Arabs Unseen: Beirut entrepreneur far out of her comfort zone

In his first profile of social entrepreneurs in the Middle East, Mohammed Mahfoodh Alardhi reveals the story of Sarah Hermez, who left the safety of New York to open Creative Space Beirut, a free fashion school that is also a template for social progress.

Sarah Hermez, the founder of Creative Space Beirut, says she wanted clothing design to be accessible to the masses. Bryan Denton For The National
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If there is a key message from Mohammed Mahfoodh Alardhi's book Arabs Unseen, it is that entrepreneurialism in the Middle East has two strains: the corporate and the social. Mr Alardhi, the executive chairman of Manama-based Investcorp and the chairman of National Bank of Oman, uses his book to emphasise those on the social side. This week, The National is publishing four of the profiles, starting with Sarah Hermez of Beirut.

The excerpt

For Sarah Hermez, the founding director of Creative Space Beirut, the light bulb moment came over coffee in New York, just a few blocks from her alma mater, the New School for Public Engagement, Visual & Performing Arts, where she had double-majored in fashion design and media studies.

It was early November 2010. A year earlier, the young Lebanese designer had made the bold decision to leave the comforts of midtown Manhattan and the many job opportunities that awaited her there, for a far less certain future in Beirut.

Born and raised in Kuwait, Sarah had been to Lebanon many times to visit relatives, and she had stayed for one six-month stretch in 2003 during the US-Iraq War. “But I had never actually lived there,” she says. “I’d been living in New York for seven years, and I was carrying around a passport that said I was Lebanese – but I didn’t really understand what that meant.” So in what she cites as one of two pivotal moments in her life, she decided to go, eventually finding work in the textiles department of a furniture company, as well as with the non-profit Unite Lebanon Youth Project, teaching Palestinian children from the city’s refugee camps.

Still, things weren’t quite right. As much as she enjoyed what she was doing, Sarah hadn’t figured out how to fuse her dual passions – creativity and social justice – and she knew she wouldn’t be content until she did. So she turned for advice to her friend and mentor, Caroline Shlala-Simonelli. A professor at the New School’s Parsons School of Design and, at 74, a wise veteran of the fashion industry, Caroline too traced her roots to Lebanon; though her parents had emigrated to the United States during the First World War, Caroline had been brought up in a Lebanese household and understood Arabic. However, unlike Sarah, she had never visited.

“We were at the Dean & Deluca on 39th Street and I was explaining to Caroline this problem I was having – that I couldn’t figure out how to combine these two separate lives I was living in Beirut.” During her time at Parsons – a rigorous four-year programme – Sarah had come to regard creativity as vital to her being. A career in fashion design, she knew, could give her the creative outlet she needed. But fashion for the sake of fashion wasn’t what she had in mind. “I knew that I wasn’t interested in making clothes for rich people. That just didn’t make sense to me.”

That morning at the café, Sarah was talking and talking while Caroline sat there silently – listening, sipping her coffee, nodding now and then in agreement. Sarah recounts what happened next: “And then all of a sudden Caroline looked at me and said, ‘Sarah, why don’t you start a free school for fashion design?’ And I said, Yes. Yes, why don’t I? That’s exactly what I want to do. And then I looked at her and said, ‘Caroline, will you come and help me?’ She said, ‘Of course I’ll come, just make it happen.’ And that’s how this whole thing began.”

Also at the café that day was a close friend who was working for Donna Karan New York. “She told me, if you do this, I’ll donate $100,000 worth of fabric,” Sarah recalls. “So right away, I had an experienced business partner in Caroline, and I had all the fabric I would need to get started. Now I needed the school.”

There was just one problem, she says. “I had no idea how to start a non-profit, much less a non-profit school.”

Sarah returned to Beirut to write up a funding proposal for the new project. For the first time in her life, she knew exactly where she was going. She had a vision, a purpose, a plan. But how to get to her destination, how to turn that vision into reality – that would be another matter altogether.

When it comes to fashion, Sarah says, the poor don’t get to participate. “The industry is reserved for the elite,” she says, explaining that most fashion design schools operate not as centres of learning and mentorship, but as businesses. ‘They’re for people who have money, people who can pay $50,000 a year for an education, which is completely beyond the reach of the average young person.” Even at that price, she adds, students today don’t get the kind of education they once did.

Privatised design

“Before design was institutionalised and privatised, people would work under mentorship. They would apprentice with designers, and they would learn the technical skills through the creative process.” Today’s universities have divorced the two, she says, separating each skill into disparate classes – the drawing class, the draping class, the concepts class, and so on. “We rejected this model for a more interdisciplinary approach, where the technical skill is embedded in the creative process, because at Creative Space Beirut, we believe that’s what design is.”

Shortly after her conversation with Caroline, Sarah decided that the best thing to do would be to find an NGO interested in supporting her project. “I thought an NGO would fund the whole thing, so I should take the proposal to one in Beirut,” she recalls. “And that’s exactly what I did.” Within a few short days, the NGO she had approached replied to her request. “They loved it,” she says.

“I was so happy, I was over the moon. I thought, this is great, they’ll provide the space and the money, and they’ll find the students. Wonderful.”

As Sarah soon learnt, though, that NGO support came with strings firmly attached. “After a few months, I realised they were changing the objectives,” she says. “My plan was to teach five students over several years, but they wanted 50 students in the span of three weeks. They were more interested in quantity over quality, and they wanted a project with a start and an end. And that just wasn’t what we had set out to do – so I decided against working with an NGO.”

Forced to find another way, Sarah went back to the drawing board. She consulted Caroline, and then she turned to her father.

“He said he would fund a pilot project for three months,” she says. “So he gave us a deadline; by the end of that three months, Caroline and I would have to teach five students how to make dresses, and we would have to have made 30 dresses – enough to hold an exhibition and to generate sufficient income to continue. We had to demonstrate that this crazy idea, this free school, could actually work. That was the deal.”

With her seed funding in hand, Sarah’s next task was to find a place to set up shop. For weeks, she looked and looked, finally coming upon a cave-like space underneath an Arabic school in a part of town called Achrafieh. “It was really humid and dusty, but it was charming too in a way, and I thought, OK, this will do.” Then came the biggest challenge of all: finding the students. Sarah scoured the city for would-be designers – young men and women who aspired for a career in fashion but couldn’t afford tuition at any of the country’s other schools.

“I went all over knocking on doors – at women’s centres, in the Palestinian refugee camps, at the offices of NGOs – and it was tough. Everyone liked the idea, but they wanted it in their own community.” In time, though, word of the new free fashion school got around, and the applications started coming in.

Caroline arrived in Beirut in June 2011, and the pair officially launched the school that month. “We had three months to pull this off,” Sarah recalls, “and I kept asking myself: how in the world are we going to do it?” As it turned out, the first step was far easier than either of them had anticipated. “We had all of this donated fabric from Donna Karan, and it occurred to us that we could just give it to the students and see what happens. So we said, OK, let’s go for it.”

The results amazed them: “Without having been taught any technical skills, without any real guidance, the students started to drape and to sculpt and to create,” she says. “And we realised then how much talent there was, and how much talent was being wasted – that the world was really missing out.” It was at that point, Sarah says, that she and Caroline instituted their “progressive model” – the ages-old interdisciplinary approach to teaching design long-since abandoned by today’s universities.

The students – five in all – would arrive at 8.00 in the morning and work for 7 hours. They did this every day, week after week, and by the time the three months had come to an end, they had reached their target of 30 dresses.

“The students came together and worked very hard,” says Sarah. “They learned from one another, and they motivated one another.” Days later, they threw a fundraising party and put the dresses on sale. “And the turnout was incredible,” she says. “There were more than 300 people, and we sold every single piece. We generated more than US$17,000, and that allowed us to continue. We proved it could work.”

Over the past three years, sales of student-produced dresses have generated more than $100,000 in revenue, all of which was later reinvested into CSB. To supplement that income, and subsidise her students’ education, Sarah hopes to build Creative Space Beirut into its own brand. “The way we operate today, students work all year on their individual collections, and at the end of the year, we sell the designs,” she says. “But now we’re developing ready-to-wear products that we can sell online at any time.” She’s also working with another Lebanese friend, and fellow Parsons alumna, to launch a for-profit brand by the name of Second St.

Sarah’s story speaks volumes about the Arab world today – about the opportunities available to a select few and the deep reservoirs of talent that have for so long gone untapped. It is a story of steady, unyielding effort and hard-won success. But most of all, it’s a story of possibility – of what can be achieved when we put aside our differences and come together. What Sarah and her supporters have built in Creative Space Beirut is more than a free fashion school, more than a brand. It’s a template for progress.

From the book Arabs Unseen by Mohammed Mahfoodh Alardhi, copyright © 2015. Published by arrangement with Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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