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.”

Pakistani tailor adds former US president to star-studded list of clients

Updated 15 February 2019

Pakistani tailor adds former US president to star-studded list of clients

  • The 36-year-old outfitter has built a customer list of famous names from the sporting, show business and political worlds
  • His family enterprise was established more than 100 years ago and operated from large shop premises in Kolkata, India

KARACHI: It is probably safe to say that tailor to the stars Sarfraz Akbar has the market for celebrity clients all sewn up.

The 36-year-old outfitter has built a customer list of famous names from the sporting, show business and political worlds through his reputation for making high-quality garments.

And now Akbar, who works for his family business at shops in an affluent neighborhood of Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, can add a former American president to his star-studded client base.

During a trip to the US in July last year, he was invited by an American-Pakistani friend to meet with George W. Bush.

“I was super-excited when along with my wife and daughters we boarded my friend’s private jet and flew from Houston to Dallas,” Akbar told Arab News.

After taking measurements of the former US president, he returned to Pakistan and made several suits for him, before dispatching them to Dallas in December 2018.

“My happiness doubled when I got a call from the US informing me that the former president had appreciated my work after wearing the suits,” Akbar said.

Akbar’s father Mohammed said his son had built up a distinguished list of Pakistani personalities he has worked for. 

“By earning praise from George W. Bush, my son has not only made me proud but it’s also a matter of pride for all Pakistanis.”

The youngest of three brothers, Akbar has brought fame to the family name and business, his father added.

The family enterprise was established more than 100 years ago and operated from large shop premises in Kolkata. The family moved from the Indian city after the inception of Pakistan.

The business now has two shops under the “Ambassador” brand name in the Zamzama district of Karachi. 

“We could have opened dozens of outlets, but we believe in quality. The materials we use are imported and we focus on precision,” said Akbar. 

“It’s handmade, customized work. We don’t sell readymade stuff.

“However, we’re now getting people coming to us from other cities wanting to have their wardrobes from the tailor of George W. Bush. Some clients even ask to have their photos taken with me.”

Akbar said he has always had big ambitions. Following matriculation in 1999, he continued his studies but opted at the same time to focus on the family business with a view to taking it to new heights after his graduation.

When the Indian cricket team toured Pakistan during 2005-2006, Akbar made clothes for all the Indian players. 

“Almost all the Pakistani players including Wasim Akram, Misbah-ul-Haq, Sarfraz Ahmed and Shahid Afridi — the latter being a regular customer – have worn our wardrobes too,” Akbar said.

He also designed kurta shalwar clothing for West Indian player and Peshawar Zalmi skipper, Darren Sammy, during the last season of the Pakistan Super League.

Akbar also has a long list of political clients including Pakistan’s former leader Pervez Musharraf, incumbent President Dr. Arif Alvi, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Sindh Gov. Imran Ismail. “I made a waistcoat for Imran Khan after he was sworn in as the premier of Pakistan,” he said.

Summing up his achievements to date, Akbar said: “You can be proud of yourself and your family, but you just need to focus on your work and work hard.”