Sarah Beydoun is helping to bring modern Lebanese pop culture into the mainstream with her unique handbags. But, as she tells Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, her business also gives some of the country's most troubled women a second chance. The Lebanese fashion designer Sarah Beydoun works out of an atelier on the second floor of a grand old building in Gemmayzeh, a neighbourhood just east of downtown Beirut that is now best known for its nightlife. A proliferation of bars and cafes has been spreading up and down the area's narrow streets like a voracious vine for years, but Beydoun's atelier represents the crucial counter-trend.
In roughly the same period of time, this particular pocket of Gemmayzeh has become a hotbed of art and design. The jewellery maker Nada Zeineh works out of a space just up the block. The fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz runs an atelier and showroom across the street. The artist Jean-Marc Nahas keeps a studio in the same building. Once a year, all the creative types in the area come together to collaborate on a street festival that honours the present vibe and past history of the neighbourhood, which used to be a carpenters' souq (a few functioning workshops for hand-crafted furniture remain, like stragglers from a bygone era). The building where Beydoun, 36, spends her days is located in a street that runs down a long, sloping hill. Although it is officially called Lebanon Street, many people still know it by its older and more mischievous name, Zaroub al Haramieh, the Alley of Thieves.
Beydoun's building dates back to the 1940s, and her atelier has all the trappings of vernacular French Mandate-era architecture - echoing high ceilings, colourful tiled floors, narrow balconies, wrought-iron balustrades and intricate stained-glass windows. The atelier is a converted apartment and its warren of rooms reflects a mirror image of the flat next door, which houses a boutique for Sarah's Bag, the company Beydoun started 10 years ago this summer.
In the boutique, there is a dense but meticulously ordered display of handbags, evening clutches, beach totes, bracelets, bangles, scarves and sandals, among other fashion accessories, all in a riot of colours and textures, from beading and embroidery to vintage photographs printed on fabric. The atelier, on the other hand, is a mess of materials scattered and strewn across every conceivable surface. "Welcome to the boudoir," Beydoun jokes.
The designer is sitting with her back to a portrait of her mother as an elegant young woman, which is beautiful but considerably battered. "I like that you can see the war damage," Beydoun says with a nod over her shoulder. "It's a good reminder." The modernist white table in front of her is piled high with fabric samples, press clippings and look books detailing the many Sarah's Bag collections. One is filled with notes from a Turkish friend offering feedback on each and every item. But Beydoun is flipping through the pages of a very different notebook, a prison diary of sorts. It serves as a record of her recent encounters with the women who make up her workforce.
"This one comes from a nomadic family," she says, tapping her finger on a page. "She told me she was walking by a house one day, saw an open door and just wandered inside. When the police came, she said, 'Why are you arresting me? I wasn't doing anything wrong.' The thing that sets Sarah's Bag apart is not so much the fashion, as appealing as it may be, but rather the groundbreaking structure of Beydoun's business. Behind the scenes, Sarah's Bag functions as a social rehabilitation and economic empowerment programme for women who have served (or are still serving) time in Lebanon's prisons.
"This one has been in prison for three years," she says, flipping a few pages ahead. "She's been accused of conspiring to kill her husband. She told me, 'I loved my husband so much and they accused me of killing him. But it wasn't like that. We befriended a concierge who used to come by every day and sit with us. But then one day, they had a fight and he killed my husband. When the police came, they thought he was my lover. They thought we killed my husband together.'
"This one has been in prison for two years. She's also been accused of conspiring to kill her husband. She said her husband raped her daughter and her son. He was sick. She said the son killed him and now they are both in prison." For a decade, Sarah's Bag has been selling handcrafted, custom-made fashion accessories to a fiercely loyal and ever-expanding clientele, abetted by the celebrity endorsements of Nazik Hariri (wife of the late prime minister Rafic Hariri), Queen Rania of Jordan and the actress Catherine Deneuve. Beydoun was one of the first designers in Lebanon to bring Arabic pop culture into the mainstreamand to update the work of the region's traditional artisans and textile makers in the process.
The motifs of her most popular bags include Arabic calligraphy, boisterous Afghan patchwork, pop art-inspired portraits of the singer Umm Kulthum and the movie star Omar Sharif, and a brilliant sourcing of Arabic graffiti from a wall exposed by a torn-down stone building nearby, which reads in translation: "Beirut Never Dies". "Sarah's Bag speaks to the Lebanese female consumer," says Carole Corm, an editor for Elle Oriental and a Beirut-based correspondent for the magazine Monocle.
"It's something from Lebanon we can be proud of, which celebrates our culture in a cool and light way. Using images of Chiclet chewing gum boxes, borrowing famous quotes from old Arabic poetry or putting Egyptian movie stars on her handbags makes us proud of a heritage few had really tapped into before. They all have a fun and happy message that speaks to Lebanese and Arab shoppers in a way Prada and Chanel will never do.
"Sarah's Bag was also among the first to open a boutique in a traditional Lebanese apartment, in a quaint part of town, again celebrating the cool architecture we have, but which few had noticed before. "I wonder how many people wanted to move into a similar apartment in Gemmayzeh after seeing her store." "Beydoun was one of the first to use Arabic pop art to adorn her bags," says Marwan Naaman, the editor of Aishti magazine and the author of the book Shop Beirut, which features Sarah's Bag in its highly selective list of the city's top retail destinations. "The Bonjus bag" - a tiny satchel fashioned after a locally famous triangular shaped juice box - is brilliant. "Everyone who grew up in Lebanon remembers Bonjus. But the first thing is the fact that she's using former convicts for her labour. This is very different. No one did this before."
Beydoun was born in Lebanon in 1973. She studied sociology at the American University of Beirut and then wrote her master's thesis for the Université Saint-Joseph on the experiences of former prostitutes and female convicts in Lebanon. During the course of her academic work, she volunteered with Dar al Amal, an NGO that helps women with criminal records from economically deprived backgrounds reintegrate back into society.
A year after graduate school, when Beydoun laid down the initial blueprint for Sarah's Bag, she enlisted the help of Dar al Amal to create a system that would give these women work. What began as a small group of three female convicts has since grown into a wide network of women working in teams all over the country to translate Beydoun's ideas into stitched and sewn realities. Some of the women are still incarcerated in the Baabda and Tripoli prisons. Others have been released and are now based in their native villages, where they are developing bankable skills, earning their own money and with it a measure of dignity and respect.
Until now, the social conscience of Sarah's Bag has lingered quietly in the background. But as the company gears up for its tenth anniversary, Beydoun is bringing it into the foreground by celebrating the women who have always been the force behind the brand. The notes in her prison diary are the first step. In the coming months, Beydoun is planning to develop the women's stories into an exhibition and a collection that will be produced in a limited edition.
At the same time, she is also contacting her most faithful clients, borrowing back their bags and collecting their stories about them for a retrospective running through the company's first decade. Beydoun is tentatively planning to mark the anniversary in September. In the beginning, Beydoun often used to visit the prisons. But as the company has grown she has been able to spend less and less time with the women she affectionately refers to as "the girls". Sarah's Bag is now sold not only in Lebanon but also in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Kuwait, Doha, Jeddah, Geneva and Accra, and Beydoun recently started participating in a trade fair in Paris, which has brought in clients from France, Italy, Australia and Japan. She has also had to attend to the needs of her own family, as she is married with young children.
"Before, I had time to go there," she says, "but now I only really get to know the girls when they get out of prison and come here for work. The atelier is like a doctor's office. The different teams come in on different days. So I decided to go back to the prisons and sit with these ladies and ask about their lives, why they are there, what they think about, what matters to them most, and then to try and work with them on translating symbols of their lives to a series of canvases and a limited-edition collection.
"Each girl started by telling me how she ended up in prison. I wrote down their stories, came back to the atelier and met with the design team to start thinking about how we could represent these stories and these girls, because there's always someone behind each piece. Behind each piece there's a story and a per In her 10 years in business, Beydoun has seen the lives of her employees radically transformed.
"The group that started with me has become really entrepreneurial," she says. "They have really changed over time. Now they have mobile phones. If they came the first time in traditional clothes, they come back dressed, looking cool, they even come back blonde. And you really notice more and more that when you empower women and give them work, they spend their earnings on their families. They educate their children and take care of everything in the house, and I think it's more than when men work. The women really care for their families."
That said, Beydoun's is still a complicated business requiring endless negotiations with the prison system and the state. And it would be naïve to think of Sarah's Bag as simply a straightforward do-good enterprise. The women's lives are often volatile and their experiences violent to the extent that for the forthcoming exhibition and collection, Beydoun might seek the help of a therapist to guide her in getting the girls to open up in a productive rather than damaging way.
Looking back, when Beydoun first started working with the women in the prisons, she recalls: "The guards used to take away their tools in the afternoon because they were afraid of aggression." Among other things, the women would attack and cut each other with needles and scissors. And then, of course, there are questions over whether the women are guilty or innocent of the crimes they were jailed for. Beydoun smiles. "All of them tell you they are innocent. Everybody's innocent. How can you ever know?" she asks, and she implies, what does it matter? Guilty or innocent, for the past decade and, with luck, the next 10 years to come, the girls have a home, and a source of income, in the Alley of Thieves.