Sarah’s energy when she speaks is contagious, and while I would typically reframe the interview to provide more background, she shared so many insights that I decided to simply transcript our conversation. Although we met to talk about her free fashion school, Creative Space Beirut, our conversation touched upon many themes, ranging from belonging and identity, to privilege, to the challenges and opportunities that come with being a woman entrepreneur, to the difficult choices one must make to keep a business running while staying true to one’s vision.
Because we covered so many things in one short hour, this article is split in two parts, so make sure you didn’t miss part 1.
On sticking to her vision
The idea at first was to pitch the idea to an NGO, which I did. They were super excited with the idea, but then as soon as I started to develop the program, the objective started to change.
The problem in development is that they look at impact, but they don’t look about you changing someone’s life. They look at quantity. So for exmaple they’ll ask you to develop a three week workshop, where they want you to teach 200 Syrian refugee women how to sew. There’s a start, there’s an end, it’s short term and you’re impacting 200 people. But what can they really do with the skills they learn? Nobody knows. In the non-profit world, that’s what you can get for 150,000 USD.
Creative Space Beirut is not making clothes, we’re making designers. Training someone takes time, becoming a tailor takes time. What you need is to give attention and priority to those who are really talented.
But because we are a three year program, and because we only accept 3 to 5 students per class, our model just doesn’t fit in the non profit world. So I knew I had to put an end to it: even though they would give us the funding, it wasn’t true to the vision.
Creative Space Beirut is not making clothes, we’re making designers. Training someone takes time, becoming a tailor takes time. You can’t put 50 students in a class and achieve anything. What you need is intimacy. What you need is to give attention and priority to those who are really talented. Out of 50 students you might have 5 who are talented enough for this industry. Now these workshops aren’t wrong, they exist for a reason, it’s just not the impact that I believe in.
So then I wrote the concept, I wrote the mission statement and I approached my family. For the pilot project, they gave me a grant to finance the first three months. And after that I had to figure it out on my own.
On launching Creative Space Beirut
As soon as we started, the minute we gave those students fabric, we knew that we had something. We instantly saw raw talent. And we knew that we had something great because of their talent.
Caroline Simonelli at that point had told me that if I was able to do it, she would come help me. She had 50 years of experience in the fashion industry, and she said she’d come to Lebanon so I had the teacher. Then another one of my friends from New York was working for a fashion company. They had a lot of fabric and they were ready to give me 100,000 US dollars worth of fabric. So I had the material. So then I had to find the space and the hardest part yet, I had to find the students.
In the beginning I literally went and knocked at people’s doors: I approached NGOs, went to orphanages, refugee camps throughout Lebanon basically pitching my idea. I had no credibility at all, I was barely 25. The only credibility I had was from my professor from NYC who was coming. In the beginning it was all based on trust: I met with the families of the students that I ended up accepting, and they decided to trust me. It’s not easy to have families accept that the student has to come to Beirut, a lot of them said they loved the idea, but they wanted the school to be in the camp. To find the right people who would leave their home to come to Beirut was difficult. But eventually I managed to find 5 students.
We believe in free education and in equal opportunities.
For the first three months we worked in a basement, in a cave in Beirut Souks. Caroline came, and we started the three-month program. As soon as we started, the minute we gave those students fabric, we knew that we had something. We instantly saw raw talent. And we knew that we had something great because of their talent. There is so much talent in Lebanon, but the problem is that there is no platform that supports people that don’t have the means to get an education.
Education, all over the world, has become so tuition driven, that it’s no longer about your talent it’s about how money you have. And talent and money are not mutually exclusive. They don’t come together. Most creative people don’t have money; historically artists always had people from the elite sponsor them. So essentially we believe in free education and in equal opportunities.
On who CSB students are
During the exchange program, I didn’t find it fair that I could go abroad and pursue my passion, study fashion and do all of these things whereas so many people who are more talented than me don’t. It’s just a matter of luck and chance. I didn’t find that fair, and I still don’t find that fair.
So for me, it didn’t make sense to pursue my own career. Today what we’ve become is a three year program. We have about 5 students per class, and all of them are so talented. They come from all over Lebanon and we are open to anyone who lives in Lebanon. Currently we have Syrian and Lebanese students in the class.
We look for people who are collaborative, who are caring, who are giving, who have passion and dedication, that can work in a space together and help each other out.
We don’t have a profile of where you should be from but what we look for specifically is talent and character. We learned this the hard way, but a lot of the time people who have talent don’t have character. We look for people who are collaborative, who are caring, who are giving, who have passion and dedication, that can work in a space together and help each other out. Third year students help first year students and vice versa. They all have to clean up after each other. It’s community driven.
It took me a while to understand what type of student we were looking for. People that have a one-man mentality don’t fit in our school, and we don’t want to work with people like that because it ends up poisoning the atmosphere.
On becoming a leader
In the beginning, when I first started I was 24, I was like “there is no hierarchy, we all have equal voice, everyone gets to make decisions about everything.” But then it becomes total chaos, so I had to learn the hard way how to create systems, how to manage, because leaders are important and people want to have a leader. So it’s just a matter of choosing what kind of leader you are. I still involve the students in a lot of decisions, but some choices have to be made.
I had to learn the hard way how to create systems, how to manage, because leaders are important and people want to have a leader. So it’s just a matter of choosing what kind of leader you are.
We graduated our first class last year. One of our students applied to university in Milan. She was accepted and we managed to find her a sponsor over there. Another one we hired. In order to sustain the school, because we had such a hard time with grants, we developed our own brand and it’s called CSB Ready to Wear. Currently 100% of the profits go back to the school, and we hired one of our students to design for the brand, she also teaches in the school and at LAU. And this is someone who never went to university!
Another student Rony, applied to Starch, it’s a platform in Lebanon that supports young designers who want to start their own business. They have a shop in Saifi where they display and sell their creations, but they also provide media coverage and also expose them and sell at Dubai Fashion Forward, and they take part of the fashion shows there. The problem with that is that they don’t provide any monetary expenses. What we did is invest in Rony and 30% of his revenue is going to be used to support the school. Hopefully we will grow together. The idea is that we don’t just want to educate the students but also find ways to provide them job opportunities after: either hire them wihin the school or help them launch their own brands. We’re still developing and growing.
On scaling up
We are part of a program called elevate, so we’re trying to project on to them what it is to build a business. I’ve come to the realization that what I tried to avoid in terms of what traditionally exists in the fashion industry is next to impossible. You can’t found a school that exists on its own, because the students who graduate from the school have to work in the industry.
What we want to do is start the brand, start to scale so that we can grow and constantly be generating money for the school. We want to start a free universiy essentially, centered around the creative arts.
So now I’m doing what I didn’t want to do: start a brand, work in the fashion industry, except I’m doing it with a purpose: to build the school. The brands we launch or support are here to support the school. There is Rony, there’s CSB Ready to Wear and there’s another brand I started with a friend of mine who graduated from Parsons. It’s called Second Street and it’s a shirt brand. We focus on one product. A percentage of the profit on each brand goes back to the school. What we want to do is start the brand, start to scale so that we can grow and constantly be generating money for the school, and eventually start to develop new programs within the school. We want to start a free universiy essentially, centered around the creative arts.
It’s tough to find people that believe in the importance of design and sustainability. The philanthropists that are out there want to help humanitarian causes so it’s hard to stand out in the face of urgent needs. We do have a few donors sponsoring some of our students, we have a few fundraisers.
On November 23rd we’re going to have a fashion show where we have an auction. So what we’re trying to do now is going into the for profit world. In the for profit world you can get investors, and that’s what we’re trying to do through the Elevate program. It helps us understand what we’re doing in the language of the for profit world. I used to see that world as corrupt but now I’m starting to see it in another way. I see now that you can build a social entreprise, where you can scale and everybody can grow with you. It’s not about profit. Our model doesn’t fit the traditional for profit model.
In terms of ethics, we want to be able to target all aspects eventually. For CSB, as of now, all the fabric is donated from designers. It’s recycling donated fabric. But as we go I don’t know how much we’re really gonna get to count on this type of donation, and we’re gonna have to start sourcing our own ethical fabrics. Recycling right now works because it’s low scale, as you scale up, it’s difficult to keep up with this model to build collections.
Even in terms of labor practices, we want to make sure everyone, all of the tailors we employ for CSB Ready to Wear and Second Street, earn what they deserve.