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Beyond Vivienne Westwood: When Designers Become Activists

The tips, tricks, and secrets we learned from talking to Miki Agrawal and Céline Semaan Vernon at AIGA NY's "Beyond Vivienne Westwood: Fashion brands that are changing the world."

by Sami Emory
26 October 2015, 4:25pm

Image courtesy of AIGA NY

VICE is covering the launch of the Global Goals for sustainable development. In the next 15 years, they want to achieve three massive tasks: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and fix climate change.

Last week, Miki Agrawal and Céline Semaan Vernon sat before a roomful of aspiring and active designers to talk about the future of social- and environmentally-minded design. Hosted by AIGA NY in their newly acquired pop-up space in lower Manhattan as part of their latest series of members-only events, the discussion was titled “Beyond Vivienne Westwood: Fashion brands that are changing the world." And, to say that these two designers were the perfect picks to headline just such a discussion, would be a gross understatement.

Agrawal is a fast-spoken, voracious entrepreneur who, along with many other accomplishments (including founding a chain of farm-to-table pizza restaurants, authoring the book “Do Cool Sh*t”, and landing a place on Forbes’ “Top 20 Millenials On a Mission” list), is the co-founder and CEO of THINX, a technologically inspired brand of underwear to protect women on their periods. Semaan Vernon, a Creators Project mainstay, founded and stands CEO of the activist boutique Slow Factory and co-founded Le Design Team. In her work at Slow Factory, Semaan Vernon transforms Creative Commons images—she is also a longstanding advocate for open data—into luxurious and eco-friendly scarves, ties, and bracelets to raise funds for causes such as WWF’s conservation initiatives.

Images courtesy of THINX

The two innovators met on a panel at the General Assembly this September, where they led a discussion on eCommerce in New York. Common industries, objectives, and values, along with an infectious respect for one another, propelled this forth into further collaboration—the latest example of which is "Beyond Vivienne Westwood." At the discussion, Agrawal and Semaan Vernon spoke to the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in the process of production—from the local businesswomen selling the reusable cloth pads in Uganda as part of THINX's partnership with AFRIpads, to the World Wildlife Fund behind Slow Factory’s “Petit Atlas” campaign, and finally to the consumers buying—or simply admiring—these products. For the eager designers present, the discussion also offered tricks-of-the-trade testimonials (Agrawal, for instance, is a big proponent for brainstorming dinner parties), and activism anecdotes, like the time the ESA gave Semaan Vernon a (very angry) call. 

I was fortunate enough to get the chance to moderate this discussion and to ask both women about the challenges of staying afloat in a climate of consumerism, working with NGOs, and why empowerment models really work. 

Images courtesy of Slow Factory

The Creators Project: What do you see as the greatest threats—socially or environmentally—in the fashion industry today? 

Celine Semaan Vernon (CSV): The greatest threats—in fashion or utilitarian sectors—to social change are three things: There is the industry, which is the production, the manufacturing. This is a big threat and a big hurtle for us: finding a manufacturer and a factory was a full-time job in itself and it’s still difficult [...] The second one would be people: consumers are part of the equation. They have the responsibility in choosing who they are supporting and if they are open to support brands who are actively trying to enact social and environmental change. The third one would be governments. It is so hard if you live in America and want to create change, for example, in Africa or, in the Middle East, where I come from. Governments are a big big barricade or border: it is hard to send money, it is hard to verify that the money that you’re sending is actually doing any good. There are so many barriers between the cause and the action. 

Miki Agrawal (MA): For us, a big thing are the taboos. I think there are a lot of stigmas around the word “feminism.” People are afraid to say they are feminist (it just means equality) because it’s just been a patriarchal system for so long. It’s a big mental shift for women to feel equal. Just breaking taboos is a challenge—but it’s exciting and it’s fun to be able to break through to a lot of people [...] What we’ve realized is that through innovation, through using our patented product, it’s giving permission to talk about this difficult subject. Using a product that actually works for women, can free women to talk about this stuff. And that’s been the biggest challenge for us…

Images courtesy of Slow Factory

What will it take to face these threats and break down these taboos? And, whose responsibility is it? (Consumer, Brands, Government?)

MA: One of the great things about Slow Factory, and also one of the things that we pride ourselves on, is great design. Millennials and people in “today’s world” really appreciate great design. If you’re a nonprofit and you have a nonprofity look and feel, then people don’t take you seriously. They will just say, “Oh, there’s just another NGO’s website, whatever.” But if you are well designed, if you have beautiful products, you have tasteful ads, you have things that make people say, “Wow, that’s artful”, then it gives you permission to have the conversation because you are on par with that kind of taste, that kind of look and feel. So, I think design has a huge part in changing the conversation.

One of the things that we struggled with in the beginning was the concept of fundraising […] That’s another thing too where you’re talking about a culture shift for people and it’s a great challenge, too. […] Even to get investors interested in a taboo subject has to be done thoughtfully and creatively. 99% of our investors are men and one of the things I made them do was, I would say “Take this pad, go over there, put it underneath your balls, walk around.” […] And so they’re like “Ohhh, this is what you’ve been dealing with?” […] You have to show-not-tell a lot to get them to understand what you’re doing. You have to be creative but playful to get the point across. You can’t bash, you can’t do it in a way that’ll put them on the defensive. 

CSV: For me, it’s also about a mental shift. We are so used to buying things that cost so little […] It was always a question: if you pay $15 [for a pair of shoes] someone must have paid more (with their lives) to make this. We also have this relationship with brands. I come from service design so when I started my company I had a big existential crisis: “Why am I going to make more products? We don’t need more products!” […] So I wanted to make something that would have the least impacts on the environment – or, if it did have an impact that it would last for a long long time. We have this very disposable culture around our clothes, our fashion […] This relationship that we have to our products is my biggest problem right now: educating people about what is it that they’re buying, why they should care. And using design to communicate it. 

Image courtesy of THINX

Can you expound upon the research involved in both of your companies? 

MA: In starting a business, you have to have a very, very healthy level of naiveté. Because, if you know what you’re getting yourself into, you’d probably talk yourself out of it. For us, when we first started, it was a process of creating the best underwear product that supports women. What we didn’t realize is that underwear is the hardest product to make for a human being because it is the most intimate part, it is touching the body the whole day, its right *there*… It’s just all the things. We also had to make sure it functions in the way that we wanted it to. […] That was step one: What are the materials we have to find to actually create the most functional product that we can for women? […] It took almost four years (three and a half years) to get the product right. To make sure that it functioned for women. Cut to now and we have thousands and thousands of women wearing it and feeling the freedom and it was worth it. 

CSV: When we started looking into manufacturing the first research was, what are the materials we can use that will not aggravate the situation on the earth, that are actually traditional, that are made organically? And I figured out, silk! Of course silk! […] There was also cotton. Cotton pollutes a lot, especially if its not made organically, with all the chemicals, so [we decided] to use cotton but with a lot of care. Then there were other materials, man-made materials (you all know about polyester, of course I’m not using polyester) such as modal, for example, that is made from wood bark and its made with an eco-friendly process. It’s as soft as cotton mixed with cashmere and that’s what we use a lot. 

[Then] the way we manufactured, of course. We wanted to work with an ethical manufacturer. So we wanted to trace back to where scarves were made “back in the day” (before everything was moved to China). And we researched and we found that they were actually made in Como, in Italy. […] We went to Como and we found an amazing factory that was family owned and that’s where we are manufacturing right now. A lot of people manufacture there—especially those who are socially and environmentally conscious, like Vivienne Westwood, for example. 

images courtesy of Slow Factory

As small companies, what have your experiences been like working with NGOs or larger companies? 

MA: Our partnerships are with a couple of organizations. Our first partnership is with a Ugandan organization called AFRIpads. They are based out of Kampala, they have factors in Masaka, and they make washable, reusable cloth pads at a really affordable price and they sell them locally. They have local entrepreneurs—female entrepreneurs—going and selling these pads, training these girls how to use these pads (because otherwise they are going to be using leaves, old rags, bits of mattresses, which is really horrible for the girls). Look, for example, at the Tom’s model, which is a welfare model. It’s not an empowerment model and it’s just for every pair of shoes they sell they give another away. We were super inspired—they created the 1-for-1, so hats off to them for that—but they basically cannibalized local shoemakers. [...] The model that actually works is the empowerment model. What we’re doing is we’re funding AFRIpads, we’re giving them money to make their pads—we’re funding the production cost of their pads. They then can make these pads and they sell them to the local community at a cheaper price so that they can afford them. But they are still selling them, so they can grow their business, they can create a sustainable business model. When we started working with them, they had 25 employees; now they have 150 employees, because we’re helping them grow their business. And, they’re hiring all local girls and local women who otherwise wouldn’t have a job. The empowerment model works, and it’s creating jobs. 

The next thing we’re doing is working with a company in India called Pasand. Pasand is more of an advocacy group that teaches girls how their body works […] What we’re doing is creating girls clubs in India. We’re doing our first two pilot girls clubs where we are getting 25 girls together over the course of six months and we are going to spend one day a week with these girls. They have a safe space to come to, a safe space for girls to learn about their bodies, to learn about how menstruation works, to get period products safely and affordably and then go out in the world as more empowered women. A lot of what we’ve heard from NGOs is that girls need these girl clubs, girls need these safe spaces [...] So, to be able to create these clubs, to get these girls together, to support them is really game-changing. 

Images courtesy of THINK

CSV: We also work with an empowerment model. Of course, Tom’s inspired all of us to think, “Ooh, products can actually change the world! Let’s figure out how to do it without breaking their economy. Let’s figure out a way to partner with organizations that are on the ground and already know how the socioeconomic and political system works in the countries we are trying to help.” Going back to when I worked with ANERA, an American organization that has been based out of the Middle East since the 60’s and focused on helping women refugees in that region, it was important for me that we had correspondence on the ground; that we were able to give money to support their initiatives. They already knew exactly what they needed to do […] So the way we started working with them was funding their "Dignity Kits." Women refugees when they leave, as you’ve seen a lot in the news lately, (we’re going back again in the spring to work again with women refugees in the Middle East and across the region and all the way to Europe), they have nothing on them. […] Basically the dignity kits were a big box that were delivered to women in the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and in Gaza and in these boxes they had medicine, clean scarves, pads, diapers for their kids—all sorts of things ANERA had put together based on the demand these women had. We called the campaign “Dignity.” 

For the World Wildlife Fund, the second collection that we did, it was also the same thing. [...] Mainly what they were trying to do is effect four big areas of work that they are still working on: save the Arctic, keep our oceans clean, deforestation, and then also clean water (there’s no more water!). I was like, “All of this? How is a small company like me going to do all of this and achieve all of this?” Well, we can use images from all over the world, from NASA, and we can highlight each of the initiatives we’re working on. I have to say it was a huge responsibility on Slow Factory and it still is and it’s ongoing and it’s ending in December. We haven’t yet raised what we were supposed to raise because it is extremely difficult to raise awareness and raise money at the same time using a product that is not cheap, that is not $5, that is a product that you have to think a lot about […] I’m going to have to “kill” Slow Factory a little bit with 200% of my profit [according to the agreement], but [do so] knowing that it is going somewhere very valuable. 

What have been the challenges of working as a company that has a humanitarian focus before a commercial focus. 

MA: It’s not before, it’s hand-in-hand. Our company is very much a for-purpose company, which is double bottom-line. You can’t do well unless you do good and you can’t do good unless you do well. They are very much in line; we have to build a real business. We’re gunning to do $20 million in revenue next year and keep going till 2018. We’re really pushing hard to build a financially stable business that’s growing. But, we’re also growing our impact. We’re going to be working with AFRIpads, working with Pasand, working with Blink Now Nepal, working with other organizations. So we’ll definitely be building a department that’s specifically for our give-back because it’s woven into what we do. But one is not before the other—it can’t be. Because if the give-back is before the profit, it becomes a nonprofit. 

CSV: On my end, it’s looking more like a nonprofit this year than an actual business, but it’s ok because we are learning a lot and we are also figuring out what is the actual size of impact that we can actually take. We are small and we have to remember that. I want to build a strong business out of Slow Factory (I would love it if it lasted 200 years or more with my children and the children of my children) and not have it be like, “Oh, it was a project and now it’s done.” For me, it makes me feel less panicky to think that [the WWF project] is big and right now we are a non-profit but actually we would like to be a very good, growing, American business. So, our next project is going to be a lot smaller. We’ve scaled down in terms of products, in terms of promises, and in terms of impact—a smaller impact, yet a significant political impact—but at least it will balance to help us grow a little bit more so we can keep on going. 

Images courtesy of THINX

So, what’s next? 

MA: What’s next for us is we are producing new products that are also going to be environmentally friendly. We created a reusable tampon applicator—right now, 20 billion plastic tampon applicators and pads end up in landfill every single year. It’s a huge fire hazard and has a grave environmental impact. In one year alone, the U.S. Coastguard collected 170,000 plastic tampon applicators that were washed up on the East Coast alone (that’s not even to close to the millions that are just floating in the ocean). We wanted to create a product that was more conveintent—it looks like a lipstick in your purse—it’s made with medical-grade silicone, it has anti-microbial technology woven into it, and how it works is, you just drop a tampon in, you use it, you wash it out, and it goes back in your purse. […] We are also launching our own organic tampons that will go with the applicators […] So together [with the underwear] it will complete a full holistic package when you’re on your period. 

The next thing we are working on is Icon. Icon is a product “for women who tinkle.” Right now, 1-in-3 women in general are going to get stress urinary incontience in their lives. Which means, when you’ve had a child or are pregnant or post-pregnant and when you laugh, you jog, you run, you pee a little bit. Super normal and yet again, taboo. People are forced to wear Depends, pads, everyday for the rest of their lives […] We’ve created a beautiful product: a pair of underwear that looks like a beautiful pair of black underwear, a bikini. Each pair of icon hold up to five teaspoons of liquid and it’s odor-proof and has all the technology that’s needed. […] And for every pair of icon sold we support the efforts against the fistula problem in the developing world. 

For myself personally, I have a little side hustle called TUSHY with the tagline “for people who poop.” Right now we are living in the 1800s when it comes to the bathroom experience. The toilet has not changed since 1890—in this day of innovation. My Japanese grandparents think that we are barbaric: “You don’t have a bidet? That is so weird!” So we’ve created a bidet attachment that attaches to any toilet. It connects right to the water supply behind the toilet, it includes everything, and water just sprays into your butt. […] “Save the environment, save your money, save the world.” […] What we’re doing is supporting NGOs that are fighting the world sanitation crisis and we are going to announce those very soon.

images courtesy of TUSHY

CSV: This is a sneak peak of what is coming for Spring/Summer 2016. It’s called “We Are Home.” It’s our new campaign and collection. […] It begins a little bit with [my own] story which ties the issues we’ve focused on with Slow Factory, especially around refugees. The main product we’ll be adding will be a key. Most refugees who leave their homes in the Middle East carry their keys around their necks. We molded the key out of the key of my family home—my sister lives in Lebanon and my whole family went back to Lebanon after the war, I’m the only expat left in America. [The campaign] also includes images of the Earth that are going to inspire the "overview effect." What we are printing this spring are images of clouds, of the Earth from above…with quotes from astronauts about the overview effect, about that shift that we were talking about, that really makes you understand that we are all in this together […] We are also going to have one piece that will include children’s illustrations—mostly by my child.

It’s a very important time for us to do something [about the refugee crisis]: a side that we can take, a story we can tell, and also an impact that we can make with some of the NGOs that we’ve been working with. […] The key is made in Lebanon, in gold, and it can hold your scarf, and it’s a piece of jewelry and you can wear it around your neck with the scarf or you can use it with one of our silk bracelets. And the key on it’s own is going to be dedicated to this cause and hopefully we can make a small but significant impact next year. 

Learn more about Miki Agrawal's work on her website, and the THINX and TUSHY sites. Click here to read more about Céline Semaan Vernon's work and here to visit Slow Factory's site. 

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