope, dignity, and respect. A symbol that ties us all together and connects us in solidarity.
How did you manage to deliver such a foreign concept to the western markets?
It was not an easy job, to be honest; it took a lot of work to get the western market to care.
Since the refugee crisis has been declared by the UNHCR as the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII, the media had to pay attention to it.
It took me a lot of perseverance and courage to carry this message through.
Tell us more about your collaboration with ANERA. So far, how many children have benefited from this collaboration?
ANERA is a small but agile team of amazing people who work tirelessly in order to make a positive impact in the world.
So far we have had the chance to meet dozens of young adults, who have benefited from the programme we help fund. They have created careers and jobs to support their families after receiving the vocational trainings.
5,345 Syrians and Palestinians have enrolled in this programme in Lebanon alone.
How far did the increasing fear of refugees impact your brand?
We created the REFUGEE sweatshirt—despite the raging hatred—in order to inspire empathy and to attempt to put a different kind of image on the refugee crisis.
The media portray the refugees in a pejorative way, and with our campaign we wanted to show another side of the story—something the world needs to see.
How many artisans do you currently employ? What are your main criteria when recruiting them?
We work in collaboration and partnerships with local artisans. So far we have worked with family-owned factories in Beirut and Italy.
Our criteria are sustainable, fair-trade, green manufacturing, and overall eco-friendly practices. We also require certifications.
Furthermore, we visit the factories and establish a relationship of trust with our partners.
How much did your upbringing as a refugee impact your career and aesthetic as a designer?
My entire childhood I tried so hard to fit in my predominantly white school and neighborhood.
I lived with a lot of confusion and shame about my Arab identity and upbringing. As I grew older, I began to find my path; empowerment and healing came into play in various forms.
One of them being in design and creativity. Feeling empowered is what inspires me now to help others gain their dignity back.
What is the main element refugees currently need? How can the common public help?
There are many things refugees need on a basic human-rights level: basic needs, such as access to water, food, hygiene etc.
There are many organizations helping. Nonetheless, what I think the public can do is treat them with respect and dignity as people who have escaped suffering from atrocious conditions.
The public has the responsibility to talk about this issue, get informed, and inform others in hope of inspiring people to have more empathy—rather than criticism—toward this cause.
What are the main cities that you aim to add to “Cities by Night”? Why?
We have an addition to the “Cities by Night” collection, a view from space of the seven banned countries by the current administration of the United States of America. The scarf shows Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Iran, and Iraq at night with the word “BANNED” crossed out. The scarf is raising funds to support the “no ban” legal battle by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
How can common people, designers or not, use fashion in the face of current islamophobia and hatred against refugees? How can fashion be turned into an weapon of activism?
Activism is about educating yourself about an issue and then giving yourself tools to help this issue.
It can start with inclusion—including other people outside your race, giving them a voice, or collaborating with people who live outside your comfort zone.
Fashion is a tool—not a weapon—to inspire social and environmental change.
After scarves and jewelry, what other garments and/or pieces of accessories do you aim to experiment with in the near future, why?
We are working on an apparel collection made out of 100% recycled plastic bottles turned into thread. The final denim is revolutionary and gorgeous. Meanwhile, we also plan to expand into footwear by 2018.