Emily Cremona is a sustainable fashion brand developed by Lebanese Designer, Diana Wassef. With much care and tactical elements, her designs are ethically and sustainably made. Wassef implements sustainable practices in all aspects of her life, especially when deciding fabrics, buttons, and methods of production for her fashion lines. She has made a lifelong commitment to continuing to lower her carbon footprint and is passionate about sharing these practices with others. We interviewed Diana to learn how she has transitioned from a well-known costume designer in Beirut, Lebanon, to eco-friendly fashion designer in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Blindfold: Tell us about what your journey in fashion looked like, from education to where you are with Emily Cremona now. How did your values in implementing sustainability into your clothing production evolve over time?
Diana: It’s been a fun & wild journey! Before you continue reading, friends have warned me that I don’t generally filter my conversations or stories… I’ll leave it to the reader to decide. In the fast-paced world, we live in, this might feel long… keep up if you feel inspired.
Growing up, I really wanted to be a surgeon for people recovering from serious accidents. I was interested in making people feel better or connected again. Little did I know that the aesthetics of the outside world depend on how we connect with our inner world. My family was not supportive of me going to medical school, so my second option was a spur of the moment decision. I thought, “well I’ll be a costume designer.” This again was fueled by the desire to make people feel good in movement but in their second skin. There wasn’t a costume design school in Beirut, Lebanon, where I grew up, and my parents really wanted me to get a Bachelor’s degree. They didn’t want me to go to a technical school. For the record, I fully support any artist to accept any means of learning with or without, a degree. To fulfill my parents’ wishes of my receiving a BA in Fashion Design, I joined the first fashion design program in Beirut for a commitment of 4-years. At the time, I felt there was no benefit whatsoever from being in school. The program was new so there wasn’t much technical practice, and I wasn’t in a place to embrace the lessons that come to us in all forms. We barely spent any time learning the technical side of fashion. At the time of graduation, I felt I didn’t deserve a BA because I hadn’t learned a single thing, and I wanted to sue the school for giving the 5 graduates a degree in virtually nothing. You can already tell how much of a rebel, angry child full of resistance I was… I am still working on that. But I did end up graduating with high honors. I was ready to pursue my dream to travel to the UK and start over. This is a pattern I see in my life a lot: whenever I’m close to completion, I have the desire to start over again because something about the process had to be “better”. Before moving to the UK, I found about this incredible non-profit organization called STARCH Foundation in Beirut. My heartfelt connected, and part of me was curious to see if I had learned anything from undergraduate school. STARCH selects 4-5 up-and-coming Lebanese fashion designers to showcase their work in their high-end boutique in the heart of Beirut, Lebanon. They provided the boutique space for the designers, rent-free, mentored by world-renowned fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz & Co-founder Tala Hajjar. They guided us through the process from production and pricing to massive exposure around the middle east through TV interviews, press coverage, and editorial features. Amazingly, the designers were allowed to keep all of the profits! This is basically every starting designer’s dream. STARCH was looking for fresh new creatives who were willing to break free from traditional Lebanese fashion of big sequined dresses.
The angry rebellious child in me was finally recognized. I could express my love for theatrical pieces and innate desire to be a costume designer. YES! I got selected to showcase my work in two collections from 2010-2011. The UK had to wait. I was ready to show Beirut how I perceive fashion and why my need to be different from their traditional concept of what fashion was. I designed Edwardian style jackets, instead of designing a bridal dress. I finally could break free and still be seen… break free from the traditional white dress and create one of my fave pieces of all times: the Bridal Jacket. It was an Edwardian jacket with the waistline from the front, and a long tail from the back with a 50-meter skirt underneath it. I wanted the brides to wear jackets to break the boundaries of gender conformity. My first collection, entitled “Du Fleur”, entailed buttoned up pieces of androgynous fashion. The second collection after that came as a result of people saying they loved the first collection but also saying that, “it’s too theatrical for everyday life.”
Unconsciously, the second collection was a result of people’s need, still theatrical but softer. The second collection, which I called, “A Pale Blossoming” was a big success. My year at STARCH was full of exposure, interviews, recognition, and the best part was that we didn’t need to pay a penny. We were fully supported and ready to go on our own when the program ended. That was Rabih and Tala’s intention: they would create an incubator for us, nourish us and guide us so that we would be ready to go out on our own. Financially I was ready to open my own boutique and continue “my fame” in the Middle East.
Something was still speaking inside of me, “GO TO THE UK. GO STUDY COSTUME DESIGN.” Something about being in the fashion world didn’t feel right, even though I was on the path and I was making great money. I had amazing exposure with great clientele and I could see my life being the same for the next 15-years; making money, but losing creativity. I had the money to leave and start over. So I broke free. I went to the UK with all the savings from my fashion label I had started in Lebanon called Emily Cremona. I stayed in the UK for about 8-months, taking classes & such. Long story short, since it’s already so long, I found myself in the last place I would want to be in … New York City. Here I felt closer to my dream of “costume designer” when I met an aerialist circus performer through a friend. Instead of fully committing to being a costume designer for them, I decided to join the circus in order to understand the body and how it moves. Soon after joining, I got a serious injury and quit the circus. I was out of money and at rock bottom. Life was totally crazy for my first two years in NYC.
Many things led me to find myself back home, in my own body, through my Kundalini Yoga practice. After 7-years of being away from my brand Emily Cremona, I felt called to return to it. I felt like it was part of my Dharma, my path. I was afraid to restart because I was afraid of fashion. I viewed it as a disastrous industry in our world today. I asked myself, “How can I bring more light into this disaster?” Many teachers along the way, like Elyssa Jakim and Romany Pope, believed that my talent wasn’t contributing to the disaster of fashion, but rather bringing light to it. My Kao-Kabi collection was birthed in 2017. The phrase means “my planet” in Arabic. I selected natural fibers from organic bamboo, pineapple, cotton, and hemp to produce the collection. I wanted it to be real, but also simple. When you allow things to just be, and you return to the present moment, then you can truly enjoy all the truth of the now. The sketches I created were simple. Every time I felt stressed, or tense, I would drop the pen and return to sketching. The collection allowed me to revisit my culture, which was something I resisted growing up. Being Egyptian and raised in Lebanon, I returned to my roots by incorporating traditional their wear while merging it with the place I now live in, Bushwick Brooklyn. The pieces for this collection are sustainable and made with natural fibers that are kind to our skin and our planet. I bathed the fabric in Reiki & crystals. I worked slowly. it wasn’t about being a rich fashion designer, because I didn’t want that. That’s why I had initially left fast-fashion. I wanted to find a way to embrace fashion in a more organic form. I didn’t feel like I had to go search or travel to find it; it would express itself on paper and in the fabric. That’s how my journey to implement sustainability into EMILY CREMONA started evolving, and today it remains a major part of the brand.
BF: What practices do you carry out in the production of your fashion line so remain sustainable?
D: From the moment I wake up with subconscious trash I have two choices: do I bring them into the world, or do I sit in meditation face to face and transform them? It’s not easy… I struggle with my practice every day. Luckily my husband has been practicing meditation for over 10-years now. In a way, I chose my partner as a mirror in the house to remind myself to practice. After I go inside myself, it’s time to go outside. This is where I nurture my connections with others, conversations and work with the outside world.
I practice sustainability in all aspects of my life. I was absolutely thrown off by the food system here when I moved to NYC 5-years ago. I grew up in a small country, Lebanon, where your relationship to what you eat was tied to who made it. But living in NYC, and choosing organic produce for me is acknowledging the farmer that takes the more challenging route by being organic. Growing organic food is a long process to move away from pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. So these practices are carried out in the production of Emily Cremona as well. I remain sustainable and go beyond the brand into my day to day life. I have only one piece of each design. I produce by order. I do not have stacks of fabric in my home. I maintain the space for creativity to breathe. I am in no rush or stress to sell just for the sake of selling. I also love meeting the person that makes the order purchase. I want the brand to remain sustainable by sharing awareness to the choices I make in my production. For example, the bamboo plant requires less water than cotton so I’m trying to shift the fabric selection more into that.
My choices are reflected even down to the buttons I choose. I am learning to find ways to improve sustainability in the life of each piece. I love using buttons in my pieces, so in exploring ways to get closer to being zero waste I looked for ways to source sustainably made buttons. There are many options: 1. Tagua Nut, 2. Corozo Nuts, 3. Mother of Pearl 4. Vintage or Second-hand Buttons.
The collections are trans-seasonal, eliminating the pressure that the fashion industry dictates.
In addition to production reform, I’m looking at ways to reduce shipping waste as much as possible. As I mentioned earlier, I love meeting the client and delivering the piece to them in person, instead of shipping it. However, if they are at the opposite side of the world, before looking at shipping carriers I see if anyone from my surrounding is traveling to their area. It’s not so quick and easy, but I prefer it that way. My clients have been fully supportive of my slow and sustainable approach!
Some of the essential practices I carry in production are as follows: SUSTAINABILITY – The pieces are made from natural fibers, including hemp, pineapple, linen, and cotton. Natural fiber clothing is more sustainable than synthetic fiber, which requires high energy use and large amounts of crude oil. ETHICAL DESIGN – No animals are harmed in the making of the pieces. Natural fibers are biodegradable, and therefore have no negative impact on the environment. PLANET FRIENDLY – Natural fiber is an investment in terms of fabric durability, and thus a bigger investment in the environment.
BF: What impact do you see the fashion industry is having on our planet/environment?
D: The world is in a place of slowly waking up to the environmental impacts we have on our planet. I believe that the choices that we make when we buy clothes have a big impact on the fashion industry, which ripples out into our planet. How often do we buy clothes? How often do we check labels to know which fabric we are buying and what impact that fabric is having on our planet… is it sustainable and organic, or is it synthetic? Where is it made? Who is it made by? Are the people making the clothes you are wearing appreciated? Are they paid well? Are they living in unacceptable factory conditions? Is the piece you are buying biodegradable & good for the planet… and for that matter, is it good for your skin? All of these questions you can ask yourself will help improve the fashion industry by forcing them to show up for our needs.
If we show the industry we are blindly shopping at a fast pace, then we will get products made in China supporting factories that have poor environmental practices and pay their employees sub-living wages.
As for my advice, avoid wearing pants made out of plastic and synthetic fiber. With all of these yoga trendy pants come health risks. Even though these fabrics may seem cheaper, synthetic fabric like polyester, nylon & dye are made from plastic and are byproducts of petroleum. Scientists are proving that these materials are highly linked to hormonal disruption and even the formation of breast cancer cells. Instead, choose natural fibers that are eco-friendly, for example, linen is a fabric that breathes, and is also very comfortable to wear. The Kao-Kabi overall that I have designed is made from the softest organic linen. I designed this for someone to get married in, to take a yoga class, teach a yoga class in, or simply only to lounge around the house in. Buy less, multifunctional and biodegradable fabrics!
The environmental risks of Synthetic fibers are causing about 20% of industrial water pollution in the world! Since plastics are another byproduct of petroleum and are known to be non-biodegradable, most fish have been examined with findings of synthetic nylons in their intestinal tract. Seabirds have been found dead because of the ingestion of synthetic fabric that was mistaken for food.
What is the solution? Move away from the synthetic, toxic and non-biodegradable fabric. We can do this, and we can do this together! We must wake up. Take a moment to check what the clothing you purchase is made from. Our phones are glued to us, so there is no excuse. Pick up the phone, search the name of the fabric and if it’s not biodegradable then put it back. Let us show the fashion industry we are ready to move away from mass production and chemically based fabric. We are ready to be kinder to our planet and to each other! We can do it!
“It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”
-Seneca The Younger
BF: Do you have a mentor, or have you had a mentor(s), throughout your journey with Emily Cremona who has helped you with implementing sustainable practices into your business?
D: When I started my journey in fashion, I presented my first collection to the STARCH Foundation Co-founders Rabih Kayrouz & Tala Hajjar. The collection was selected and I showcase my work in a high-end boutique in the heart of Beirut. I have so much gratitude for Rabih and Tala. I was 20-years-old at that time. I had just graduated from school, and under their wings, I had discovered my own wings. These angels guided the collection and brand in all aspects, nourishing it and exposing Emily Cremona to the world and lead it to the place it is today. They helped guide it to becoming an ethically conscious brand and to continue to raise its eco-consciousness… to challenge me and the fashion community to be better to the planet, beginning with my Kao-Kabi collection and onward.
Being an Egyptian, born in Kuwait and raised in Lebanon, there was a constant yearning to know where home is.
Through my Kundalini yoga practice, I learned that home is within my body, my breath and the present moment. That deeper connection with my self through self-care, love, and kindness to myself allows me to be kinder to others and to the planet… to look at ways to implement sustainability practices in my daily life and in my business. I have a lot of gratitude for my practice because when you wake up to the world within you, you can see that the world outside of you is not separate. In order to care for yourself, you have no choice but to care for the entire world.
I have immense gratitude to my beautiful kundalini goddess friend, Romany Pope, who is always pushing me and encouraging me to share more publicly with the world… to share the choices I am making for my Emily Cremona brand that are ethical, sustainable and hopefully will continue to make an impact on the planet. Rather than hiding from the disastrous place the fashion industry is in, I try being brave enough to bring the light onto these darker places showing that there is a way to change things.
My husband, Patrick, who is truly an amazing soul, pushes my boundaries in every way possible to continue to implement sustainable practices in my day-to-day life, and calls me out if I try to slack off!
BF: In what other aspects of your life do you practice sustainability and respect to our planet?
D: When I wake up and I sit in meditation every morning, of course, I have resistances and the urge to get up and leave meditation, but I choose to stay so that I’m ready to enter the world with more clarity. When things get challenging in daily life I try my best to look at the four agreements by Miguel Ruz and see how I can implement them. The choices I make to respect and honor myself in order to respect others and the planet are as follows: 1. Be impeccable with your word, 2. Don’t take anything personally, 3. Don’t make assumptions, 4. Always do your best.
In my apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, my husband and I make sure we recycle and compost. One of our favorite activities on Sundays, which was introduced to us by our best friends Romany and Eduardo, is to walk to the local compost garden, BK Rot. P.S. If you live in Bushwick, there is no excuse not to compost anymore. There are so many resources. Composting is so important. It returns valuable nutrients to the soil to help maintain the fertility and quality of the soil. Compost helps retain moisture and suppress plant disease and pests. It reduces methane emissions from landfills and lowers your carbon footprint.
When I was at the bottom of my financial crisis about 3-years ago while living in NYC, I was moving often from one place to another and I had to travel light. I gave away most of my things that I didn’t need which made me really value what was necessary for me to own. Do I really need this? Do I already have something of that sort? If I wanted a new jacket, I would give up one of my current jackets so I didn’t stack up, and it worked great. I would go to a thrift shop, sell the piece I already owned to exchange it for the one I wanted. Today I am grateful I have a job, a husband, cat, and dog. But I still own only two pairs of shoes, keeping my closet as minimal as possible. Even though it feels like a privilege when you have a home for longer than 6-months, I try to remember to bring the lessons I learned when I had barely any money and I owned only what is needed (absolutely not a cat and dog. I love my babies, but they were gifts from friends), I get into a lot of arguments with my husband when I ask him to give away the things he isn’t using. I think anything that is gathering dust because you are no longer giving your attention to it, you should give it to someone who will. As Michael & Masa Ofei call it in their Minimalist Vegan book, “The More Virus”, we must break away from the more virus!
These choices we make are honoring the people that are taking the sustainable and ethical path. It is hard, just like running Emily Cremona is, and we must acknowledge and support those who choose the more ethical and conscious path.
BF: What is your stance on climate change and the Green New Deal?
D: Most people are going to buy unethical, shitty clothes anyway, so I’d rather have sustainable clothes to offer to the humans: something durable, ethical, good for their skin and the planet while informing them on how they are making a difference.
I was very inspired by Naval Ravikant during his podcast with Joe Rogan. He suggested that rather than shouting and screaming at the problem, offer solutions. A way out! I’m very grateful to have come to peace and to have the awareness through the guidance of many mentors and individuals who came along the way to show me that you can bring light into the dark issues we are facing with viable solutions.
“You know, the struggle with the modern environmental movement is that they identify the correct problem, which is a finite Earth spaceship. Earth is all we got, don’t ruin it. But they don’t have the solution. The problem is you got 3-billion Indian and Chinese who aren’t going to stay in poverty.”
That is a huge point Naval Ravikant is making right there, and I hope people reading this interview can have something to use, solution-wise. Understanding the relationship we have as individuals on our planet.
Ravikant continues in his interview:
“So you build things that are biodegradable and good for you and healthier. And everybody wants to be healthier; Chinese want to be healthier, Indians want to be healthier. They want to be cleaner. If you say, “I can clean up your rivers, I can clean up your forests, I can have your children not get sick with cholera and diphtheria and typhoid, I can cure your diseases, I can help make your immune system stronger, I can give you clean drinking water.” Like, that is what causes people to become environmentalists. Not shouting and screaming at them that they shouldn’t grow and they should stop pumping things into the sky. They’re just trying to get out of poverty. So, I think the modern environmental movement identifies the correct problem, but then doesn’t come up with the right set of solutions that are appealing to people.”
BF: What can other labels/brands do to lessen their negative impact? Or improve the ethics of their production?
I’ll modify this question. Instead of telling designers how to lessen their negative impact or improve the ethics of their production, I’ll share solutions that I want to continue to implement in an effort to improve the impact that Emily Cremona has on our planet.
I very much agree with Naval Ravikant. If a label or brand has the conscious awareness to be better and kinder to the environment through ethical resourcing and looking at ways to improve the disastrous state that fashion is in, they have to believe that their impact is going to make a change. For seven years I quit fashion because I thought it was going to hell and there’s nothing I can do to change that. But I can.
Before creating a new collection I ask myself these questions, “Why are you doing this collection? What is the message, and does it contribute positively to the slow fashion movement? If there isn’t a message, then I don’t feel the need to add more clothes to this planet. There is then no point in moving forward with the collection.
If there is a positive impact, I do move forward, making sure to research the fabric, choosing sustainable and eco-friendly material. It is important to know the impact of what we are using, who we are working with. Who is on our team? I love my team. It consists of the people back in Lebanon, who have a lovely space they work from and who are truly happy to be tailors. This is their only means of living, so it’s a full circle! I have a strong connection and appreciation for them. We try to be conscious of how much energy consumption sewing each piece needs and how much electricity is used. We are trying to eliminate any plastic buttons, plastic packaging, plastic shipping, which is an on-going mission.
As mentioned before, I want to continue to be a slow fashion business by not following any seasons or the pressures to following a trend. NYC in itself feels like it moves as fast as a thousand heartbeats per second. Learning to take things at your own pace and following all the steps to remain authentic to your initial purpose of creating the collection is important. Follow the impact and whether or not your piece is sustainable in each step of production, remaining ethical to the earth, to the needs of our planet and also to the creative process.
In terms of fabric selection, I want to continue to find the best sustainable resources. For example, shifting towards the organic bamboo in lieu of organic cotton fabric. Bamboo has always been grown without pesticides, while organic cotton may experience more crop waste. Bamboo is naturally resistant to insects or infecting pathogens. It also requires no irrigation and only ⅓ the amount of water to grow than is necessary in cotton. Where cotton needs harvesting, bamboo will miraculously sprout on its own.
Continue to implement organic hemp fiber. Hemp is the only plant that can feed you, clothe you, create a home for you and provide you with medicinal products. Beautiful fabric that is biodegradable such as organic hemp & linen are breathable, anti-bacterial and are cool. They lower your body temperature in Summer, as opposed to cotton. In terms of sustainability, it requires far less water than cotton to grow and doesn’t require any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Designers, stay up to date with the research and resources scientists are finding in terms of fabric and sustainability.
I love creating clothes that are beyond the limitations of age, gender or size, keeping the clothes as loose & as comfortable as possible. The world is truly in an incredible time. We humans are opening up to our own truth, loudly and proudly! It is an amazing time to be part of this journey, and I wish to continue contributing my creativity with sustainable clothes for all humans.
I am also hoping to implement this following concept in the near future: to give the option for my clients to return any Emily Cremona piece back to me, if they are bored or ready to give it away. I want to make alterations and turn it into a new piece by only using the fabric of the old one. Not only is the fabric biodegradable, but it would also become reusable. We live in a world that is highly programming us to want more, more, more, and also allows us to find change, making it easy to shift and move around. This is great, but also causes so much waste!
I’m really happy and grateful to dive deep into this journey with Blindfold. I want to emphasize that nothing I’m saying is new, or hasn’t been said before. I wish to continue to spread these ideas as much as I possibly again, trying my best to implement them myself while recognizing that errors and imperfections arise not only in my day-to-day life but in my brand Emily Cremona as well.
Visit emilycremona.com to view more of Diana Wassef’s collection. Follow her on Instagram to keep up with her findings, designs, and adventures.