Sarah Hermez, who is Lebanese, was born and raised in Kuwait and as a child, she visited Lebanon every summer and Christmas. When she was 18, she moved to New York to study Fashion Design and Material Cultural Studies at Parsons, The New School. It was during her studies abroad program in India and Cambodia that she changed her view of the world. “By the time I graduated I knew I couldn’t stay in New York just for fashion. I quickly found my passion for fashion and social justice and wanted to find a way to merge the two,” says Hermez.
After a few jobs in Lebanon, Sarah found herself sitting in New York with Professor Caroline Simonelli (whose parents fled Lebanon during WWI) discussing her passion and how to put them together. “Why don’t you start a school,” the professor asked. From that moment on, Sarah knew what she was going to do with the rest of her life.” With the help of Professor Simonelli, Creative Space Beirut (CSB) was birthed.
What is Creative Space Beirut?
Creative Space Beirut is a non-profit free school for fashion design, says Hermez. “It is a 3-year program and each year we search all over Lebanon to admit 5 to 7 students. They all are very talented, passionate, and dedicated individuals who cannot afford an education.” Students are given exposure to the global fashion scene through business courses and boutique partnerships in Lebanon. “Students work with boutiques to design a collection which is then sold. This allows them to go through the whole production process which gives them realistic experiences of how the fashion industry really works.”
“I believe free education and talent are the most important thing for the future of Lebanon especially since the country has so many issues. A lot of people get left out of the process just because they cannot afford education and they are really talented,” says Hermez. “I also believe fostering talent by finding these little-hidden gems in communities across Lebanon and bringing out their best by exposing them to the design industry.”
All over the world, the fashion design industry can be an elitist environment where it’s difficult to meet designers. “In Lebanon, it’s hard to tap into that if you don’t have the right network,” says Hermez. “That is why we provide them with the network in the design industry. We also help our alumni students find job opportunities after they graduate.” A recent graduate is continuing her education in Milan studying the Technology of Textiles.
Scholarships are $8,500 per student per year, and at the end of each year, CSB has an exhibition and fashion show where students sell their designs. The money generated goes back to the school to pay for their education. They also collaborate in big event parties throughout the year, and a percentage of the money goes back to the school as well.
In regards to other funding, Sarah states: “Our main source of sustainability is our For-Profit Social Enterprise which includes our 3 in-house brands: Second Street – Classical Shirt Brand, CSB – Season less one size for everyday clothing and Roni Helou – A graduate who we have adopted and taken his brand under our umbrella. The aim is to grow each brand and take a percentage each year to put back into the school.”
The school has to take these measures to fund their programs because everything in Lebanon is privatized. “The government doesn’t give anything. Some areas in Lebanon go 6, 8 or 9 hours without electricity. And the water is in the hands of corrupt leaders who aren’t sharing it. Because of things like this I feel the government doesn’t want the economy to grow. Sadly, the people who started the civil war are still in power,” says Hermez.
According to Hermez, the systems CSB has built are their own and have been established through their team experiences. “You just have to function in the chaos and work within it. If we worked within the Lebanese system, CSB would be a racist company.” In Lebanon, Syrians are only allowed to work as cleaners or as drivers. And Palestinians who have been living in here for 50 years are not allowed to possess passports.
The way students are pushed regarding education starts with inspiration, says Hermez. “We are giving them a global education. It’s not like students are making traditional Lebanese clothing! The clothes, styles, and collections they produce can be compared to the global fashion scene. Everyone carries their own histories and will be influenced by the modern-day society they live in. So how they interpret is completely their own experiences.”