“We want to change what it means to be fashionable” – May Kassem on creating social change with fashion

“We want to change what it means to be fashionable” – May Kassem on creating social change with fashion

May Kassem is the co-founder of Scarabeus Sacer, a sustainable, ethical clothing brand based in Egypt that is as much of a fashion brand as a campaign for social change. 

The brand recently partnered with the UN Refugee Agency on a collection that features artwork created by refugees, using upcycled fabrics. The aim of the collection was to share the stories of people who have had to flee their home countries. “We did interviews to understand their stories and how they became a refugee,” May explains. “It is really amazing when you sit with people who have gone through hardship. You expect to hear sob stories and things that are very depressing.  Some of them are, but it is really inspiring to see the resilience of people who have gone through really tough times, and how it’s made them stronger, as well as understanding how the system works and where it’s broken.” 

May and her husband founded Scarabeus Sacer in 2018, and since its inception have aimed to use the brand as a way to do social advocacy differently. “Many people have talked about refugees. There are many calls to support the cause and donate money, there are campaigns every day. But what can we do that’s different? How can we make people understand that maybe a war broke out in that person’s country and that’s why they had to leave and start over? Any of us could be a refugee at any point in time, especially with what’s happening in the world,” May says. 

Mental health and fashion

Born in Egypt, May has lived in the US, in Italy and Switzerland, doing a Masters in Counseling Psychology in the latter country. While she was nearing the end of her studies in Geneva the revolution happened in Egypt. “I thought, I can’t not go back to my country when there’s something so major happening,” she says. “I had to be part of it.” 

She returned and spent time working in hospitals, clinics and schools, helping people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar and personality disorders.  She calls the experience “eye-opening”, but felt that something was missing. In the years that followed she met her husband, had a daughter and moved to Rome, but after a while the couple made the decision to return to Egypt and start a fashion brand. 

The idea wasn’t plucked out of thin air – May’s family had a business in the textile industry, while her husband made T-shirts when he was in medical school. “We decided to go back to the idea of fashion, very simply because we all wear clothes, and fashion is a statement,” May says. “You portray what you want to portray to other people through what you wear every day. It’s a really strong tool to deliver messages, to get people to understand who you are and what you believe in. We decided to combine it with social advocacy, specifically mental health, so we could reach a lot of people.” 

Changing the meaning of fashion

The name Scarabeus Sacer was chosen for the Latin translation of scarab, a symbol of ancient Egypt. “We wanted a name that spoke to our heritage. The scarab represents this idea of resurrection and rebirth. It’s a creature that wakes up every morning at dawn, does its thing, sleeps at sunset, and keeps on doing what it’s doing. It has a very hard shell, so there is this idea of resiliency as well, and that’s what we wanted to do with the fashion industry. We wanted to have this rebirth of what it means to be fashionable, and also what it means to create individual transformation and change through the mental health advocacy part.” 

may kassem, scarabaeus sacer

The brand is environmentally-friendly, both in terms of its practices and the materials it uses, and in November May attended COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh to affirm its commitment to sustainability. May is blunt about the fashion industry’s stance on the issue: “Whether it’s a PR stunt, with [a brand] saying it’s sustainable and has a line in a huge department store made from 25% recycled polyester, sustainability is the only way to move forward.” 

“We use Egyptian cotton which is certified organic,” she explains. “All our packaging is recycled and recyclable. We recently launched a collection made from pre-consumer waste, which is basically fabric scraps leftover from other productions. Instead of it being thrown in landfills we’ve taken these fabrics and created a collection out of them so we can close the loop and become more circular.” 

“We really wanted to do it right, not just because it’s the trend, but because fashion is the second biggest polluter on Earth after the oil industry,” she says. “The amount of waste that comes from fast fashion, from people discarding clothes and buying materials that are harmful, is a huge issue.” 

Ethical, sustainable practices

Additionally the manufacturing facility the company works with is certified Fairtrade. May explains that there is a difference between this and sustainability. “Fairtrade means that the farmers and workers in the factory are all given fair wages, minimum wage or above. They work in conditions that are safe and humane, they have proper working hours, and if there’s overtime they get paid over time. All of those things that are basically about human rights, labour conditions and the working environment.” 

“The fashion industry tends to be very inhumane and unethical when it comes to production practices,” she adds. “Everybody has heard about companies that employ minors in sweatshops, where conditions are extremely hot and they’re not allowed to take bathroom breaks. It’s basically slavery.” 

Being a sustainable, ethical fashion brand is not easy, however. “There are so many steps. And I think that 75% of consumers are still not going for the sustainable options. Every brand in the world will tell you how much they have to fight to be able to convince consumers to pay a bit more to invest in a piece that’s going to last longer than a T-shirt you might buy for $10.”

“It’s becoming harder and harder to grab consumers’ attention,” she adds. To differentiate themselves, they focus on quality, and the social advocacy aspect. “Not a lot of brands are using fashion as a tool for social impact,” she says. 

Clothing with impact

As well as the collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, the company partnered with Dialogue in the Dark, an organisation that raises awareness for the visually impaired and blind.  Together they created a collection that included braille cards with the description of the brand and the product in the packaging, “because after talking with them we realised this is something that people struggled with. They can’t shop independently because they don’t know what they’re looking at.” 

Using her background in psychology, May has also run a workshop with refugees that included guided meditation and visualisation exercises. At the end of it participants created artworks that represented their identity and journey. These are now on sale alongside the label’s clothing, with a percentage of sales going to each refugee artist. 

May explains that Scarabeus is very particular when it comes to who it partners with. “It’s about choosing communities or individuals that are not just marginalised, but that most people don’t pay attention to. There are a lot of charities and organisations out there that get a lot of funding and a lot of PR, but there are thousands, if not millions out there that don’t, and everybody is in need.” 

With Scarabeus, May’s goal is to get people to feel empathy and compassion towards others. “People might think they will never be a refugee, or will never be blind. It’s not about that. It’s about understanding what it feels like to be in the shoes of another human being going through something tough.” 

“There are so many social issues that we need to talk about and bring awareness to.  We try to tackle them from a different perspective. Our dream is for Scarabeus Sacer to advocate for as many causes as possible. The possibilities really are unlimited, the amount of people that we can reach out to and connect with, that we can try to influence, even in small ways.” 

This is an edited version of a podcast hosted by Unlimited. NADJA Media has partnered with Unlimited, a multimedia podcast platform that gives a voice to female entrepreneurs in the UAE. To listen to the full podcast visit Unlimited

Read more: 

Are the brands you wear paying a living wage?

International campaign calls for fashion brands to pull out of Myanmar

The business of modest fashion: an industry born from a women’s movement

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