When two passions merge

Creative Space Beirut combines social justice with fashion design education

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

While it is often said that design talent in Lebanon is plentiful, a substantial percentage of this talent could be going to waste because of the lack of free design education in Lebanon. Enter Sarah Hermez, a Parsons School of Design graduate, and her former Parsons professor Caroline Simonelli, who together founded Creative Space Beirut (CSB). CSB describes itself on its website as “a free school in fashion design providing quality creative design education to talented individuals who lack the resources to pursue a degree at increasingly costly institutions of higher learning.”

An idea is born

Hermez says that she has always been passionate about both creativity and social justice. This led her to move to New York (after growing up mainly in Kuwait) to pursue a double major in fashion design at Parsons and Arts in Context at Eugene Lang College. When she came to live in Lebanon, she hoped to find a way to combine the two passions into one career. “I decided to move to Lebanon because I’m Lebanese and had never lived here before. I wanted to understand what it was to be Lebanese, and also there’s so much work to be done here in Lebanon,” she explains. 

Hermez finally found a way to merge her interests after a conversation she was having with Simonelli, who suggested that she start a free school for fashion design, an idea which made perfect sense to Hermez. “What happens when you go to a tuition based school, like Parsons, is that the tuition is so expensive, it stops becoming about how talented you are and starts becoming about how much you can pay. Most of the talented people can’t afford such universities, and the people that graduate don’t necessarily have to be that talented,” says Hermez.

The beginnings

In 2011 at the age of 24, Hermez set out to establish Creative Space Beirut. She visited refugee camps, community centers, and NGOs in order to convince people to join the free design school. “People were intrigued because I wasn’t attached to an organization. I was just a girl with an idea, although I had Caroline to give me credibility,” she recounts, adding that despite the interest, many parents didn’t want their children to leave their area to come to Beirut, so it took her a while to find five people — which is the average number of students CSB takes per class in order to provide an intimate learning experience — who could commit to the school.

What happens when you go to a tuition based school, like Parsons, is that the tuition is so expensive, it stops becoming about how talented you are and starts becoming about how much you can pay

How it works

Although the program is fluid in that it is not tied down to a curriculum, it is still very rigorous, with students attending daily classes on weekdays for three years. “It’s a very intense program, but it really gives them an idea of how the fashion industry works and shows them how difficult it is and how hardworking you have to be. It’s a very realistic education in that they are working but also learning at the same time. When you’re not limited to curriculums and bureaucracy, you have more leeway to experiment,” she says.

To give first hand experience and to help sustain costs, the school started a brand called CSB Ready-to-Wear. “The idea with this brand is we produce things, and then we sell them, and the money goes to the school so that we can sustain the program,” explains Hermez, adding that as the label grows they will be hiring more of their graduates to work for it.

Other means through which funds are raised for CSB, which is a non-profit, are donations, individual sponsors who give scholarships to students, fundraising parties, and exhibitions at the end of the year, in which students’ designs are sold. “We’re in survival mode all the time. Having a non-profit is the hardest thing you can do because you are constantly trying to raise funds,” says Hermez.

After graduation

Six years since its creation, CSB has already graduated one class and will graduate another in November 2017.

Aside from an education, CSB also helps ensure their graduates have access to the network needed to develop a good career. “What we offer our students is not only education, we also provide them with the networks that we have to be able to get job interviews because these are students that otherwise wouldn’t have the connections. Our job also is to provide them with the right network to enter the fashion industry, which is very exclusive,” says Hermez, explaining that graduates can work for a CSB brand, start their own label, or work for a designer. 

Looking ahead, and once the fashion design program is comfortably sustained, CSB hopes to be able to build other programs within the design industry, also for free. “This should be offered for free by the government, but we don’t have a functional government,” concludes Hermez. 

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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