From outer space to fashion e-commerce: New York's Slow Factory

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When Celine Semaan, back in 2012, was struck with inspiration based on NASA's images of outer space available to the public via Creative Commons, she did what any modern woman in love with the open source movement would. “I tweeted ‘What if I print this on a silk scarf?’” she tells me, breathless with the excitement of the moment, and what has resulted from it. As of this month, her designs – NASA satellite images printed on silk – will be available for sale at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, among other illustrious North American cultural institutions.

Astronomy and images of space have been something of a personal talisman for Semaan ever since she was very young. Born in Lebanon, she moved with her family to Montreal at age three, then back to Lebanon at age 14, attended university in Paris, then moved back to Canada, and now lives in New York. Because of her peripatetic upbringing, “I don’t have a connection with what is home,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by the stars; [in my childhood] I felt that they were the only thing that is stable and always there. Also, my first toy was a toy telescope!” she laughs.

It’s these feelings of rootlessness that also attracted her to the open data movement. Even though she’s Lebanese, she didn’t grow up in the country, and “I don’t read or write Arabic,” Semaan says. “I always felt disconnected, and I was always looking for a way to find that connectivity. I fell into place when I began… connecting with people who were part of the open knowledge, open data, open license movement; I felt that there was something bigger that I could belong to.”

For most of her life, these have just been hobbies. After studying illustration at university in Paris, Semaan worked as a graphic designer in Montreal and New York. When inspiration struck, she was teaching user experience at General Assembly, the international educational institution / community for would-be entrepreneurs; today, she continues teaching and also works as a UX consultant to help keep her burgeoning business – which she named Slow Factory – going.

Now that she’s created a product from her passions for space, scarves, and open source, it seems to have hit a nerve. Not only are galaxy-print garments hot right now (some observers trace the trend back to a 2011 collection by Scottish designer Christopher Kane) but open source – from programming, data, images, licensing, and more – is trending as well. The reaction to her initial tweet was so strong that Semaan immediately had 30 scarves printed, which in turn sparked another wave of attention, from flash sales sites to famous design bloggers. She had to move fast to meet the sudden demand: “Within two days I developed a logo, got the scarves, took pictures with a professional photographer, got my husband to create a website, and launched,” she marvels.

As with many of the decisions she takes, the choice to use silk was very conscious: “It’s the most organic fabric there could ever be; I could not have printed these images representing explosions of stars and nebulae on a fabric that was [at all] synthetic. It had to be a fabric that was extremely natural,” she says. This back-to-roots philosophy is also apparent in the styling of her company. Slow Factory, in both its name and products, is meant to be a rejoinder to the fast fashion currently dominating the garment industry; Semaan objects to the H&M and Zara mass-manufacture approach.

As any entrepreneur knows, word-of-mouth buzz does not automatically convert to cash in pocket. Slow Factory has been operational since August 2012, but “only this year am I starting to have a business that makes sense,” Semaan says. Until now, “it’s been a rough time, as I have no experience in fashion.” She’s depleted her own savings, her husband’s savings, and those of both sets of parents and even some friends to keep Slow Factory going.

When asked if her silks will ever be sold in the Middle East, she’s quick to note that scarves are generally popular across the Arab world, and broader region as well. Selling in the Middle East is in the cards, she says, but for now, she's focusing on making Slow Factory profitable from her base in New York. Someday, though, she says, “I would love to go back to Lebanon and be part of my own country."

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