Sarah Hermez, the founder of Creative Space Beirut, says she wanted clothing design to be accessible to the masses. Bryan Denton For The National
Sarah Hermez, the founder of Creative Space Beirut, says she wanted clothing design to be accessible to the masses. Bryan Denton For The National

Arabs Unseen: Beirut entrepreneur far out of her comfort zone



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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Confirmed bouts (more to be added)

Cory Sandhagen v Umar Nurmagomedov
Nick Diaz v Vicente Luque
Michael Chiesa v Tony Ferguson
Deiveson Figueiredo v Marlon Vera
Mackenzie Dern v Loopy Godinez

Tickets for the August 3 Fight Night, held in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, went on sale earlier this month, through www.etihadarena.ae and www.ticketmaster.ae.

WHEN TO GO:

September to November or March to May; this is when visitors are most likely to see what they’ve come for.

WHERE TO STAY:

Meghauli Serai, A Taj Safari - Chitwan National Park resort (tajhotels.com) is a one-hour drive from Bharatpur Airport with stays costing from Dh1,396 per night, including taxes and breakfast. Return airport transfers cost from Dh661.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Etihad Airways regularly flies from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu from around Dh1,500 per person return, including taxes. Buddha Air (buddhaair.com) and Yeti Airlines (yetiairlines.com) fly from Kathmandu to Bharatpur several times a day from about Dh660 return and the flight takes just 20 minutes. Driving is possible but the roads are hilly which means it will take you five or six hours to travel 148 kilometres.

Ziina users can donate to relief efforts in Beirut

Ziina users will be able to use the app to help relief efforts in Beirut, which has been left reeling after an August blast caused an estimated $15 billion in damage and left thousands homeless. Ziina has partnered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to raise money for the Lebanese capital, co-founder Faisal Toukan says. “As of October 1, the UNHCR has the first certified badge on Ziina and is automatically part of user's top friends' list during this campaign. Users can now donate any amount to the Beirut relief with two clicks. The money raised will go towards rebuilding houses for the families that were impacted by the explosion.”

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Youngest debutant for Barcelona: 15 years and 290 days v Real Betis
Youngest La Liga starter in the 21st century: 16 years and 38 days v Cadiz
Youngest player to register an assist in La Liga in the 21st century: 16 years and 45 days v Villarreal
Youngest debutant for Spain: 16 years and 57 days v Georgia
Youngest goalscorer for Spain: 16 years and 57 days
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GOODBYE JULIA

Director: Mohamed Kordofani

Starring: Siran Riak, Eiman Yousif, Nazar Goma

Rating: 5/5

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Haltia.ai
Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends

MATCH INFO

Day 2 at the Gabba

Australia 312-1 

Warner 151 not out, Burns 97,  Labuschagne 55 not out

Pakistan 240 

Shafiq 76, Starc 4-52

The Laughing Apple

Yusuf/Cat Stevens

(Verve Decca Crossover)

New process leads to panic among jobseekers

As a UAE-based travel agent who processes tourist visas from the Philippines, Jennifer Pacia Gado is fielding a lot of calls from concerned travellers just now. And they are all asking the same question.  

“My clients are mostly Filipinos, and they [all want to know] about good conduct certificates,” says the 34-year-old Filipina, who has lived in the UAE for five years.

Ms Gado contacted the Philippines Embassy to get more information on the certificate so she can share it with her clients. She says many are worried about the process and associated costs – which could be as high as Dh500 to obtain and attest a good conduct certificate from the Philippines for jobseekers already living in the UAE. 

“They are worried about this because when they arrive here without the NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] clearance, it is a hassle because it takes time,” she says.

“They need to go first to the embassy to apply for the application of the NBI clearance. After that they have go to the police station [in the UAE] for the fingerprints. And then they will apply for the special power of attorney so that someone can finish the process in the Philippines. So it is a long process and more expensive if you are doing it from here.”

Eyasses squad

Charlie Preston (captain) – goal shooter/ goalkeeper (Dubai College)

Arushi Holt (vice-captain) – wing defence / centre (Jumeriah English Speaking School)

Olivia Petricola (vice-captain) – centre / wing attack (Dubai English Speaking College)

Isabel Affley – goalkeeper / goal defence (Dubai English Speaking College)

Jemma Eley – goal attack / wing attack (Dubai College)

Alana Farrell-Morton – centre / wing / defence / wing attack (Nord Anglia International School)

Molly Fuller – goal attack / wing attack (Dubai College)

Caitlin Gowdy – goal defence / wing defence (Dubai English Speaking College)

Noorulain Hussain – goal defence / wing defence (Dubai College)

Zahra Hussain-Gillani – goal defence / goalkeeper (British School Al Khubairat)

Claire Janssen – goal shooter / goal attack (Jumeriah English Speaking School)

Eliza Petricola – wing attack / centre (Dubai English Speaking College)

A QUIET PLACE

Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Joseph Quinn, Djimon Hounsou

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Rating: 4/5

MATCH INFO

Europa League final

Who: Marseille v Atletico Madrid
Where: Parc OL, Lyon, France
When: Wednesday, 10.45pm kick off (UAE)
TV: BeIN Sports

THE SPECS

Engine: 4.4-litre V8

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Power: 523hp

Torque: 750Nm

Price: Dh469,000

The years Ramadan fell in May

1987

1954

1921

1888

Our legal consultant

Name: Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

Most match wins on clay

Guillermo Vilas - 659

Manuel Orantes - 501

Thomas Muster - 422

Rafael Nadal - 399 *

Jose Higueras - 378

Eddie Dibbs - 370

Ilie Nastase - 338

Carlos Moya - 337

Ivan Lendl - 329

Andres Gomez - 322

Tips for travelling while needing dialysis
  • Inform your doctor about your plans. 
  • Ask about your treatment so you know how it works. 
  • Pay attention to your health if you travel to a hot destination. 
  • Plan your trip well. 
Company profile

Date started: 2015

Founder: John Tsioris and Ioanna Angelidaki

Based: Dubai

Sector: Online grocery delivery

Staff: 200

Funding: Undisclosed, but investors include the Jabbar Internet Group and Venture Friends

Director: Nag Ashwin

Starring: Prabhas, Saswata Chatterjee, Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan, Shobhana

Rating: ★★★★

ROUTE TO TITLE

Round 1: Beat Leolia Jeanjean 6-1, 6-2
Round 2: Beat Naomi Osaka 7-6, 1-6, 7-5
Round 3: Beat Marie Bouzkova 6-4, 6-2
Round 4: Beat Anastasia Potapova 6-0, 6-0
Quarter-final: Beat Marketa Vondrousova 6-0, 6-2
Semi-final: Beat Coco Gauff 6-2, 6-4
Final: Beat Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 6-2