The story behind creative space Beirut is a story about courage, commitment and loyalty. After meeting with Sarah Hermez last month, I left feeling challenged, feeling like I could and I should do more, if only I had the guts she had to go off the trodden path young designers are expected to take after attending fashion schools and to create something truly meaningful and life-changing.
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 to get to part 2.
On Sarah Hermez, Founder of Creative Space Beirut
Because I wasn’t raised in Lebanon I always had this identity crisis about what it means to be Lebanese. When I would come to Lebanon my cousins would mock me and say I’m Kuwaiti. But in Kuwait you don’t get citizenship just for being born there. It wasn’t a huge deal but it’s part of the reason why I went to New York after graduating high school.
I studied at Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts. The fashion program at Parsons was great because that’s where I understood my creative potential and that’s where I met Caroline Simonelli who is the co-founder of CBS. When I met her she was 75, she was Lebanese too but had never been to Lebanon before and so she was a mentor of mine in the fashion program. But then on the other side, the liberal arts side, I did a number of study abroad programs. I went to India and to Dharamsala in Tibet where I lived with Tibetan refugees and studied Tibetan politics. I also went to Cambodia and studied Cambodian politics and those experiences made me radically change the way that I view the world and the work I wanted to do.
On her experience in Tibet and Cambodia
Living with the Tibetan refugee family, in the simplicity that they had was a beautiful experience. They didn’t have much but their home was full of life, and full of love. And then we went to Cambodia, and while I was there, there was this constant question of “what work are we doing?” The trip was part of the program, and we were there studying Cambodian politics and teaching English.
Without going into details about the history of Cambodia, if you go there, you notice there is a huge age gap, a whole generation gone missing. But the education is so censored, we realized that no one was aware of some parts of their history, like the fact that a huge factor in the rise of the Khmer Rouge was America’s bombing campaigns of 1969. But because of the censorship, people over there glorify westerners without realizing that we had a huge part to play in their history.
When I was there, I had moments of being on top, being below and being equal. And those moments of equality were so precious to me and I wanted to hold on to them. So that question really stuck with me: what work am I doing?
So then you’re there teaching them English and you feel like a hypocrite. You are just constantly asking yourself “what work am I doing here?” You want to do something good but it’s causing more harm. And this idea that you can come for a couple of months, feel good about yourself and then just leave them exactly as they were… again “what work am I doing here?” The professor that took us was purposefully putting the finger on this feeling, he made us ask ourselves why were feeling this discomfort.
Part of it was that at the expense of someone else’s suffering I learned something about myself. That’s privilege.
The whole experience made me ask myself a lot of questions that I’d never asked, maybe because of my privileges. No. Not maybe. Because of my privileges.
When I was there, I had moments of being on top, being below and being equal. And those moments of equality were so precious to me and I wanted to hold on to them. So that question really stuck with me: what work am I doing? What does it mean? And what do I want to spend my life doing?
On finding her path
So by the time I graduated school I knew I didn’t just want to focus on being a fashion designer I wanted to find a way to sort of merge my two passions: creativity and social justice. I went through a difficult time where I was trying to understand what I wanted to do next. I knew I didn’t just want to apply for a job in the fashion industry in NYC, I was really put off of it, what it stands for is not what I believe in. And I’m a very passionate person so if i’m going to spend my life doing something and giving 100% of myself I need to be doing something I love in a place I want to give.
So I decided to leave NYC and move to Lebanon, because I’m Lebanese and I wanted to understand what that was and then I thought if I was going to give myself anywhere it had to be Lebanon because there’s so much to do here, the country needs more people to come back. So I came back to Lebanon and worked for a textile company called Bokja, and at the same time I was working with an NGO called UNYP, Lebanon Youth Program and I was teaching preschool for Palestinian refugees.
The fact that I was naive helped me do it. Because if I knew then everything I know now I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to do it. When you don’t know, you can’t be afraid.
But I wanted to mix those two things, to merge both aspects. So a bit later I was back in New York, talking to Caroline and telling her I didn’t know what to do, I wanted to merge those two worlds and I didn’t know how. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere she just went “why don’t you start a school?”. And it was a weird moment where it felt like all the dots connected. I knew in that moment that’s what I was going to spend my life doing. At the time I was 24, I had barely had jobs in the fashion industry, I’d never taught, I’d never started a school neither did I know how to start a school. It was a very ambitious plan. Now that I’m looking back I realize that I was so naive and honestly I think the fact that I was naive helped me do it. Because if I knew then everything I know now I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to do it. But when you don’t know, you can’t be afraid.
On being a woman entrepreneur
I don’t let sexist comments stand in my way and I try not to be sensitive about it. It can be paralyzing, so there has to be a fine line you set for yourself where you decide what is unacceptable and speak out about it if it comes up. But sometimes, being a woman can work to your benefit in the sense that you can get away with things. Especially in Lebanon where there are no rules.
I’m very lucky to have surrounded myself with a team that is super supportive and who, with a limited salary, work their asses off and are super passionate and dedicated. I think in the for profit world I may face more sexism than in the non profit world. In the last 6 years, I was so obsessed with building the school, that the people I reached out to were all people in the community so I wasn’t so exposed to “sharks.”
The worst is when you approach family friends and tell them about your project and they’re like “aw you’re so cute, good job for what you are doing.” To have all of your work, passion, dedication being reduced to the word “cute”. I don’t have an answer to that.
At the same time I don’t let that stand in my way. I’m pretty good at spotting it when people are not interested in what I’m doing, at spotting when they have an ulterior motive. Especially men. It’s not that hard to see when people are sincere, when people want to be involved.