Lebanese-Armenian designer founds Beirut’s first free fashion school

Creative Space Beirut (CSB), Lebanon’s first free fashion school, was founded by Lebanese-Armenian fashion designer Sarah Hermez, Al-Monitor reports.

The 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.”

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.

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