Maya Gebeily

10 Questions for The Creative Space

NOW catches up with Sarah Hermez, founder of The Creative Space

The Creative Space

Tucked away in a small corner of Geitawi, fabric, thread, and glitter cover the walls of The Creative Space: Beirut. Palestinian and Lebanese students work diligently on their projects in Beirut’s first free fashion school. NOW sat down with its founder, Lebanese designer Sarah Hermez, to talk about the fashion school’s founding, philosophy, and future.


NOW: Why fashion as a way of breaking barriers?


The Creative Space: Honestly, it’s really just the medium that we’re using. Fashion is what I know, what I studied, but it could be in anything. In this case, fashion breaks barriers because the students that I reached out to are people that are passionate about fashion. So they all come together, from different backgrounds. Together, in this space, everyone is interested in the same things: creativity and fashion design. That automatically breaks this sort of wall. They would have never spoken which each other before. Some of them still won’t enter each other neighborhoods. They’ll come here to meet each other.


NOW: The fashion market in Lebanon seems like one that’s really hard to break into – if it’s not a brand name, people aren’t necessarily excited to buy it. How does The Creative Space compensate for that?


TCS: People here do not support fashion design. If you talk to any young designers starting their own brand, they’re not receiving as much support as they should. People don’t want to spend money on a Lebanese brand when they can go to Burberry and buy the same thing. They think that these are students, or maybe they’re from the camps, so they think, why should I spend this much money? But these are Donna Karan fabrics. Where are you going to get this amazing quality fabric?


NOW: Was it difficult coming from abroad to start something up in Lebanon?


TCS: I’m from Lebanon, but I’d never lived here. I didn’t have the contacts, so I can’t just call people here and there. I had to take Arabic classes because my Arabic wasn’t that good. I was pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.


But not growing up in Lebanon, in this case, served as a good thing for me. People who grew up here are a lot more negative about the country than people who come here. My family was telling me, ‘You don’t know what it is to work in Lebanon, it’s corrupt, you have to negotiate your way through things.’ But I didn’t know. The reason I’m not afraid to try is because I don’t know, as opposed to people who live here and who have so many walls. They know it’s difficult, because this country is difficult. But for me, this naïve, passionate energy actually was beneficial. If I knew, I would not have been as fearless.


NOW: How did you go about finding your students?


TCS: We’re not looking for people who can go to Parsons, people who travel or can go to LAU. We’re looking for people from different backgrounds that are less privileged. I contacted different NGOs. I went to the Palestinian camps.


It was very difficult because I was just a girl with an idea. I wasn’t very credible. I wasn’t attached to an NGO, I wasn’t attached to anything. I just came there with a list of qualifications for the students, and I said this is what I’m going to do. The main issue was that a lot of people I met liked the idea, but they didn’t want their children to leave the area. For example, in the camps, they wouldn’t let them get out.


NOW: What’s next for The Creative Space?


TCS: We’re hoping to get certification, so that our students can actually be certified. We need to figure out where we stand in the educational system. There are institutes in Lebanon, but we probably won’t apply to be an institute because there are certain requirements. For example, you have to have graduated from high school. Some of our students haven’t graduated from high school.


Success will mean being self-sustainable. The way we want to self-sustain is starting a for-profit business and brand, in which we can hire the students to design. Most of them, after the three years, it’s like “what now?” For example, as a Palestinian, you still have no right to work. We hope to offer them a platform from which they can continue working.


NOW: What was the biggest surprise obstacle?


TCS: The most difficult time was the transition period after the three-month pilot program in 2011. Before we decided that we were a three-year program, we didn’t know what we were. I had taken on the responsibility of these students, that I would offer them a platform. It was a huge responsibility. You realize that you’re so passionate, and you really want to do this, but then you start thinking, what if I can’t? What if I can’t do this?  What if nobody is supporting me?


NOW: What drove you to barrel through the challenges?


TCS: I’m more of a momentary person. At the time, when the idea happened, I was so passionate about it that there was nothing that was going to stop me. If I knew what I know today, how exhausting and tiring and difficult it would be, I probably would have been a lot more scared. But I think that because I was naïve, it was actually to my benefit. You don’t know anything, so everything is out there for you to discover. Even if I was super demotivated, I always felt that I was at the right place, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Dots just connected. I would meet, out of nowhere, the most random person who decided they were going to dedicate their life to helping me. Maybe because I was so passionate about it, I didn’t think it was a big deal.


NOW: How would you describe the state of creativity and design in Lebanon?


TCS: It’s booming. Maybe I surround myself with people who are creative. It’s a great time for people to come back and add to the creative world here.


The whole point about this, especially when it comes to design, is that you can’t eliminate the majority of the population and only have the minority designing. Design is going to take this country forward, so I think it’s important for everyone to be involved in the design process. More than half the people are being left out of it. It’s about making it relevant. These people are part of design, just like the rest of us. And that’s a huge part about having them come from different backgrounds. How do we coexist? How do we work together?


NOW: You say it’s booming, but that’s so hard for many of us to see. What is the Creative Space doing to bring creativity and fashion to the public sphere in Lebanon?


TCS: We’re here every day, and we see what’s going on. But when we have an exhibition, for example, it’s so difficult to translate the journey into the exhibition. People just see clothes that are made – so they like it, or they don’t like it. But they don’t understand the process. And that’s where social media comes in. We’re doing that now through our YouTube videos, through nighttime workshops that are available to the public. It’s really about how we put ourselves out there, how we can get others involved, how they can follow us with a greater understanding. That will bring the two worlds together. When you’re in it, you can see it.


NOW: What’s the message you would give to somebody who wanted to start up their own initiative in Lebanon?


TCS: If there’s an idea or initiative that you’re excited about, the only thing that will stop you is yourself. Because nothing is impossible. It’s just not. Everything is possible if you’re not afraid. Try to be as fearless as possible. For people that live abroad who want to come here and do something, if you just follow your instincts, don’t be put down by what people tell you. Especially by people that live here. You can’t just back down.

At Beirut's The Creative Space. (NOW)

“For me, this naïve, passionate energy actually was beneficial. If I knew, I would not have been as fearless.”