This Refugee Champions Sustainability Through Her Intricate Jewelry And Fashion


Céline Semaan is committed to new aesthetics and new narratives. She is compelled by the need to humanize and embed our world with a palpable sense of empathy. It’s no wonder considering that before the age of five Semaan had been displaced to a new country because of a war in her home country. She grew up in Lebanon. But violence forced a move to Montreal. Later, she was able to return to Beirut with her family. War defined her world view and instilled in her a deep desire for change, something she knows the world cannot survive without. Little did she know then that fashion and design would be one of the ways she would begin to craft that change.

She describes herself as a hyper-active kid who “grew up dancing and entertaining adults; putting on plays and shows for them; and have always enjoyed being on stage.” Her favorite toy was a Fisher Price guitar which allowed you to record your voice on K7 tapes. “My friends and I would record radio shows on there for hours. It was just the best. In Montreal, we were in Québecois Native American summer camps where we learned chants, legends, songs and was very inspired by nature, the spirit of Mother Earth and a deep respect for the environment.”

The collections Celine creates are made sustainably with important causes at the heart of the process

Semaan says her love for fashion definitely came from her mom who she loved watching get ready to go out, doing her make-up and choosing that to wear. She describes her mom and her aunts as “masters of everything Middle-Eastern beauty rituals,” always braiding their hair and dressing up impeccably no matter what. When Semaan turned thirteen, she and her family moved back to Lebanon. “So I got to be a teen-ager there, and wearing kohl on our eyes, which is the equivalent of smoky eyes, and shawls and scarves have always been a cultural thing for me. My grandpa collects vintage Phoenician jewelry and fossils, and I viewed them as treasures!”

As a child, she dreamed of being an astronaut, of going to space, of seeing the universe. She describes herself as having a genuine love for the Earth and the idea of watching it from space struck her as the most amazing thought ever. But, she says, she was terrible at math and her teacher told her that because of that she would, she explains, “Never be an astronaut” (to be said in a slow motion voice).” After moving back to Lebanon, her astronaut dreams drifted and she decided that she wanted to be an Ambassador. “I wanted to throw parties and reconcile any party that is at war with one another.”

Being back in Lebanon, she witnessed the cost of war on both the environment and human-rights and says it marked her for life. “Ever since that day, I dedicated my time, my work, and my skills to support causes related to either human-rights or the environment.” Her first gig out of University was as a Community Lead for Creative Commons, a non-profit devoted to open licenses, where her work was around advocating for access to information, open knowledge, and the open web. It’s a cause she deeply believes in to this day.

Slow Factor collaboration with Camille D. Jewelry funding Best Bees

At that time, NASA had joined Creative Commons and released their images as open data. And then, she says, “Something in me lit up.” It took a few years before she did anything with the images as she was also working as an Interaction Designer and designing interfaces for companies. Then one day she tweeted, “Wouldn’t it be nice to wrap yourself with the world and the universe and stop killing each other?”

She got such a wonderful support on Twitter, that she decided to make it a reality. “I sort of began the project as a side project where my passion for art, fashion, science, and NASA would come together.” She knew very little about manufacturing or running an e-commerce site. She began researching sustainable ways to print the images as she didn’t want to print them on anything “that might hurt the Earth or people in the process,” she explains. That is how her journey in sustainable fashion truly began. “Our first collections sold out quickly; our work went viral a few times; and, fast forward almost six years later; we have expanded our work in jewelry now and looking into apparel too.

Slow Factor collaboration with Camille D. Jewelry funding Best Bees

She designs under the label she created called Slow Factory, which she defines as an “independent label working at the intersection of Fashion and Activism.” The collections she creates are made sustainably with important causes at the heart of the process. “We team up with NGOs and help raise their voices and their missions. We create pieces that raise funds and awareness for causes we believe in, mainly around environmental rights and human rights.” Her collections have supported the work of a variety of organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and UNICEF.

Semaan has also collaborated with ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid). As part of her work with them, she went to refugee camps to work with displaced youth. When she did, she brought some of her Slow Factory scarves with her. “Our USA by Night, New York by Night - our entire Cities by Night collection - and let the girls play models with them. Watching them wrapping themselves with cities they dream of going to filled them with so much hope. That was the most beautiful moment.”

Slow Factor collaboration with Camille D. Jewelry funding Best Bees

Still, Semaan experiences challenges in her work every day, constantly actually. “Sometimes, I realize I am a challenge to my own self. Like I self-sabotage myself all the time, thinking I don’t deserve something I have worked so hard to achieve.”

Other challenges she has faced and continue to face are issues around sexism and racism. “I can’t believe that in 2018, I am faced with racism because I am Arab,” Semaan says. “Being treated as less than, trying so hard to fit in a small box that is not meant for me. Working twice as hard to get a seat at the table, or simply dressing up extra modest not to be considered a snack or patronized because of my femininity. Prejudice and privilege hurt minorities who have suffered trauma, and displacement, and yet have to fight harder to achieve and make their dreams come true.” But, she says, every single hardship she faces shows her how strong and focused she truly is.

And people’s reactions to her work at Slow Factory has certainly proven her pursuits to be both worthwhile and desperately needed. She is grateful to read people’s emails about, “when they get to wrap themselves with the Universe. I get emails about how it connected them with a lost one, or when people get to wrap themselves with parts of the world they have lived, or have a loved one there.”


Why Whiskey Should No Longer Be Categorized As “A Man’s Drink”

I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"

I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.

In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.

Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.

For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.

Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.

The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.

It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.

While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.

What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.

While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.