After receiving a duel degree from Parsons and Lang, Sarah wanted to find a way to merge her two passions- creativity and social justice. Shortly, Creative Space Beirut was born and today the 3 year design school provides free education to talented students from various backgrounds.
This interview took place via Skype between Lara in New York and Sarah in Beirut, a month later Lara visited Creative Space Beirut
Editor: Lara Arbid
LA: So tell me about your background.
SH: Well, I was born in Kuwait and grew up over there for most of my childhood until I was 18. I'm Lebanese, but I never lived in Lebanon. After graduating I moved to New York to go to The New School and went to Eugene Lang, which is the school for liberal arts. The first year I was there I was in New Media Culture Studies, but then I applied to the BA/BFA program, wanting to do a double major with Parsons for fashion design, which is also under The New School.
How was your time at Parsons?
It was a really good experience in terms of understanding my creative potential and just learning how to be a fashion designer from inspiration, to illustration, and then to execution. You essentially graduate from there and have the skills that it takes to be a designer. Since I was also studying culture studies, I did a few study abroad programs. I went to India, I lived with a Tibetan refugee family, and I studied Buddhism. I also went to Cambodia, and I studied Cambodian politics and worked in an orphanage over there for a while, sort of like as a program for my education.
It was the perfect combination of both of my passions. So when I graduated, I wanted to find a way to merge both passions because I didn't just want to do fashion design for the sake of making clothes for rich people. The fashion industry didn't really make sense to me in terms of the work that I wanted to spend my life doing.
Yeah totally, so what was next for you?
I decided to move to Lebanon because I'm Lebanese and I thought if I was going to work or get myself anywhere then, I thought it should be in the country that I'm from. There's so much work that needs to be done here, so I figured that I should come back.
You started at Lang, but you went into fashion after. Did you always know you wanted to go into fashion eventually or was it something that happened within your first couple of months in New York?
Well, not really. When I was younger, I always thought about it, but I never thought it would be something that I would actually pursue. I used to always rip apart my clothes and put it together in a different way but I never really thought like it was a possibility, you know what I mean? When I was at Eugene Lang, I decided I would build a portfolio to apply to Parsons. I realized, the access I had to fashion, and so that pushed me towards it.
So once you decided to go back to Beirut, how did Creative Space, develop after that?
I moved to Lebanon, and I started out working with a textile furniture company called Bokja. It was really nice, very creative and hands-on. At the same time, I was also working at an NGO, it was called United Lebanon Youth Program, and I was teaching pre-school. I realized I didn't want to pursue both my passions separately. I wanted to find a way to merge creativity and social justice. Some time after I was in New York visiting, and I was sitting with my professor from Parsons. She was a mentor of mine. Her name is Caroline, and I was sitting with her talking to her about all the things I wanted to do, but I didn't know how. I was just lost ... And then she just looked at me out of nowhere, and she said, "You know, why don't you start a free school?"
As soon as she said that, it was the light bulb moment when I was like, "That's exactly it. That's exactly what I want to do." It's the merging of the 2 things that I love most: creativity and social justice. It was super challenging, but at the time, I was just so focused on something that I needed so I didn't care about the challenges. Caroline told me if I could make it happen then she would come and join to teach and help start the school with me.
How did things start to progress after that?
A friend of mine, Bessie, was working for Donna Karan at the time, and she said, "If you do this, then I'll donate fabric from Donna Karan." She had like 70 fabric rolls, and it was beautiful quality, something that we would have never been able just to buy. So at that point, I had the teacher, I had the fabric, and then I had to figure out how to find the students, where to get the space, and where to get the funds.
So how was that process?
At first when I went back I wanted to see if I could just join another NGO and basically include the program in an NGO that already exists, but after looking into it I realized that NGO’s had too many rules and obligations that I didn’t believe in.
I wanted to find 5 people that were super talented and very dedicated and passionate, but that didn't have the chance to pursue their education. I took the proposal to my father, and I told him what I wanted to do, and he said, "Okay, I'll fund the first 3 months, but after that, you have to figure it out." We had a 3 month pilot project where we found 5 students from different backgrounds, so there was Palestinian, Lebanese, and Armenian refugees. Caroline came to Lebanon, we got the donated fabric, and for 3 months we taught them how to design. At the end of those three months, they all made around 30 dresses. We sold the dresses, and we generated around $17,000, so we were able to take that $17,000 of initial seed money to continue.
That's amazing. How is the program set up now?
So Creative Space was founded in 2011 and today we’re a 3-year program. The school functions every day from Monday to Friday. Our students come from all over Lebanon, they're super talented, but they can't afford to pursue design education because it’s just so expensive. During the 3 years, we collaborate with different designers and teach different courses from illustration to theory for execution, to sewing, textile design, and pattern making. It’s very organic because we're so small and we only accept 3 to 5 students every year. We just had our first graduating class this past December. Each student created their own collection, and we presented it in a fashion show.
Tell me about how you found the first students. How did that selection process go, and how do you select the students now?
At the beginning it was difficult because I never lived in Lebanon before so I didn't know that many people. I just started asking around, and so I had to personally go and knock on people's doors. I would go to community centers, refugee camps, NGOs, orphanages, etc. I was just a 24 year old girl who had an idea and was going around telling people, "Okay, this is my idea. Would you join?" The thing that gave me credibility was the fact that I had Caroline from Parsons who was coming. She is originally Lebanese and has about 50 years of experience in the fashion industry. She's amazing. Essentially what I had to do is meet people, set them up on the idea and sort of gain their trust and then from there they would introduce me to people.
Caroline and a student at Creative Space Beirut
Photographed by George Rouhana
Courtesy of Creative Space Beirut
Can you give an example?
For example in the refugee camp, I’d go to the women's center there, and they guided me to people they know that are interested in design and art. I would then go to their house to meet their family, tell them what the idea was, and how we believe in free education and fostering talent. All these talented people I met had portfolios that they've been developing since they were kids. Creative people have a need to create, and although people loved the idea, I was getting rejected a lot. It was hard to bring people out of their communities. But I wanted to work with people from different backgrounds across Lebanon to come together under one team because there’s a lot of diversity in the country.
Eventually, after months of searching and interviewing, I was able to find 5 students that wanted to do this with me. It took me a good 2 years to understand who the Creative Space student is. I actually had to take a student out of the program because they weren't a team player- they weren't dedicated, they were constantly late. We value someone who doesn't take things for granted, a team player that comes every day and works really hard and passionately.
Why is it important to diversify a program from the get go as opposed to working with one community?
A large part of Creative Space Beirut is outreaching to students from various background and communities. Lebanon is a sectarian country and what we have seen is that bringing people from different backgrounds together under common passions automatically creates solidarity and understanding.
For someone to attend Creative Space, that takes a lot of time away from having a job. During that time, how is the student/their family able to make ends meet? Do you run into this issue a lot?
During their time at Creative Space we encourage and help our students with internships as well as some freelance jobs and private clients. Some students have to work part time and we allow that as long as they are not missing classes.
When you were developing the curriculum, did you keep in mind your time at Parsons and the American system?
Yes and no. A lot of the time what they do in university is they sort of compartmentalize the skills. For example, it’s like, this is the sewing class, this is the drawing class, which is 6 hours. They're very separate things but it’s not like that in real life when you’re a designer.
So the first 3 years at Parsons you're learning specific skills, and it's only the last year where you get to create your own collection. With our program, they’re creating from the start. It's much more organic, especially because we're not an actual institution or an actual school. After five years we're still not a registered school because we accept students that never graduated high school, and in order to be a registered school or a university, you have to at least have a high school degree. For us, we don't believe that that's important. What we're looking for is talent.
Creative Space Beirut
Photographed by Dani Arbid
Can you elaborate more on the curriculum?
Each year is designed to fit the circumstances that come our way. Last year, a concept store in Kuwait that’s called 4 approached us, it’s a super conceptual very progressive boutique that has really awesome brands. They loved what we were doing, and wanted each student to design a collection for the store. Then they gave one student a grant to actually create a collection for them.
So then they made orders and then it went to production and it was a really great experience for the student because he got to design for a store, work with buyers, and understand the process of production. He also hired 2 of the first year students to help him, so it's a realistic experience here as well where the students get to work with private clients. We have exhibitions at the end of every year where we sell the designs. They get to see how people react to their clothing, how it works in the market, so it's a very well-rounded curriculum that’s a realistic experience of how the fashion industry functions. That’s very important to us that they graduate from here and they're equipped to get a job.
So tell me about the first graduating class.
Our first graduating students just finished in December. One of them we're hiring to work for Creative Space and to design for our brand. We’ve developed a brand in which 100% of the profits go back to the school. It's called CSB Ready to Wear, and we hired her now as a designer, mentor, and teacher to the students. Another one of our students got accepted to do her Master's in Milan with the portfolio that she built with us. We're looking for sponsors right now so she can move to Milan, she's super talented.
That's so cool!
A big part is that we really want to keep the program small so that we can follow each student and make sure that we're graduating strong designers and that they're able to get jobs.
Why was Creative Space your response from being in the fashion industry?
Starting Creative Space was a reaction of me wanting to get away from the fashion industry because I didn't like, and I still don't like the way that the industry functions. Nowadays social responsibility is becoming a thing, so that's great, but 6 years ago it wasn't that much of a thing. I didn't really look at what already exists or look at what people are doing today or back then. What I wanted to do is do something different, and I wanted to sort of change the path of the way the fashion industry is going. Not necessarily the whole industry, but a sector of it.
If it changes, it changes, but in terms of my role or the work that I'm going to put into it, it needed to be something that I really believed in. I think nowadays there are more platforms that are supporting young designers and local talents and in general, the fashion industry is kind of shifting.
You recognized something that needed to change, and then you just went from there.
Yeah, it was very organic. At this point there's the school, and then we have the brand. I also launched another brand with my friends Tracy Moussi and George Rouhana where 30% of the profits go back to Creative Space, and it's called Second Street. I don't think so far ahead; I just take on things that I believe needs to happen. A lot of the times it's based on the momentary passion you know what I mean?
I want to know more about being in Beirut particularly. Is there a supportive, creative environment there? Looking back now would you say it’s a good place for you to be?
The problem with Lebanon is that because we have a dysfunctional government, we don't get things such as free education. If there's a problem as an individual, you have to take action, so for me it was like, "Okay, there's a problem here. There are so many talented people who want to be designers but their voices are not heard." Tuition is so expensive nowadays, it's only the very few elite that have access to education. Just because you're rich, it doesn't mean you're talented. We had so much support from the local community in terms of the designers, photographers, film makers, and volunteers. The creative community in Lebanon is growing. There are more designers that are starting to launch their career in the ready to wear field. Before it was, and even now a lot of couture, but you see a lot of young designers starting to pursue Ready to Wear, so that's exciting. I would say there is a creative community that is starting to come together and it's really beautiful to watch.
Design by student Aline Seukunian
Photographed by Tarek Moukaddem
Courtesy of Creative Space Beirut
Are you still doing any fashion design for yourself? What would you say your title is right now or your profession? I know you do so many things...
I used to be a teacher for the students, but now I've moved towards being director and manager. Caroline is the co-founder and she comes every year, her role has been huge. As we grew, got more teachers and volunteers, my role is becoming more of a director. Essentially our goal with Creative Space is to eventually grow to become a free school for creative studies. It doesn't necessarily only have to be fashion design, but once we sustain the fashion program we would like to introduce other programs as well. Since we're not a registered school our credibility really relies on our students, their successes and exhibitions. In terms of managing and directing the school, and working on 2 brands, my hands are kind of full.
I can imagine, but it sounds like overall you've had so many inspiring moments. I'm wondering what has been your favorite moment at work, or maybe a particular story with one student?
During the pilot project there was a moment with Caroline and I. It was the first day of class and we gave one of our students, a 16 year old Palestinian girl, fabric. She just started draping and the way that she was working, it was a moment for us where we looked at each other and said, "Okay, we're onto something." Just watching the students is what’s amazing. It's become like home to them, it's a safe space and they really treat it like that. This is their dream and this is their chance to pursue that, and so they're really making the most out of every second of their education and it’s beautiful to see. They've become like family, and these are people who come from different religions, backgrounds and they would have never met each other. This year when we had our graduation fashion show, our first 4 graduates walked out and everybody stood up and started clapping and screaming. It was a very heartwarming moment.
What’s your take on this generation?
Nowadays, it's like everybody wants to be a fashion designer. It's like being a rockstar in the 80's. What we're looking for, at least in our students, is talent and passion. There's no bullshit; you know what I mean? We spend a lot of days just not sleeping because you're creating something, and constantly redoing and remaking. But also there are more options, like you might not want to be a designer but want to be a stylist or both, and that's also something that we introduce to our students as well. The young generation is interesting. I don't know if I can say more about that.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to what you're doing?
I would say it's just about working really hard, feeling passionate about the work that you're doing. What's gratifying to me is seeing the students grow and being able to give back. I managed to start my own brand, so I'm also designing and doing what I love, but at the same time it's now linked to something greater which is free creative education. For anyone who is looking to launch their own career, I think it is important to nourish their passion and know there's always a way to figure out how you can do what you love doing but also make an impact. At the end of the day, the work that you choose to do in your life should make you happy, and for me I think that everyone can find a way to give back to their communities.
Creative Space Beirut
Photographed by Dani Arbid