A social enterprise born out of a research project for Sarah Beydoun’s Master’s thesis in Sociology in 2000, has gone onto become one the favorite brands carried by celebrities and royalty like Queen Rania, Frieda Pinto and Amal Clooney. Items from Sarah’s Bag has been featured in literally every fashion magazine you can think of – Vogue, Bazaar, Elle, Stylist, Flair, L’Officiel and the list goes on. We caught up with Sarah to talk about the inspiration behind her business idea and while at it, took some tips on styling as well!
How did the idea of Sarah’s Bag originate?
I definitely took an unconventional route to becoming a handbag designer; believe it or not, Sarah’s Bag was born out of my research for a master’s thesis in sociology! Part of my fieldwork included a 6-month volunteering stint at an NGO called Dar Al Amal (House of Hope), which rehabilitates underprivileged women in Lebanon. I heard stories of broken childhoods, abuse, and violence from the women I met there; this kind of experience changes you and you can’t go back to living your life in a bubble. After graduation, I wanted to start a program that would help underprivileged women make a better life for themselves by learning skills that would give them a career and allow them to become financially independent.
I decided to create a line of handcrafted handbags that would showcase the skills of female prisoners in Baabda prison who we trained in handwork techniques such as beading, embroidery, and crocheting. I used to go to the prison three times a week to work with the women on my handbag designs. I was encouraged by the first batch of bags because I felt they were pieces I would wear. We started small in May of 2000, launching a capsule of collection of 12 bags at arts and crafts fair in Beirut where we sold the entire collection. 17 years later, here we are!
You partnered up with women prison inmates and trained them to become artisans. What has been the greatest challenge of working with women who are facing adversity? And what has been the most inspiring aspect as well?
At first, my biggest challenge was to transition from being a social program to rehabilitate underprivileged women, to becoming a full-fledged fashion label and social enterprise. In the beginning the challenge was to form a strong team of artisans who could handle increasing production demands. Prison conditions are tough in Lebanon and a lot of the women were traumatized or depressed, some were recovering addicts or had suffered violent abuse. The work was not always consistent so it took us a while before we formed a reliable group of artisans who could deliver beautifully crafted work on time.
In the early years, my entire team of artisans was entirely made up of prisoners. I am very proud of the fact that most of the initial group of prisoners we started working with when we launched is still with us today. What has been incredibly inspiring is the positive ripple effect of our model: once the initial team finished their prison sentences and went back home, we encouraged them to continue working with us and to train other women in their communities. In this way, we expanded our team of artisans to 200 women across Lebanon. These former prisoners became team leaders, managers and respected members of their communities who provide much-needed jobs, which in turn eased the stigma of being ex-prisoners.
The recent collections from Sarah’s Bag has a strong political message. What cause or movement has been the inspiration behind the last collection you curated?
Since 2000, we’ve been working towards a future that’s female; Sarah’s Bag’s core mission has always been about empowering women. We are a fashion house and a social enterprise and we’re on a mission to prove that the two are not mutually exclusive! Our collection, Who Runs the World, is inspired by the global women’s march that took place in January, bringing together an estimated 5 million people in hundreds of cities around the world. The collection is a tribute to this empowering movement.
As a woman entrepreneur, what advice would you give other women who are starting their own business or at the beginning of their career?
I would advise them to start a business that has a positive social impact built into its DNA. Having a purpose beyond profit makes my work more meaningful and enriching to me, and it makes me determined to succeed, if only because we have a team of women who rely on us for their livelihoods. I recently read something that stuck with me: “wanting to improve the world is a powerful driver for innovation”; this has been so true for me in my journey with Sarah’s Bag.
In addition, from a business perspective, social enterprises make perfect sense. Consumers today want meaning; they want to know what a company stands for, who is making the products, what kind of conditions they work in. I think social businesses can tackle some of the world’s pressing problems that are sometimes beyond the reach of governments; it’s a missed opportunity to start a business built on the traditional profit model. Moreover, in the digital age, social media is a game changer for businesses: they now have direct interaction with clients (whether they like it or not!) who are looking for authenticity and a connection with the brands they’re buying into. Social enterprises have an edge here.
However, one thing I would say to anyone who wants to start a social enterprise is in order to succeed, your product has to be able to stand on its own; don’t lean on the story alone. This is especially true for the fashion industry. The consumer has to fall in love with the product itself, and then the social aspect of the brand will pull them in and make them loyal clients.
You worked with Syrian refugees to develop your last collection. Tell us a little about the process of how Sarah’s Bag works with vulnerable individuals and trains them and finally brings the end product to the consumer.
As I mentioned earlier, Sarah’s Bag started as a program to empower underprivileged women. We created a system where we started off with prisoners who then became our artisans, and then some of them began training other women in their communities in the handwork techniques that are the signature of our bags, like beading, embroidery, stitching and crocheting.
As you may know, here in Lebanon we have the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world; Syrian refugees make up 30% of our population. So with our latest collection we wanted to do our part to help. We worked with local NGOs and put together a small team of Syrian refugee women. We trained them in handwork techniques and fittingly had them work on a collection that was all about women’s empowerment. We are now looking for ways to expand this program and help more refugee women.
Who is a designer you admire?
I have great respect for Lebanese designers that have had international success such as Elie Saab and Rabih Keyrouz. They paved the way for generations of Lebanese designers to come.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
The challenge was to learn everything on the job. I did not study design, but I had a passion for creating and for fashion; I did not know how to set up a social business, but I was extremely driven to make Sarah’s Bag a success and make these women my partners in that success. Sarah’s Bag has been a design school, a business school and a way for me to give back to my community, all rolled in one.
Setting up and running a business in Lebanon, a country that has had its fair share of war and instability in the past 40 years, was also, to put it mildly, a challenge. We witnessed this rather drastically with the war in the summer of 2006 and everything that has happened since. The number of tourists suddenly plummeted and has remained extremely low in the decade since the war. All this uncertainty forced us to become adaptable and expand our client base and our partnerships, and focus on creating bags that would appeal to an international market. This strategy paid off: today we have 50 points of sale in 22 countries and our bags can be found on some of the leading fashion retailers online!
Could you share three style tips you would give to our readers on how to pair a bag with an outfit?
– A bag should be the finishing touch, and even the centerpiece, of an outfit.
– Don’t be afraid to wear bold, bright colors!
– The clutch (without a chain) has recently made a comeback, so tuck it under your arm in true 1950s style.
How would you like people to remember you and your work?
I would mostly like to be remembered as a person who was able to make a difference in the lives of our artisans and the women who work with us; that through working with Sarah’s Bag they were able to give their children and their families a better life and a better future. I’d also like to be remembered as a passionate advocate for social enterprises and someone who championed women’s empowerment.
The following is the story of one of Sarah’s Bag’s artisans, who has been working with the company since they launched.
How has working with Sarah’s Bag changed your life?
I was framed by my fiancé. He tricked me into signing papers that made me responsible for his debt. I was young and naïve and I ended up in prison sentence for 6 months, which was a terrible shock. When I first met Sarah, I was very depressed. I decided to try working with her so I would have something to do to pass the time and forget about where I was. I found out I really liked the work, it gave me purpose and helped me prepare myself for life after prison, as I knew I wanted to continue working with Sarah.
Sarah’s Bag helped me turn my life around. I started working on beading the Arabic calligraphy bags, which became my specialty. I ended up working on the bag that Queen Rania wore to the King of Spain’s wedding! After I completed my sentence, and went back to my family home, I started training women in my neighborhood in the techniques I’d learned. I now lead a team of women who work with Sarah’s Bag.
What is the biggest strength you discovered within yourself since becoming a skilled artisan?
I was able to overcome the horror of being in prison and I realized I am strong enough to rebuild myself and my life. My work boosted my self-esteem, and being financially independent helped deal with life as an ex-prisoner. Also, helping other women in my community find work allowed me to finally put my past behind me.
What are your future aspirations and ambitions?
I want to grow, I want to evolve in my work and I want to train more women and teach them skills that could help them and their families.
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