Céline Semaan: ‘We must look at waste as a new resource’

An image from the UN’s Sustainable Fashion Summit. (Supplied)
Updated 11 February 2019

Céline Semaan: ‘We must look at waste as a new resource’

  • Arab News talks to the Lebanese founder of the UN’s Sustainable Fashion Summit
  • The Sustainable Fashion Summit is the brainchild of Lebanese entrepreneur Céline Semaan, the soft-spoken CEO and founder of Slow Factory

NEW YORK: On a frigid afternoon in New York on February 1, the road to Manhattan’s Turtle Bay area was paved with fashionable footsteps. Kicking off New York Fashion Week, collaborators including industry experts, designers and scientists came together at the United Nations headquarters for an all-day summit focused on sustainability in fashion. The conversation centered on providing a platform to highlight success stories related to innovation and social justice, and map out action plans in which civil society and industry leaders can collaborate and embody the summit’s slogan: “Good for the Earth, Good for the People.”

“The UN is not necessarily known for high fashion,” Robert Skinner, executive director of the UN Office for Partnerships said to a full house of about 400 attendees. Riefqah Jappie, International Trade Center Representative to the UN opened up the dialogue by saying, “It is good for the earth, good for the people — and it is good for business.”

Scary stats flashed before our eyes as different speakers reminded us that many designers are making beautiful products— that simply don’t last. They end up in the trash, or the ocean.

The Sustainable Fashion Summit is the brainchild of Lebanese entrepreneur Céline Semaan, the soft-spoken CEO and founder of Slow Factory, a “design innovation lab focusing on sustainable practices.” It’s mission, as described on its website, is to “make clothing and accessories with a political message, known as #FashionActivism, and donate proceeds to humanitarian and environmental causes.”

Celine Semaan. (Supplied)

Wearing a snazzy red velvet suit, her dark curls slicked back into a neat bun, Semaan, who is also a writer and a director’s fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, told Arab News about the urgent message behind the summit.

An image from the UN’s Sustainable Fashion Summit. (Supplied)

“I didn’t study fashion so I didn’t come from that world and I don’t come from that sort of education. I came from a different angle,” she said. “We need a redesign of the current system with the environment at the heart of it. Not to harvest virgin resources that destroy natural resources. We need global pressure and to shift marketing budgets to (research and development).”

It’s not a new message, but it is one that seems to be gathering momentum — aided in no small part by the Japanese ‘tidying’ expert Marie Kondo, whose new Netflix show dedicated to helping people rid their closets and houses of unwanted belongings, has been hugely popular.

“I really love the KonMari (Kondo’s lifestyle brand) concept, and that’s how I live my life personally,” said Semaan. “People are editing down their belongings, so there’s a lot of new waste. And there are a lot of companies, like Helpsy (which disposes of garments ethically), because someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure.

“We must not look at waste as waste, but as a new resource,” she continued. “I started (to look at it like) that over 20 years ago and I really think that I lived this way because I had to travel so much. Everything I have fits two suitcases.”

Semaan’s family left Lebanon for Canada as refugees during the Lebanese Civil War, and getting dressed up, she has said, was a way of establishing her identity in a country that wasn’t her own.

A childhood photo of Celine. (Supplied)

“As Arabs, we use beauty and fashion as coping mechanisms in situations of chaos,” she told Arab News. “As a Lebanese woman, I grew up (learning) that beauty and your appearance is self-respect and your dignity. Of course, we do it for the gaze of the ‘other’ but I really find inspiration from my peers and the women around me who always look stunning. Being in control of how we look and how we present ourselves to the world is an important aspect of our culture.

“We go see refugees in camps and they still are looking great,” she continued. “That does not to diminish their trauma — it enhances their humanity and celebrates their dignity and confidence.”

Semaan has first-hand experience of this. Slow Factory has collaborated with American Near Middle East Refugee Aid (Anera) — a non-profit that provides humanitarian and development aid to the Middle East — to run educational programs in refugee camps.

“It was very interesting that the beauty and fashion program was the most popular,” she said. “If you feel shy, you put on a little bit of mascara and eyeliner. It’s such a wonderful, humble way to look at it and to create empathy with these groups.” And, she adds, it’s a side of refugee life that is rarely depicted in Western media.

Staying stylish, Semaan contends, does not have to break the bank. Or the planet. “I am looking at how we can use less instead of purchasing to fill a void. If you want to be sustainable, it’s a lifestyle choice and a spiritual understanding. We (need to) realize our patterns and compulsive purchases. Today’s fashion supply chains mimic those of colonial era trade routes. It is time to decolonize. Everything you make turns into food or poison,” she said.

“I save up before buying a piece. Most of the things that I have, I keep for a very long time. I mend them. I take my shoes to the cobbler — I change the sole and the color. I have pieces I can pass down to my kids." Anything that doesn't get patched up or passed on, she said, she recycles.

There are a few items, she admitted, that she considers ‘must-haves’ in her wardrobe at all times, including “a good pair of denims, a good pair of flat ballet shoes, and a good pair of running shoes.”

An image from the UN’s Sustainable Fashion Summit. (Supplied)

“I wear a lot of white shirts — simple ones; I take the ones my husband doesn’t need,” she added. “Oh, and a few vintage blazers and a very good Christian Dior one that reminds me of my grandmother.”

Semaan’s commitment to reducing waste and looking after the environment is something she’s passing on to her children too. Traveling to Lebanon has given them more of an understanding that the lifestyle they have in North America should not be taken for granted. “They visit Lebanon and they understand that there is no electricity at times, and no water,” Semaan said. “So when they come to New York, they feel the luxury.

“My kids come to my Slow Factory office and see my work,” she continued. “In my household, we are very aware of water usage and we do a lot of arts and crafts with the garbage. They do have plastic toys, but they understand the impact of plastic — by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish (in the oceans). We buy biodegradable toothbrushes. My daughter told me she wanted a (plastic) toothbrush, but I told her, ‘That’s going to return to the earth as a toothbrush, but your toothbrush will turn into a tree.’ She uses that to (explain) to their friends.”

Her daughter’s ability to communicate her family’s lifestyle choices is the kind of skill that Semaan believes will be vital for future generations, in order to slow and, hopefully, reverse the damage that has already been done to the planet.

“I think it’s important to talk about this without guilt,” Semaan said. “They’re the ones who will inherit the earth.”

Why Bollywood can’t get enough of fashion from the Arab world

No major red-carpet event in India is complete without at least a couple of leading ladies wearing a gown from an Arab designer. (AFP)
Updated 24 min 58 sec ago

Why Bollywood can’t get enough of fashion from the Arab world

  • When Indian cinema’s leading ladies need to slay on the red carpet, they are increasingly turning to Middle East designers.

DUBAI: Bollywood has long been popular in the region. The Gulf is Indian cinema’s largest overseas market, and — in return — Bollywood has fallen in love with fashion from the Middle East. The two have plenty in common: not least a passion for opulence, (melo)drama and craftsmanship.

No major red-carpet event in India is complete without at least a couple of leading ladies wearing a gown from an Arab designer — and designers from, or based in, the Middle East are increasingly becoming the “go-to” for Indian actors at international film festivals too. At the most recent edition of the Cannes Film Festival, for example, Priyanka Chopra wore a white strapless gown from Lebanese designer Georges Hobeika, Aishwarya Rai wore a white gown by Beirut-based Ashi Studio, Kangana Ranaut opted for a sheer embroidered gown by Dubai-based Filipino designer Michael Cinco and Diana Penty was spotted in a yellow dress with feather details by Oman’s Atelier Zuhra.

Priyanka Chopra wears Georges Hobeika. (AFP)

Mohit Rai, one of India’s leading celebrity stylists, started his career with Harper’s Bazaar India and made the switch to working with Bollywood several years ago. His client list includes Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonakshi Sinha and Shilpa Shetty. He says, “The Middle East is the only other region apart from India that really appreciates a high level of couture and craftsmanship. Their common aesthetic is a major reason for Indian stylists looking to Middle Eastern fashion. Plus, Arab designers are able to combine the Parisian and European flair for pattern cutting while retaining the Indian love for embellishment.” 

With many designers from the Middle East showing at Paris Couture Week (this year, Maison Rabih Kayrouz became the second Arab designer after Elie Saab to be authorized by the French Couture Federation to use the tag haute couture), they understand silhouette and tailoring, and because the region has a heritage of handcrafted beading and threadwork, they are able to marry the best of East and West.

Dubai-based Syrian designer Rami Al-Ai recently worked with Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor Khan. “We both appreciate the same beauty, and there’s a lot of similarity in the way they celebrate life. Both have this kind of dramatic celebration when it comes to weddings and functions.” Indeed, when Deepika Padukone married Ranveer Singh last year, she turned to acclaimed Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad for one of her wedding looks.

Aishwarya Rai wore an Ashi Studio gown on the red carpet at Cannes this year. (AFP)

There are designers in India who specialize in red-carpet fashion, and while their surface embellishments are impeccable, their fit often is not on par with their embroidery. Historically Indian fashion is more about drape than construction, as Rai points out.

“I do not think India has enough designers catering to the Western evening wear segment in a very couture category such as the Middle Eastern ones,” he tells Arab News.

His favoured Arab designers include Beirut-band ased Saudi Arabian designer Mohammed Ashi of Ashi Studio, Kuwait’s Yousef Al-Jasmi, Dubai based Atelier Zuhra. Whereas Hollywood tends to go with the region’s best-known designers such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad — who both have a strong international retail presence — Bollywood is happy to work with both seasoned and emerging designers.

Diana Penty wears Atelier Zuhra. (Via Instagram)

A shared aesthetic is what makes Arab design appeal to Bollywood’s stylists, but there is also a more pragmatic reason for the synergy between the Bollywood red carpet and Middle Eastern fashion: Their geographical proximity.

Ami Patel is one of the best-known celebrity stylists in India and works with stars including Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt and Kananga Ranaut. She finds it easier to work with the Middle East than Europe, she says.

“I think Middle Eastern designers understand the Indian body type and silhouette very well. They know exactly what Indian celebrities want and cater to them. Since the countries are in close proximity working with them becomes easier.”

Patel adds that she finds designers from the region can work on quick turnarounds and are able to tweak designs when needed. Indian women do tend to be curvy, so regular European sample sizes are often just not an option for many of India’s leading ladies. And whereas European fashion houses may have only heard of Indian actors who have done international work — such as Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone — designers from the Middle East are familiar with the landscape of Indian cinema, meaning they are easier to approach. As Patel says, “Middle Eastern designers follow Bollywood films and stars very closely and it’s a great amalgamation which has some really great outcomes.” 

Deepika Padukone in a wedding outfit from Zuhair Murad. (AFP)

One recent look of which Patel is particularly proud is Alia Bhatt’s appearance in a midnight-black Zuhair Murad gown at the Indian International Film Academy Awards in New York.

“It was a really special look for me,” she says. “The gown was stunning; it had such beautiful delicate embroidery which gave an illusion as if the entire constellation of stars had descended onto Alia.”

Alia Bhatt in a midnight-black Zuhair Murad gown at the Indian International Film Academy Awards in New York. (AFP) 

The fact that the region is so close to India also means that Indian celebrities regularly visit the Middle East.

“A lot of Indian celebrities are doing a lot of events in the Middle East, and that plays a big role in picking what kind of outfits to wear,” says Rai.

Priyanka Chopra in Dubai. (AFP) 

Dubai designer Rami Al-Ali agrees. “Bollywood stars are also celebrities in the Middle East world,” he says.

“Since the Middle East is actually aligned with the industry, they are definitely keener on dressing Indian stars and even willing to customise and size outfits for our actors,” says Rai. And so, for Indian cinema, it is Arab designers who rule the red carpet.