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Sarah Beydoun has worked with village women and former prisoners across Lebanon for more than 20 years to create vibrant and popular handbags.
“I’m not just making handbags, I’m a social enterprise," she says.
But her perseverance took a hit after the August 4 blast. “I was completely disorientated,” she recalls. “Everything I did didn’t make sense any more, like creating things or making a nice handbag.”
Traumatised, she postponed the rebuilding of her luxury handbag brand Sarah's Bag. “It took me a few months to rebuild; I was really in shock and didn’t want to look at the damage,” she says. “I thank God that we were spared the injuries.”
The women she had worked with for so long helped pick her back up.
“They contacted me from their villages to help reorganise the workshop and put everything back in place,” she says. The non-profit March Lebanon, with support from philanthropic organisation Alfanar, sent artisans from Tripoli to help rebuild the shopfront's historic vitrines.
With a pandemic and an economic crisis raging, the brand, which has its headquarters in a 1930s townhouse in Beirut’s Tabaris district, reopened with a new focus: its online shop.
“Shifting our sales online has been extremely challenging,” says Beydoun. “But every day we’re seeing clients from new countries. They know the brand and they like what we do."
The day Beydoun speaks to The National, she is celebrating an online breakthrough: her latest summer collection sold out within days.
“We’re now producing more bags for the collection,” she says. Beydoun attributes this success to a change in consumer habits as a result of the pandemic. “Consumers are more socially conscious. They don’t want to buy something just because it’s beautiful, they want to feel like they’re supporting a cause."
Many creative business owners in Lebanon are moving their operations online in order to mitigate the risks of Lebanon’s economic crisis. Beydoun's affordable yet carefully crafted and durable handbags, priced at about $150, are now out of reach for middle-class Lebanese families with no overseas income, and reach the equivalent of $2,000 at the current exchange rate for the Lebanese pound.
What makes Beydoun stay, however, is the artisans she works with.
“I have an amazing workforce here,” she says. “Today I am working with 150 women across Lebanon who are all skilled in their own way. They each work a different craft, many of which are unique and only known to our region. I loved exploring these crafts and applying them to modern accessories.
“Some women had their lives transformed. They went from being former prisoners to the owners of a workshop in their village. Many of them are teaching other women different skills that we taught them. One woman can train up to 10 women.
“When I see this impact, it makes it hard for me to leave Lebanon. I feel I’m needed now more than ever."
The city's spirit is intrinsic to the brand's ethos, too. Early collections were replete with nostalgic references to Beirut’s urban fabric, featuring old street signs, painted truck fronts and old postcards. Its 2008 clutch bag, featuring the graffiti inscription "Beirut never dies” ("Beirut Ma bit mout"), quickly became a bestseller.
“Beirut was always an inspiration for me from the start. We really dug into our collective consciousness and created products that reflected Beirut before anyone else did."
Today, the brand continues to draw on references to contemporary culture. But making products referencing Beirut’s port explosion is out of the question.
“I did nothing related to the blast,” says Beydoun, “I would always like to be inspired by beautiful things, not painful ones.”