Creative Space Beirut (CSB), Lebanon’s first free fashion school, is inconspicuously housed in a run-of-the-mill, weathered apartment building tucked in a corner of the raucous neighborhood of Mar Mikhael — the capital’s capital of cool, generously lined with characterful bars and eateries, home to many an engaging art and design studio. The ambitious CSB, founded in 2011, operates out of an average-sized flat, its spatial modesty belying the bountiful tutelage it offers.
A nonprofit, CSB runs a three-year program catering to students from underprivileged backgrounds. It relies primarily on the generosity of donors for sustainability and it admits only four new students a year, choosing to offer a compact cohort a fulfilling experience rather than overreaching and providing more students with less.
“Design education has become institutionalized, and more about how much money you have than talent,” said the initiative’s founder, 29-year-old Kuwait bred, Lebanese-Armenian fashion designer Sarah Hermez. “Back in the day, designers would go work under others and build their way up, but today without a degree it’s impossible to get a job. We’re trying to provide equal opportunities to people who don’t have access to the elitist world of design.”
A product of the unconventional academic coupling of fashion design and media/cultural studies at the New School's Parsons School of Design and the New School's Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts in New York, Hermez graduated wanting to do more than “fashion for fashion’s sake.”
Her desire to merge her zeal for social work with her love for fashion motivated her to move back to her native Lebanon. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said, “but I knew there was so much work to be done here.” She worked in the textile department of a boutique furniture store, taught preschool to Palestinian refugees and explored other opportunities within the very different worlds of NGO work and design, but nothing fit quite right.
Then, during a visit to New York, a conversation with her former professor, Lebanese-American designer Caroline Shlala-Simonelli, sparked what Hermez called “the American light bulb moment — that ‘aha’ moment Oprah talks about.” After listening to Hermez articulate the desire to marry her passions, and her frustration with not knowing how to do so, Simonelli suggested she start her own, free school. She even offered to help her do it.
Luckily, Hermez and her fledgling initiative were extended a number of supportive hands. A friend from Donna Karan in NY donated $100,000 worth of fabric for the future students to work with. “We had fabric and a professor but we needed a school,” she recalled. “It was my job to make that happen.”
After realizing that collaborating with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would mean tailoring her objectives to meet grant guidelines, Hermez decided to look for funding closer to home. “NGOs are more about quantity than quality. Your work needs to sound developmental; outreach has to be bigger — 40 students learning to sew in two weeks. That’s not what we wanted to do. We were looking to launch a pilot project for something more long term.” She approached her father, who agreed to fund the pilot on the condition that it ends with an exhibition that would generate funding for the initiative by selling the students’ creations.
Then came the biggest challenge: recruiting the students themselves. Hermez approached various underprivileged communities, visiting refugee camps and orphanages, reaching out to nonprofits that could direct her toward talented youths. “I’m just looking for talent, but not necessarily in fashion. I ask to see a portfolio. If they can draw, if they know how to sculpt, that’s good.”
She found five students willing to enroll for three months and had to quickly figure out how to teach them to produce clothes in such a short time period. “Traditionally, you would make prototypes first, but since we had all this donated fabric we just handed it to them and said go. They started draping and making things — it was this beautiful moment because we could see how talented they were before learning anything. That’s when we knew we had something in our hands.” By the end of three months, the students had produced 30 dresses.
From a three-month pilot project to a three-year, full-time, multi-course program, today CSB boasts a rotating faculty of Lebanese and international designers who generously volunteer their time to teach everything from patternmaking to drawing, conceptual design and textile courses. Co-founder Simonelli flies in from New York each summer to spend two months mentoring the students.
CSB doesn’t function like a conventional school. Rather than compartmentalize skills into classes, it tries to emulate the interdisciplinary nature of the fashion industry. “Everything is somehow merged together,” Hermez said. “Sketching, patternmaking and draping all at the same time. Because we’re not an accredited university, we don’t have rules to follow. We can do whatever we want. We have a curriculum, but it’s organic and open to change. If we discover something, we incorporate it. If we get a grant, we stick a three-day workshop in.”
The goal is that by the end of their three years , the students will have cultivated portfolios on the basis of which CSB can help them launch their careers in the industry. The students each produce between five and 10 pieces per year, showcased in an annual exhibition. There have been five to date, which took place at prestigious venues such as the Beirut Art Center (March 2012), Lebanon’s Bokja Design Studio (June 2013) and Kuwait’s Contemporary Art Platform (October 2014). As they prepare to release their first graduates into the world, Hermez and the rest of the CSB team anxiously prepare to measure their success.
A glance at the impressive sketchbooks of CSB’s students, however, hints at a bright future for the budding fashion designers. Ahmad Amer, 22, from South Lebanon, for example, appears to have a penchant for the glamorous, designing voluminous gowns fit for a diva. “What inspires me is feelings,” he said, “like power and femininity.”
Marie Benjamin, 16, from Batroun, a confident first-year student, has had her eyes on the fashion industry for some time. “I used to experiment with my clothes, turn them into something else. People would stop me in the street to photograph me. This made me want to get into fashion. I felt like I could do it.” She said she applied to CSB because she wanted to “learn how to make something.” She looks Jaden Smith up online to illustrate her aesthetic, which she’s incapable of articulating. “This is very cool,” she said, pointing at the screen. “It makes me smile — a long shirt, layers. I’m working on layers.”
With 50 new applications to review, Hermez and the team are looking for ways to make CSB fully self-sustainable. On June 9, 2015, during Beirut Design Week, they debuted their ready-to-wear collection, designed by the team alongside some of the students. Composed of one-size-fits-all items that are easier to produce and sell year-round, CSB hopes to generate continuous, steady income from the collection, which can support the students’ education.
Hermez hopes to eventually grow CSB into a school for all manners of design, not just fashion, believing that marginalized communities can greatly benefit from the problem-solving skills the discipline imparts. CSB, elaborated communications manager and events coordinator Sarah Hunaidi, “is not just about making clothes.” It’s about introducing students to a critical and creative process that can benefit all aspects of their lives.
Hermez points to the stark design disparity between economically affluent parts of Beirut, like downtown, and the city’s dilapidated refugee camps as one consequence of denying the underprivileged certain forms of knowledge — refusing not only to better their lives through rehabilitative policies, but to provide them the means to better them themselves. Through its work, CSB is humbly attempting, at the very least, to deviate from this flawed system.