Undie The Surface: Celine Semaan Vernon, Founder & CEO of Slow Factory

Jun 07, 2016
Undie the Surface

Interviewed by Sara Mael

Slow Factory is a Brooklyn-based company that prints images from NASA onto sustainable and environmentally responsible fibers. I sat down with CEO, mother of two, and THINX girl-crush Celine to talk about her journey to creating Slow Factory, her work with NGO’s, and how she is breaking up the fast-fashion industry.

Where did the idea for Slow Factory come from?

The idea for Slow Factory came basically out of an identity crisis after I gave birth to my first child, and it started because I wanted to connect the dots, all the things I was involved in. I was involved in open source, open data, and with the creative commons; open licenses and such. I was also involved with design and very interested in fashion design and production. I was starting to feel a bit scattered between all these identities, so I decided to connect the dots and see where that would lead. As part of my work with creative commons, I was very fascinated with NASA, joining creative commons in offering all the images as scientific images with an open license. So I thought, what if we printed these images on a good fabric, like silk or natural fibers?

What is your favorite product you have created so far?

I love all of them, but I really love the scarf with the image of Earth taken by DISCOVR. I was inspired by the drawings of my daughter, Sila Grey, who is four years old. She always draws smiling people holding hands, so one day I asked her, "Could you make me a lot of these people for my work?" To this she answered: "No! I don't want to work." Wise child. I had to bribe her with candy to draw for me. I love this print so much, not only for her drawings, but because it symbolizes so much and is in its own right the very essence of childhood: an homage to the Syrian refugees’ stolen childhood during this past four years of war.

I have another favorite piece -- our collaboration with THINX, the underwear with a little moon on side, that’s only sold during events. I’ve been receiving so many requests, asking where they can be bought. We’re planning another event with THINX in June.

There are so many beautiful images coming from NASA, how do you decide which ones to use?

The repertoire is huge -- there are a ton of archives. I come up with a theme, and curate images around the theme that will help us build a story and a new narrative. I have a big collection of images that I go through and sort. When I come up with a theme, I go back into the archives I’ve put together, and I pull some of the images that I think would create a new narrative, help the theme, and help the campaign, because every collection that we have is tied to work we’re doing with an NGO, either in the human rights sector, or the environmental sector. We had a collection with the World Wildlife Fund last Spring, and a collection with ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid), which was the first work we started doing in the human rights sector; we are also working with ANERA again for our newest collection, We Are Home.

We Are Home is inspired by the overview effect that astronauts can experience. It’s a mental shift that happens, almost like a spiritual experience. When you see the earth floating in space, you realize how we are all in this together, and how fortunate we are. You realize how amazing it is that we are all part of this very fragile ecosystem; that it’s kind of a miracle that there is life on earth when we’re surrounded by a very harsh environment. When you realize that, you realize the earth is important, our humanity is important, and you behave differently. We used a recent “selfie” of the earth from Discover, a probe that’s orbiting around the earth monitoring the global climate change, and the first earth “selfie” in color from the NASA archives, and juxtaposed these two images. There are also a lot of images taken from either the ISS or the Terra Modis satellites, which are orbiting around the earth, snapping pictures during the day. With all these images of clouds, we’re hoping to inspire the overview effect in people, having them wrap themselves with the earth, the clouds, and the ocean, so they can feel the sense of unity. 


We Are Home also has a jewelry collection, right?

Yes -- I’ve always wanted to do jewelry. Our new piece is a key, in honor of the refugee tradition of wearing your key around your neck when you leave your home behind. To honor this tradition, I wanted to create something meaningful, a design that would represent the refugee crisis. I took the key of my current home in Beirut, and molded it in copper in partnership with my sister in Lebanon. My sister helps me a lot with Slow Factory; we’re kind of like secret partners. She works out of Lebanon, I work out of New York, and she took on the lead of this project. She worked with the jewelry maker in Lebanon, helped me pick the chains. The keys made out of copper, dipped in white gold, and each key is sold on our website. 10% of the proceeds from the key go to ANERA. 10% of all the scarves that we made under the We Are Home collection are going to fund an education initiative that ANERA is leading in Lebanon as well. It’s offering an on-going education and training to the Syrian refugees who are stranded in Lebanon. Most of them are women and children, most of them are under 30 years old, and they are not able to go to school. ANERA has this wonderful initiative to teach them, keep them excited, train them, and help them get new jobs.

What does it mean for you to be home? How do you define home?

I’ve moved a lot and traveled a bunch since I left my country at 3½ years old. I’ve always been fascinated with the notion of home; I’ve always been trying to fit in so badly, to feel at home. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve lived in Montreal, New York, and Lebanon, and I’ve constantly struggled with what it means to be home. Then I came up across the concept of the overview effect, and the fact that we are home on planet Earth. That really spoke to me, and made me realize that to me, being home is being in your own body, being happy with who you are, being connected with yourself, with your spirit. Everything is temporary. That notion really healed me, as an expat, and as a person really struggling to find my way, to find ground. I always felt that I was not grounded. I was floating in space, and this whole idea as I was connecting the dots to Slow Factory helped me realize that in fact I am at home when I am at peace with my body, at peace with myself, and at peace with who I am, my origins, and the scattered identity that I have. This is how I feel the most at home. 

How do you define fashion activism, and what is Slow Factory’s role in it? How do you think that consumers can better engage with fashion activism?

To me, fashion activism is using fashion as a tool to create social change. I feel like fashion plus human rights equals fashion activism. I think THINX is a very good example of fashion activism. What we are seeing right now is a lot of people trying to find new ways to create and produce in ways that don’t hurt the planet, ways that contribute to a bigger cause. I think some designers are more conscious and responsible in wanting to create a social impact. We make the intangible tangible by using images from NASA that are representing the Earth, allowing people to wrap themselves with the Earth, with the world, with the cosmos. We help them raise their consciousness into a higher consciousness, and realize that we are all in this together, that we can help each other.

When you first started Slow Factory, did you know that fashion activism was something you wanted to pursue?

I think I may have coined the term fashion activism, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before, but I definitely did know it was something I wanted to do. I keep going back to connecting the dots to my personal identity crisis after having my first child. I wanted to be a more whole person, have a more holistic approach to design and fashion. As I was connecting the dots, I realized a big part of my personality and interests were around activism, social change, about changing things through design, by making things better through design. As I was connecting the dots, I realized, “Wow! What I’m doing is fashion activism!” First it started as a joke -- does it even exist, who would care? But as I evolved the concept, I was invited by AIGA New York (American Institute of Graphic Arts) to talk about it for a panel called “Beyond Vivienne Westwood: Fashion Activism Today.” Miki (THINX She-E-O) and I talked about evolving the concept of fashion activism. What I’m doing right now with the Arab identity, feminism, and with ANERA is helping design and evolve that concept. With our upcoming collection, I think it will be even clearer.

What is it like to be a woman in this field? To be a mother in this field?

I think that part of carving the path is finding a balance between work, family, and play, which led me to open up my own studio. I was co-sharing a studio with another designer, but after I gave birth to my second child, I felt that it was time for me to have my own studio so I could make it a more balanced environment for my children.  Being a CEO is working all the time, because you’re obsessed with what you’re doing, and having children at the same time is difficult. I found at the beginning that I wanted to create an environment for them that would be inspiring, that would be safe, that would be exciting for them to come to, not just to watch me work, but they could also have their own little things going on.

Right now, my younger baby, who is six months old this week (!) comes to my studio, and I have a little spot that is for her. I have toys for her, I feed her there, my employees sometimes take care of her. My other daughter, Sila Grey sometimes comes after school. She brings her friends and we project films on the walls -- I can work at the same time.  She loves drawing, so I have a whiteboard wall in the studio and tons of colors so she can draw. She also has a hideout in the studio, where I put a bunch of pillows and drawing pens; she goes there to draw. I think that balance is key -- finding balance between work, and play, and family, and incorporating that is very healthy. Of course, my daughter watches me work, she also goes, “Oh, you’re going to work, not again,” but she never asks me to stay home, she always says, “It’s okay! We’ll be fine!” 


Do you have any advice for aspiring businesswomen?

I would give the advice I give to my daughter. She asks me some questions that are the same thing a CEO would go through, for example, she wants to do something, but doesn’t know how. For example, she asks me, “draw me a whale” because she doesn’t know how, and the advice I always give her is, “Imagine it, and then try.” I really believe in that concept. I tell my daughter all the time, no one knows what they’re doing; no one knows how things should be done. I tell her this all the time; I force her to break the ice, because she’s intimidated when she doesn’t know something. I always say, “Imagine it. Can you imagine it?” She’ll say, “Yes.” So I say, “Try! Slowly, slowly, and then you will be able to do it.” You have to first imagine, and then try. That’s how you achieve things.

Do you feel like you followed your own advice, breaking into this new field?

I think so. Right now when we are looking into apparel, it is very intimidating for me because I don’t come from a traditional fashion design background. I’ve trained as a designer, but not in fashion design, so patternmaking is new to me, but I see parallels between pattern making and designing websites. I’m diving into this new field, and imagining it -- I’m using mood boards to create ideas, and out of the mood boards I’m trying slowly to train myself in this new field.

What’s in the future of Slow Factory? What can we look forward to seeing?

I’m so excited with what Slow Factory is doing next! We’re planning to grow into apparel. I think there’s a gap between high-end, luxurious items that are made in a very sustainable manner, and the fast-fashion. There’s not much in between. There are a few new start-ups that are popping in, but no one is really bridging the gap between good design and consumers, making products that are as meaningful and as tied in with the human-rights work that we are doing, so that’s what we are going towards. We are also working with upcycled materials like plastic bottles to create garments, and we are choosing new prints. These prints are amazing, they are going to be mind blowing, and I’m so, so excited about bridging the meaning with the production with the purpose, and really coming up with a collection that is responsibly sourced, meaningful, and well designed.

Catch Celine at her upcoming Summer Solstice event on June 21st.

Slowfactory.com – twitter: @slowfactory_ – instagram: @theslowfactory

© THINX Inc. All Rights Reserved. 2016

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