This 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:
- You are supporting a brand created by local designers
- The shirts are original well-studied cuts created by these designers and are not mass produced plain t-shirts
- 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).
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.