We may remember 2017 as the year of socially-conscious merchandise, as the fashion industry becomes increasingly engaged in political discourse at varying degrees of success and self-awareness. The latest example of topical garments, though, courtesy of Céline Semaan of Slow Factory, proves that brands can encourage meaningful conversation about issues that concern the people who wear their work, and reflect the experiences of those creating them.
The Lebanese designer (and Refinery29 contributor) partnered with the ACLU to create a scarf in response to President Donald Trump's immigration bans targeted at Muslim-majority countries. "The idea came to me when the travel ban first happened: My immigration lawyer phoned and said, 'Don't travel outside the U.S., because I'm not sure [if] you'll be able to get back,'" Semaan told Refinery29. The designer lives in New York with her two young children on a green card. When the White House issued an executive order in January restricting the entry of citizens of seven countries into the U.S., she felt compelled to take action. Semaan's birthplace may not have been on that list, but she nonetheless "felt extremely vulnerable not to be able to travel to see my parents," who still live in the Middle East, at the risk of being separated from her kids, who are in the U.S. (Semaan has written about her experience as a refugee-turned-designer in the past.) "I immediately wanted to create a collection inspired by my situation, [by that of] all the others in the US in a similar situation, and the reality of the over 60 million displaced people around the world."
Slow Factory is perhaps best known for its work with NASA, creating cashmere-blend scarves in honor of eight women who've made great strides both for the agency and STEM in addition to designing prints based off of images taken by the Hubble telescope and other observatory instruments. Given her familiarity with its archives, Semaan went there first and stumbled upon a photograph of all seven of the countries targeted by the Trump administration's travel ban in a single shot, taken at night. "It was so peaceful to see," she recalled. "I decided to print it and contact the ACLU about a collaboration." In a case of fortuitous timing, a friend connected her with someone within the organization — and so, she was able to take her idea and create a capsule of "meaningful products made ethically for people to wear as a sign of resistance," as Semaan describes it.
Fashion with a cause has always been core to Slow Factory's mission. (The brand has a section titled "Fashion Activism" on its website.) "We usually create collections that have a mission," Semaan explained. "Our first partner is ANERA (the American Near East Refugee Aid), with a collection dedicated to the displaced women in the Middle East; the second was WWF (the World Wild Life Fund), for a collection dedicated to Earth and our Oceans." There's also a key necklace, part of the proceeds of which go towards ANERA's education programs in refugee camps in Lebanon. The "Banned" scarves are the first in a series that focuses on freedom of speech, as a response to the Muslim-targeted travel ban, with a portion of each sale donated to the ACLU. (This second piece of this capsule is an MA-1 flight jacket with the First Amendment printed in both English and Arabic.)
Semaan first presented the "Banned" scarves at a members-only bazaar at The Wing. They officially went live on the Slow Factory website on May 8, the same day the ACLU first argued against the Trump administration's revised travel ban in a federal court of appeals. Each scarf features the aforementioned photograph of the targeted countries — Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen — at night printed on an Italian silk scarf, which retails for $150. Ten percent of proceeds from each sale ($15) going back to the ACLU.
In the accompanying lookbook, which was shot by Driely Carter, the "Banned" scarves were styled on Hoda Katebi, a Muslim writer, model, and activist, as a headscarf. "There are many ways to wear the hijab — in her case, as an Iranian woman, [Katebi] wears it loose and just warped gently on her hair," Semaan told us. "My friend Alaa Murabit (who I wrote about for Refinery29) is Lybian, and wears it tighter around her hair. There are many ways to tie a square silk scarf that [aren't] religious as well: It's a classic staple in Europe, in the Middle East, and I've found in New York, too!"
To the Slow Factory founder, the idea of "fashion activism" is simple, but essential. "Fashion carries meaning, and meaning carries action," she said. "Whatever you wear — whether it's a hoodie, a burka, baggy pants, skinny jeans, vintage — everything has meaning and carries a message." The idea for Slow Factory started as a tweet-turned-art project. ("I tweeted, 'Wouldn't it be great to wrap ourselves in the world and the universe' — and posted an image from NASA — 'and stop killing each other?,'" Semaan remembered.) She wanted to create what she calls "the overview effect: This feeling of awe astronauts feel when they see the Earth from space for the first time," but with different causes, in an effort to remind folks that "we're all in this together on this fragile spaceship."