You Can’t Print a Photo from Outer Space On Polyester

Celine Semaan Vernon’s new fashion project is a cosmic experiment in empathy.

Designer Celine Semaan Vernon made fans of fashion devotees and NASA scientists alike when she debuted her Mars-inspired Slow Factory collection. The collection’s scarves were silk-screened with open-source NASA images of everyone’s favorite little red planet. And the Mars, Revealed scarves were not just beautiful—they were also sustainably manufactured.

Now, the Creative Commons-obsessed designer and open-web advocate has made it possible for you to drape your favorite city around your shoulders: Her Cities By Night collection features scarves printed with open-source images of cities taken from the International Space Station. The centerpiece scarf, printed with a photo of the Gaza strip taken from space, launches Slow Factory’s Dignity Fund campaign, the proceeds of which will go to ANERA, a humanitarian aid organization for Palestinian refugees. I spoke with Vernon about the new project and where she finds inspiration for her designs.

How was Slow Factory conceived?

I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut but I was really bad at science. I collected a lot of images from NASA—I knew that they were under Creative Commons. I wanted to be a scientist but the educational system didn’t facilitate it for someone [like me], who’s a very visual person. So I just kept doing my own thing, with my love for science and collecting these images. And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we materialized them, made them tangible, and people could actually wrap themselves with these images? I tweeted about that and I got such a nice response from people. People were really excited about having a scarf with these prints.

I launched a very small collection, more like an art project, just to see what people would think of them. As I was researching ways of manufacturing, I wanted to be very, very conscious about how we would manufacture. As a science lover and a lover of the world, I can’t do something that’s going to hurt the universe and the Earth. So I can’t print them on polyester made in China. I can’t do that. So I began my whole journey into manufacturing and researching fair-trade use. I wanted to make sure that the way I produced [the scarves] was as conscious as the message that these images were evoking.

Two years later, [I was] moving forward with this philosophy and engaging a little more with designing for social change. This is where I come from as well—I’m a human-centered, user-centered designer for web applications, organizations. That’s how I made my career. Designing for social change, designing with the human in mind, as a center of the practice, I wanted to keep that big part of my career with me in my work at Slow Factory. So this is how we began with this initiative—every collection now is connected to an organization; every single scarf that is going to be sold is going to have a positive impact, something that will tie the philosophy with actual things that are happening.

And in this latest collection you’re partnering with ANERA.

I come from Beirut myself. I was born there, and lived there on and off throughout the years. As soon as the war broke in Syria, I was really, really shocked, and I really wanted to do something. I couldn’t just watch—clicktivism, where you like something on Facebook or you sign a petition, it’s not enough for me. I really wanted to pack up everything and go down there.

All of my friends, also from Beirut, wanted to do something for Syria. So I began looking at images from Syria. Now I have a very good connection with NASA, so I sent a request: ‘When you are in the International Space Station, floating above Syria, can you please snap a picture of Syria by night?’ What happened was that they snapped a picture of Gaza, because at the same time, the Gaza Strip [came under fire]. When they snapped that, I thought, okay I’m going to do it, I’m going to work with this Gaza By Night image. Alexander Gerst, the astronaut who snapped that picture, wrote the most beautiful caption ever—he wrote, ‘this is the saddest picture I took from space’. And he wrote a beautiful blogpost about that—‘From space, we are one.’ This is so much about what we are about as well, at Slow Factory. I always imagine we are floating in space, peacefully looking over the Earth and protecting it and sending messages to the people to [say], ‘Be aware of what’s going on! We are so fragile and we are so connected to one another.’ This is what this initiative is about.

Everything started happening as though it was meant to happen. I connected with a few organizations and ANERA really, really loved our idea. They’re still on the ground in Gaza. They’re on the ground in Beirut, in Jordan. They’re still active, as opposed to, like, Save the Children, [which] has withdrawn completely from Gaza because of the chaos that’s going on. So we partnered with ANERA.

What has ANERA been doing to aid the refugees in those places?

They have many initiatives. We’re not going to limit our aid—we’re helping with all the different initiatives that they have. One is distributing Dignity Kits to women and children that have been displaced, that are now refugees. The Dignity Kits contain medicine, clean clothes, towels and soap and books and things like that—diapers as well, and wipes. Because when they have to [leave Syria], they have to go really, really quickly. There’s a lot of stories that we gathered…about how the Dignity Kits helped them.

[ANERA] has other initiatives, as well, where they’re running schools in the camps, where they distribute books. Forty thousand books were distributed in Jordan for children. They also have a psychological support initiative, they have art therapy and soccer teams. So we’re really helping with all their initiatives, [but] we were inspired by their dignity kits.

How do you choose the images you want printed? What’s the thought process behind it?

I think of myself a lot like a DJ selecting a playlist, like making a nice cassette tape for my friends. For example, for the Mars, Revealed [collection], I’ve been collecting Mars images for a while and then decided that it was time to select a few of them. It was a very hard selection. I wanted to print like 50 of them, but we had to make a selection.

Actually, that constraint is very interesting to me. We can’t print everything and we don’t want to print everythig. It has to be consciously selected. So I go a lot with my feeling and with the meaning and the story that it carries.

How do your experiences visiting Beirut or having to leave there at such a young age play into your art?

I was three and half or four when we left. I remember it very vividly. I have very strong memories of where we lived and what happened. We moved back in 1996 when the war officially ended. It wasn’t really over, but we moved back because my parents lost too many people during the war and they wanted to be there for their elders. I didn’t really feel Lebanese. It was hard for me to connect with other Lebanese people. When I first moved there, I had a hard time because of language barriers, because of cultural barriers. I didn’t understand their expressions. Even when I learned Arabic, there was so much depth in the culture.

During my career, I travelled a lot, and I felt like anywhere could be home, really, because as an outsider, as a traveller, it was easier to see that we are all in this together.