TEDxBeirut 2014 Series: Sarah Hermez of the Creative Space Beirut

10250240_701460626569612_1042371557507432285_nThis is part II of my TEDxBeirut 2014 series.

After attending TEDxBeirut last year, I decided to focus on 3 speakers (Dima Boulad, Sarah Hermez, and Imad Gemayel) based on a common thread between them: designers with consciences. Through their work, it was clear that they each felt they had a social responsibility to better society using their skills.

It’s taking a bit of time to get these up because scheduling meetings gets difficult during the last quarter of the year, especially with Christmas/NYE break. However, this weekend, I caught up with Sarah Hermez, co-founder of the Creative Space Beirut, to talk about their work and what’s been going on since her TEDxB talk in September.

A Bit of Background

For those who don’t know, Creative Space Beirut is a free fashion design school. They bring together a small number of talents from all over Lebanon and teach them the ropes to fashion design through a hands-on practical approach. Sarah says, “the problem is when you’re tuition-based, you’re cutting off most of the talented people because talent doesn’t necessarily come with money,” thus the need for a free school. The format isn’t for everyone; the students need to have three main components: talent, passion, and the ability to be an open tolerant team player. At the moment, students who don’t have the option of attending a private university or fashion school (be it for financial reasons or because they don’t meet the typical eligibility requirements) are the priority when it comes to enrollment.

Previously, pieces were sold by auction to raise funds to keep the school running but it was not a sustainable model. Even though investors helped them move to a new location in Mar Mikhael, relying on donations and grants was proving to be problematic as a long-term source of financial backing. Rather than converting the Space to a for-profit, the team tried to come up with other ways that would allow them to continue offering free education to undiscovered youth who would have otherwise not had the chance to learn the trade. Because the school is free, instructors are willing to dedicate their time pro-bono because it is purely for education, not money.

For now, the school focuses on fashion design but there are plans to expand to accommodate other design programs later on. The aim of the school goes beyond education and employment. “If these talented people can go back into their communities and design, then perhaps they can design their communities in a better way,” says Sarah. One Palestinian Creative Space student got a job with Mercy Corps and is teaching fashion in the refugee camps. The social responsibility mentality seems to be rubbing off on the students, too.

The Double-Edged Sword of Certification

The school is not officially certified yet but, with certification, comes drawbacks. The model of the school is fluid and flexible because there isn’t a rigid curriculum or quotas to meet when it comes to being accredited. For example, if they want to fly a visiting professor in to give a workshop, there are no levels of approval or budgets to get cleared, they raise the funds and do it. But without the certification, credibility as a school and as a graduate of the school can suffer (mostly to the parents of the students). When it comes to breaking into the fashion world, the Space can provide a connection or an interview but your talent and attitude is what gets you through the door. An unrestrictive form of certification is in the works but, currently, the credibility of the Creative Space depends on their connections and reputation in the design community alone. With or without certification, Sarah wants the students to be recognized for the quality of their work, not for a certificate.

The Creative Space Beirut Brand

At an exhibition in Kuwait last October, the Creative Space Beirut Ready-to-Wear collection was launched as a new fundraising strategy. Ten pieces of one-size-fits-all that can work for all body shapes due to their loose draping styles. By going into production, they can be sold throughout the year and be a constant source of funding for the Space. This was the beginning of the Creative Space as a brand. All items that are sold are done so under this brand because they are considered products of the open collaboration between students and teachers. The brand is meant to continue post-graduation and encourage alumni to return to teach new students and collaborate all over again.

Kuwait vs. Lebanon

Kuwait welcomed Creative Space Beirut and the “exotic” Lebanese designers’ work with open arms. They were eager to collaborate and put together an exhibition. After speaking at the Nuqat Conference, Sarah was approached by a prominent retailer who wanted to feature the students’ designs in her store. One of the biggest challenges in Lebanon, that became evident after visiting Kuwait, is the lack of support from the local community. Although these blossoming designers are Lebanese and fall within the “underdog breaking through” framework, the Lebanese fashion retailers have been reluctant to carry their designs in their shops. It seems they need a Western stamp of approval before they are willing to empower on-the-cusp talent that could one day be featured in Vogue or the new Elie Saab runway look. Before that happens though, they aren’t willing to pay to feature Lebanese designers’ handmade high-quality pieces in their stores. The Lebanese fashion industry caters to couture and to those who are well-connected or already established; unfortunately, students of the Space do not fall into these categories. Seeing that so many of the big names in the international fashion world are of Lebanese origin, it is sad to see that we are reluctant to boost and praise our own.

Sarah is upfront about the fact that she may not promote the Space enough but she doesn’t seem to be a fan of leveraging the “a free school for students from less fortunate backgrounds” card. She isn’t on board with the language of the sob story; she wants support for talent, not out of pity. She didn’t do that in Kuwait and still had people reach out to her so why aren’t more Lebanese jumping at the opportunity to help the undiscovered?

The Launch of Second St

Second St was launched by Sarah and Tracy Moussi at the end of 2014 as another fundraising strategy to sustain the longevity of the Space. For now, the socially-conscious brand focuses on the reinterpretation of the basic chemise and it gets its name from the fact that it is an alternative path from the exclusive design world, or a second street. It also happens to be the name of the street that Sarah and Tracy lived on while studying at Parsons in NYC.

Although the prices of the shirts are not Vero Moda-esque (they go for around ~190 USD each), you have to keep in mind that:

  1. You are supporting a brand created by local designers
  2. The shirts are original well-studied cuts created by these designers and are not mass produced plain t-shirts
  3. Thirty percent of that fee is going into funding a free design school in Lebanon

It’s a small price to pay when you think about where that money is going and who it’s helping. Second St and some Creative Space Beirut pieces are available at Memory Lane in Mar Mikhael.

If you want to support the Creative Space but can’t fork over that much cash, check out the Dress to Kill Parties. They’re held every few months as another fundraising activity – all the proceeds go to the Creative Space. The last one was held at Behind the Green Door (facing EDL in Mar Mikhael).

Sarah Hermez

It was obvious from her TEDx talk that Sarah was fueling her efforts with an authentic passion that is rare to find. After meeting her in person, I was convinced that this young lady has no idea the kind of change she is creating and has an admirable level of humility; her drive is genuine but she seems to be unaware of the kind of inspiration she (and her team) is to designers who want to do more for the common good, in Lebanon specifically. Something that struck me during her TEDx talk and then again during our morning coffee, was when she was telling me why she decided to move to Lebanon after growing up in Kuwait and studying in NYC. Sarah wanted to put her creativity and effort into something that would lead somewhere, and it wasn’t in the mainstream fashion world. “I knew I wanted to be creative but social justice was very important. For me, it wasn’t a question of where to go. If I wanted to give myself to somewhere, it should be where I come from and a place that has a lot to be done,” and so, with time, through talks with her mentor and co-founder of the Space, Parsons Prof. Caroline Simonelli, a free school in Lebanon was born.

She asked me not to make the post about her and emphasized that she doesn’t like the spotlight. I think she better get used to it because, after being infected by her spirit and hearing about what the team is accomplishing for our community, spotlight is exactly what she deserves.

TEDxBeirut 2014 Series: Dima Boulad of Beirut Green Project

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“The conversation began 4 years ago,” says Dima Boulad of Beirut Green Project, an NGO that focuses on public green spaces in the literal sense – not a green lifestyle that involves recycling, but rather the lack of green parks in our urban landscape. After carrying out public interventions highlighting the need for public green spaces, it was clear that a movement should be formed and thus, the BGP was born. The team came together gradually in parallel with the planning efforts of new interventions.

When it comes to making an impact, BGP uses more of a guerilla strategy. “It’s much more efficient to start from the bottom and create small change on a one-to-one scale that will spread from one person to the next,” says Dima. Rather than going straight to the top and trying to behead the hierarchical monster, using baby steps to make the cause stronger is more effective. “It’s a longer process for sure, but this is how real change can happen.” Working with the system takes time but is advisable for long-term change. However, when there is a violent assault against your rights occurring, you need to take action in an unconventional way. BGP hasn’t used an aggressive approach with municipalities and, as a result, their ideas are not rejected and the officials are open to discussions on new initiatives. Nadim Abou Rizk, Vice President of the Beirut Municipal Council, has been cooperative with BGP efforts and is one of the most concerned members when it comes to the parks of Beirut.

All funds needed for their efforts have been from their own pockets or dependent on sponsorships and donated services. A partnership between BGP and WonderEight formed after AUB’s Talk20. WonderEight, an environmentally-friendly design studio based in Beirut, created their identity, guide, and additional design elements as a pro-bono company CSR project. Such community-based collaborations are what our country needs to get these types of activities off the ground: separate entities coming together for one goal for the common good of the society as a whole.

“For example, an NGO can propose a space by conducting a study of a tiny area in a neighborhood that has 3 schools – a place that is in need of a space where kids can relax on their way home from school. The municipality can then get the area ready and clear the location, then a private company comes and funds the remodeling and planting. The neighborhood people can come and participate, creating a sense of ownership of spaces. This allows people to feel like it’s their space.”

Dima believes that once you create a sense of ownership with these spaces, people will protect and respect them. By including the people in the process from the start, the Municipality will be giving citizens what they want and the people, in turn, will want to preserve what they have had a part in creating.

When discussing Horsh Beirut and the leading rumor as to why it remains closed,* it’s a bit like the logic that claims abstinence is the best contraceptive. You can’t cut people off from the park claiming that people do not know how to respect public green spaces yet expect them to simultaneously learn park culture without any parks to do so in. How do you learn how to treat a park if you don’t have one to begin with?

There are other rumored reasons as to why the Horsh is still closed ranging from the need for proper security guards, caretakers, and maintenance teams to it being located in a sensitive spot bridging neighborhoods of varying religious beliefs. The latter reason is the most infuriating in both Dima’s and my opinion. It should be a reason for opening the park rather than keeping it closed because it will blur the borders and allow people to socialize sans sect. Dima says, “they’re afraid that it will create conflict and tension. On the contrary, there is conflict and tension because there is no public space. If we had spaces, people would mingle and that fear of the other would go away.”

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Jesuit Garden, Geitawi – Ashrafieh

With the many urban developments happening in our city, we cannot always blame the developers and investors. Dalieh, Ramlet el Baida, Fouad Boutros Highway. All of these developments can be halted and revisited if we, as a combined force, stand up and say no. The Jesuit Garden in Geitawi was a small victory that wasn’t publicized enough. We all heard about its impending conversion into a parking lot; however, we did not hear about how that plan was thwarted once the neighborhood came together to say no. This is evidence that the people can make a difference when they want to. We should not use “Eh, this is Lebanon” as an excuse for being passive. You must hold others accountable for violations of your rights as Lebanese citizens.

“If every person took one small step without thinking about whether or not it was making a difference, together it will create something. You have to look at the whole picture. It’s rare to see the results immediately. Each person has to do their small part and eventually it will create change.”

Up next for BGP is printing and distributing the Beirut Green Guide while educating schools about public green spaces and equipping students with their own copies of the Guide in order to keep the message going. For this month though, Dima has been invited to speak at Arq Futuro‘s Parks of Brazil event in Sao Paolo and will be touring South America for the next few weeks to get some greenspiration, as I’d like to call it. To keep up with BGP’s developments, check out their blog and Facebook page.

*Allowing people inside Horsh Beirut will ultimately ruin it as a green space because of littering and vandalism