Born and raised in Beirut, Sarah’s unconventional journey in fashion began during her final year of a graduate degree in sociology, when she was conducting research at Dar Al Amal, an NGO that rehabilitates women at risk and female ex-prisoners. Sarah took her designs to prison 3 times a week and worked with a group of inmates trained in beading, embroidery and sequinning to create chic handworked clutches and handbags. These women became the artisans that formed the backbone of Sarah’s Bag. Over the almost 18 years they’ve been in business. The team of artisans grew to 200 women who include prisoners, ex-prisoners and underprivileged women in Lebanon. From the beginning they tried to source materials locally and from neighbouring countries and collaborate with traditional artisans to spotlight their rich heritage in textiles and craftsmanship.
“Sarah’s Bag has been my design school, business school and my life’s work. I set it up as a fashion label and social enterprise after spending 6 months working at an NGO that rehabilitates underprivileged women in Lebanon, as part of fieldwork for my master’s thesis in sociology. It was an experience that changed me and I wanted to set up a business that would inspire me creatively while giving socially vulnerable women in my country the tools to rebuild their lives and support their families” – Sarah says.
“Apart from the fact my work is built around a social enterprise, we are implementing environmental policies at Sarah’s Bag, starting with of course recycling at our atelier and offices and sourcing our raw materials locally as much as possible” – declares the founder.
We jump into her sustainable lifestyle. We want to know how is her day-by-day. I favour natural and cruelty-free skincare and beauty brands, I love buying fresh food from the amazing Saturday farmer’s market we have in Beirut, called Souk Al Tayeb and as I mentioned I am increasingly wearing ethical and environmentally-friendly brands so yes, it has become a lifestyle.
“What eco or ethical labels are in your wardrobe?” – we ask her. “Besides Sarah’s Bag, I often shop from Maison De Mode, a luxury ethical fashion online retailer. I love the platform as it introduces me to so many brands in this growing niche in the fashion industry and really shows that luxury, craftsmanship, design and sustainability go together beautifully”.Sarah also wears a lot of Lebanese fashion brands. “One of my favourites is Beirut-based accessories brand Vanina, which uses local products and supports local craftsmanship. She has also been a fan of Tom’s and their 1 for 1 formula for years now: “It so simple and effective…” – she says- “I also adore the airy fabrics and traditional weaving of Lemlem, a brand that empowers traditional artisans in various African countries, with a focus on women.
“To be honest this movement is shifting and developing so fast that I find that social media, TED Talks and websites like Luxiders and Maison de Mode are the best platforms to find out about the people and companies changing the landscape every day” – Sarah says. And we are really happy to hear she is one our our readers all over the world. “Thanks Sarah!”
Sarah’s Bag has always been about women’s empowerment so they were very inspired by the global women’s march that took place a year ago. They created the Rise Up collection, which is a line of clutches and bags crafted to look like protest posters and hand-stitched and beaded by a group of Syrian refugee women they trained. “Syrian refugees are among the most vulnerable groups in Lebanon today, and there are up to 2 million living here. We are already a tiny country of about 5 million people so you can imagine the scale of what we are dealing with. So for us it made sense to work with refugee women who have to support to their families in difficult conditions, as Rise Up is a collection all about women supporting other women”.
There are a lot of traditional productions methods in Lebanon that haven’t evolved to take the environment into consideration. “In addition, sourcing eco fabrics from abroad is quite costly. However, we do work within a broad framework of sustainability and remain true to our mission as a social enterprise to empower underprivileged women to be financially independent, capable of supporting their families and giving their children a better future”.
Sarah thinks change will come with the consumer. “Thankfully we are seeing a new generation of consumers who want to know more about the products they’re wearing: Where and how are they made? Where are the raw materials sourced from? Who made them and under what conditions? Is the company environmentally friendly and sustainable? And because of social media, companies today care a lot about their reputation.
She continues says: “I just hope more and more consumers move towards brands that take people and planet into serious consideration, not just profits. I would also like to see a shift whereby consumers shop more for quality, craftsmanship and uniqueness rather than buying en masse to follow short-lived trends”. Sarah has an advice for designers who want to be part of the change: “I would definitely recommend that they set up a business that has a social dimension and purpose that goes beyond profit – basically to balance out the 3 Ps: people, profit and planet”.
To end, she shares with us the names of three Lebanese superheroes that we should have in mind.
1- Ziad Abi Chaker, the man who is trying to move Lebanon towards a zero-waste society, which is a monumental task in a country that is far behind the rest of the world in terms protecting and preserving the environment. Know more about his project here: Zero Waste Act.
2- Pierre Issa, the founder of Arc En Ciel, an NGO established during the height of the civil war in Lebanon that works to integrate marginalized communities. It also encourages sustainability and conservation of natural resources in all its activities.
3- Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Lebanon’s biggest farmer’s market, Souk Al Tayeb, that has allowed organic producers from around the country to sell their produce in the capital city every Saturday. He also set up Tawleh, which is the farmer’s kitchen of Souk Al Tayeb. Tawlet is a social business, where profit generated is used to support farmers, cooks and producers. The restaurant hosts a different cook from a different area in Lebanon to highlight the richness of regional cuisine.
+ info: Sarah’s Bag