Sarah’s Bag may be a social enterprise, providing jobs for female prisoners and other underprivileged women in Lebanon, but from the beginning its founder, Sarah Beydoun, was adamant she didn’t want “any pity purchases”.
“From day one, I insisted on the aesthetics being the main draw,” she says. “I wanted people to buy the bags because they liked them and if they knew about the cause, that was an extra. I never wanted anyone to think that the social enterprise part of Sarah’s Bag was a marketing tool.”
The brand was conceptualised in 2000 as a social project by Beydoun, who studied sociology and was looking for a way to provide employment and income for women in Lebanon’s prisons. The bags became a way for the incarcerated to learn traditional crafts and develop transferable skills.
For her first exhibition, Beydoun created 120 bags and they sold out immediately. “People were very intrigued,” she says. “Everyone was so curious about what I was doing.”
The project quickly evolved into an enterprise and then a globally recognised, socially responsible brand, long before the term became fashionable. It is notable that when Sarah’s Bag first launched, its designs were often copied, but no one was interested in trying to replicate the social enterprise element of the business. Things have changed since then.
“The first 10 years I worked, a lot of people copied the bags themselves, but nobody was inspired by the concept. Now people are inspired by the concept. The customer is demanding this. They want to consume consciously and put their money in brands they believe in.”
Over the past two decades, Beydoun has supported hundreds of women, many of whom still work for her. “I still have 10 per cent of my original team from the first day I entered the prisons – more than 20 years later.”
She uses Randa, a woman she worked with in the early days, as an example of how the brand has been able to instigate actual change. “Randa was very shy and had never worked with her hands. But she proved to be very skilled. She worked with us for three years and put all the money aside. Eventually she was able to employ a lawyer and overturn her judgment. She was accused of murdering her husband, but she was able to prove it was not murder.”
Once they leave prison and return to their homes, the woman are able to secure employment with other ateliers, or in some cases continue working for Sarah’s Bag. Because access to the prisons has been restricted in the past 18 months as a result of the pandemic, Beydoun is increasingly reliant on women who have been released and who, in turn, employ other women in their villages to help out.
“When these women employ other women, they become like entrepreneurs in their villages. And they are highly regarded,” Beydoun says. “Instead of being criticised or stigmatised for having been in prison, they start working and employing other women, who look up to them as providers in the village.”
While the aesthetic of Sarah’s Bag is firmly rooted in the Middle East, it is by no means confined to regional motifs. “Every year we come up with new collections and they don’t need to be Middle East inspired, but they always have to feature the crafts we work with,” Beydoun says.
There are collections such as Beirut that pay tribute the city with nostalgic, vintage-looking pictures and typography, or Oriental, which features colourful Moroccan-inspired designs, geometric patterning and Arabic calligraphy. But there are also lines like Afrodisiac, which draws on the distinct colourways and tribal motifs of Africa, or the unashamedly camp Discotheque collection.
Retail Therapy includes new designs with the phrase “Vaccinated and Ready to Mingle” set across pouches that look like little pill boxes, and also features bags with the phrases “Xanaks and the Living Is Easy” and “Prozak Feels Like Heaven Every Day” emblazoned across the front. These have proved both popular and controversial. “We were mocking the system and how it became so easy to access all these things. We got a lot of backlash, but I was personally shocked by how well the collection did.”
The bags breathe new life into age-old craft techniques that might otherwise fade into obscurity. They come adorned with beading, wood marquetry or specific types of embroidery that are native to the Levant. They also feature smocking, a sewing technique that is no longer commonly used, or crochet, although Beydoun is quick to point out that “it’s not the old-style crochet you see on tablecloths. We use different yarn and different colours. We try to present all these techniques in a new way.”
Today, the brand produces 8,000 to 10,000 bags a year. Beydoun’s most recent project is a collaboration with Mastercard, which includes a collection of bags that will be launched at the end of November and sold exclusively at Expo 2020 Dubai. Some are existing designs in new Mastercard-inspired colourways, while others are entirely new, including some limited-edition pieces crafted from mother-of-pearl. This is a long-term partnership that falls under Mastercard’s commitment to support female-owned small and medium-sized enterprises.
“The Priceless collection came after the Beirut blast, at a time when we really needed it. We needed help and it was a way for me to think, ‘OK, I am going to go back to work and I am going to produce and things are going to be OK.’ It is only when you start working that you start healing and moving forward,” says Beydoun.
“Mastercard was keen to make everyone who works with me part of the collaboration. So we selected bags that different handbag-makers could create. And we chose techniques used by different women.”
As part of the campaign, each bag comes with a card that has a unique QR code printed on it. When that code is scanned, a video will come up, featuring the women Sarah’s Bag works with, talking about their experiences and how their lives have changed as a result of the social enterprise. It’s yet another opportunity for these women to share their stories – women who might, were it not for Beydoun, have remained voiceless.