A space for quality design education
By Lara Arbid.
As a designer Sarah Hermez’s priority was to merge the two things she loved most, creativity and social justice. The former Parsons Graduate recognized that she wanted her impact to be on home ground, and decided to move to Lebanon following her schooling in New York. Hermez spent her early days in Beirut working for Bokja, a textile furniture company, and taught pre-school at an NGO called United Lebanon Youth Program. When she realized she didn’t want to pursue both of her passions separately, her mentor Caroline Simonelli, the Lebanese-American designer and professor at Parsons, inspired Hermez to start a free school and foster quality design education in Lebanon. In June 2011 Hermez and Simonelli launched Creative Space Beirut.
Today Creative Space Beirut functions as a three-year fashion program, welcoming students from all over the country that can’t afford to pursue an expensive design education. The school admits four students per year, with a well-rounded curriculum incorporating illustration, theory, sewing, pattern making, and collaborating with different designers.
Known for being one of the most diverse countries in the region, the school brings together students from different backgrounds that may never have met in ordinary circumstances. “Initially we had a three month pilot project where we found five students from different backgrounds, so there was Palestinian, Lebanese, and Armenian refugees. Caroline came to Lebanon, we got the donated fabric, and for three months we taught them how to make clothes and design.”
Early days were challenging for the team, but the young entrepreneur drew much support from the local community of designers, photographers, film makers and volunteers. “The creative community in Lebanon is growing. I would say there is a community that is starting to come together and it’s really beautiful to watch.”
As a fashion designer, having access into the fashion community is just as important as developing the skills. At CSB, a realistic experience is prioritized to prepare students for the conditions of the fashion industry. Through exhibitions, unique challenges and special workshops, students get a comprehensive approach that prepares them for a job after graduating.
Young Lebanese designer Hazem Kais is one of many students that began his fashion journey at the Creative Space. Kais heard about CSB from an article, prompting him to apply to the school right away. Kais was among the talented four students to be newly enrolled and in his words it was a dream. His talent and hard work was evident right away. In his first year, CSB facilitated a competition between the students for a concept store in Kuwait called 4.
Each student was to create a collection of about 10 looks to present to the boutique’s team. Kais was the winner of the competition, securing the opportunity to create an exclusive collection for the store. “It was a challenging process, and I really didn’t expect to win. I was up against second and third year students who had a lot more technical skills than me.” The following year at just 22 years old, he began his exclusive collection for the store. “I wanted to push myself even more and go experimental.” In a bid to try something new, Kais decided to dye the fabrics that he was using in a traditional dyeing process. This method involves using typical fabric dyes to create a dye bath, and immersing the fabric in the water to take on a new color. Kais grew to realize the whole process is extremely wasteful and toxic. “That’s when I decided that in my third year, I really wanted to do something sustainable, organic and eco-friendly.”
For Kais’s senior collection, much of his inspiration was from his connection to mother Earth. As he dove into his third year, he became intrigued with the link between psychology and art, and simultaneously enrolled in Psychology courses at a Lebanese University. There is a long-standing theory in art that challenges whether artists are ever able to create something truly new, or if we simply rearrange the existing. His work was a challenge and discussion on the creativity of the individual. “I experimented with different hand printing techniques, all while leaving the fabric to do what it wants to do. This unleashed the creative power of the dyes and the threads, not my own. I merely followed their steps, their own interaction with each other, and their own blueprint for settling in my designs.” The natural process created beautiful designs, which he explains have a lot of emotion. “I realized that my hands were just the tools... I did not create my designs, my designs created themselves through me.”
Outside the Creative Space classroom, the sustainable designer co- founded a ready-to-wear line that raises awareness on slow fashion. Civvies is an experimental label that produces garments that Hazem defines as responsible, environmentally friendly, with a fashion sense that is not short of creativity. The diverse Civvies team includes Chemical Engineer Aya Hteit, Marketing counselor Jana Hteit, and Architect Rana Azzi. Civvies Designs produces high quality eco-friendly garments by using recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) a form of polyester found in plastic bottles. The first experimental campaign was initially exhibited at the CSB annual open house, and bred orders on the spot. At this time, the team is focusing on producing the first sustainable collection to be sold online and through selected outlets.
Establishing Creative Space gave Hermez the power to promote inclusive design education. Though social responsibility is emerging for companies nowadays, this was not as common or a priority in the early days of Hermez’s career. As a result, her mission came about not by looking at what already existed. She truly wanted to influence the priorities of the industry, and it had to be something that she really believed in.
In her words, feeling passionate about the work that you are doing is extremely important. “For anyone who is looking to launch their own career, I think it is important to nourish their passion and know there's always a way to figure out how you can do what you love doing but also make an impact.”