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Slow Factory Founder Talks Waste-led Design, Climate Education for Fashion’s Future

WWD
WWD
 2022-03-09

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The future of “Made in New York fashion is in the making — right now.

Céline Semaan, founder of nonprofit Slow Factory Foundation, stands in the wind in a hard hat and neon vest with a crew before wheeling a select few journalists through the damp construction site.

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Weeks prior, amid New York Fashion Week, Mayor Eric Adams formally announced a partnership with New York City Economic Development Corporation to fuel New York-made fashion at Bush Terminal, right in the heart of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.

As the first anchor tenant, the decade-old nonprofit Slow Factory Foundation will have a new harbor for its inclusive curriculum at the physical Slow Factory Institute. The school will include classrooms for the nonprofit’s open-access “Open Edu” program prioritizing climate justice, a plant-based leather lab dubbed Slow Factory Labs and a rare books or “Slow Reads” library, among other things.

While Slow Factory Institute anticipates an October opening, here Semaan reflects on the vision that was many years in the making.

WWD: Why is this the right moment to launch the Slow Factory Institute?

Céline Semaan: It was divine timing honestly. We have been working tirelessly for three years on this project, kicking off New York Fashion Week with this major announcement about a school and lab focusing on climate-positive solutions and equity-centered open learning for the next generation to lead change [and it’s] needed now more than ever.

WWD: What trials and successes have you had along the way?

C.S.: This is a big milestone for us, concluding 10 years of work at the intersection of climate justice and human rights in the fashion industry and beyond, some of the hardships were to forge a path amidst a very opaque industry that didn’t center process, transparency and equity at all, and operated comfortably from a colonial paradigm. We are proud of the 21,000 students enrolled in our free online education programs and excited to open our 20,000-square-foot school and lab to our community at no cost in order to spark progress and accelerate climate positive innovations.

WWD: How do you define revolution?

C.S.: That is such a wonderful question! In order to define it I would like to refer to “Revolution and Evolution,” a book by James and Grace Lee Boggs that has affirmed the work I do in making the revolution accessible. The revolution is the evolution and progress of our awareness by understanding the interdependence of nature, our cultures and politics as a way to radically imagine and create a world that reflects our collective liberation.

WWD: What are you reflecting on as this build is underway?

C.S.: How do you feel like you can have hope after all of these [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports and the state of the world? And for us, and me at least, at Slow Factory — hope is a verb. Hope is action. I really feel hopeful when I am here watching them build this and work on climate adaptation. As you know, we are by the water and there is a huge engineering process that we worked on here with local engineers, local architects to protect us from the rising water. And these topics for me, and being able to be hands-on, provides me with hope that I am doing everything I can.

WWD: What other architectural nods or details do you want to call out?

C.S.: Mimi [Hoang, a cofounding principal of NArchitects and an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University]: she’s been working on reframing, restructuring, redesigning factories. In today’s day and age, I would also say factories are transparent and open and welcoming to the public. They are schools. What we know of factories right now is some obscure place really far away that may or may not be treating people well, but I think things are changing in that space where the public is demanding more transparency, and for us, it’s called Slow Factory, but we’re not manufacturing anything.

What I’m excited about is the library with 1,000 rare books we’ve been collecting, the amphitheater where people can come and do different screenings and shows and lectures. Because sustainability is not just what we do to adapt to climate change, it’s a culture. It’s through culture, arts, music that we really begin to understand the gravity and the solutions and to empower each other so it’s not just “brainy.” You come here to learn, but it’s also an experience.

WWD: How would you define “Made in New York” today?

C.S.: Made in New York, especially where we see it, is to work with what we have. New York City produces so much waste — and not just textile waste — in the past few years. The population of rats has tripled, and there has been waste left on the street that hasn’t been collected because of the sheer volume of waste. Made in New York, for us, is a waste-led design and production process where we take accountability for a city like this that’s in the Global North and is extremely privileged [but] does not contribute to waste colonialism and takes care of its waste. If we are able to divert 5 tons of textile waste, and equal amount of tea and coffee waste before it reaches back into the compost bin, we are able to do our part, and I think New York City can implement these programs where [companies and organizations] could take accountability for the waste that’s generated.

WWD: Who is your dream collaborator or partner from the industry?

C.S.: I feel like we are collaborating with a lot of people who are on our dream or wish list, but someone like Rihanna would be incredible because she understands the power fashion has, and it’s not just a frivolous thing — it changes culture and has so much cultural weight and power in changing narratives. For us, it would be a dream to collaborate with her.

More closely, from brands, it would be wonderful for all brands to empower a project like Slow Factory, so we are able to have the garment-to-garment process implemented at scale and across the world because Slow Factory is a replicable model. We can do it here and elsewhere across the world. The knowledge is shareable, it’s not something proprietary.

But yeah, Rihanna is on our list.

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