I open the door on the first floor of an old pink building located among the cement foliage of Mar Mikhael and step inside what looks like a mad scientist’s mind. Trash bins overflowing with scrunched up papers, magazines tossed on the floor, racks of handmade clothes scattered here and there along with scissors, rulers, pens, glue sticks and more. The white walls accentuate the vibrant colors in the room and transform it into a colorful box of crayons set against January’s gloomy weather. This is Creative Space Beirut (CSB), where the mind knows no boundaries.
CSB is a free fashion design school that welcomes skilled individuals from all corners of Lebanon. In 2011, Sarah Hermez, a fashion design graduate from Parsons New York, co-founded the institution with her former instructor Lebanese-American designer Caroline Shlala-Simonelli. Hermez moved to Beirut with a mission to ease the financial strains that prevent Lebanese youth from receiving an education in creative fields. “What we’re creating is a bridge for our students to cross in order to get into this competitive sector,” says Karina Goulordava, responsible for the institution’s fundraising. “We have all this talent in Lebanon that doesn’t get the chance to show itself because of the ways things are run in this country,” she explains, adding, “Education should be a right for everybody.”
According to Sarah Hunaidi, CSB’s communication director, CSB relies heavily on the community’s participation in its vision. As of now four students are sponsored by three donors who pay for their education throughout the three-year program. “They believe in what we do,” says Goulordava.
CSB’s main source of income is sponsors but the school also relies on its Ready to Wear line, designed in-house and showcased twice a year at different venues and events around Beirut, to become more self-sustainable with time. “All proceeds from the sales go back to the school,” says Goulordava. CSB also holds fundraising parties, workshops and exhibitions. Events like these help expose students to challenges and opportunities in the fashion industry and allow them to showcase their one-of-a-kind pieces, win competitions and possibly get recruited by professional Lebanese designers. “It is not only about free education, but about access to the design world that’s very hard to get into if you do not have the financial means,” she explains.
To be selected, applicants submit a portfolio of their creations and sit for an interview, and priority is granted to those who cannot afford the high fees of private schools. Unlike most higher-education institutions in Lebanon, CSB admits up to four students per year, and while many design schools begin their programs with theory, CSB’s 11 current students get to play with fabric on the first day. They are mentored by volunteering professional designers, photographers and other experts while the school keeps a watchful eye on student progress through regular assessment. CSB recently adopted a “buddy-system” through which senior students partner with junior classmates to help guide them through different techniques. “Most of the students have a lot of experience and knowledge; it doesn’t have to be an instructor [who teaches the course],” explains Goulordava. Students with strong knowledge in design-related methods are also invited to teach and share their expertise with the class. The seamless student-teacher relationship results in a coherent exchange of knowledge and talent, which helps the students get a well-rounded understanding of the fashion design process.
Compared to traditional education systems, CSB has an unconventional way in delivering its program, which relieves unnecessary pressure and focuses more on helping the students grow into artists. “There’s no grading system because what’s the point of grades?” questions Hunaidi. “It’s not like it’s our place only and then they have to leave, it really feels like it’s their space,” she adds. “Sometimes if I drive by at 11 at night, the lights would still be on.”
After our talk I walk around the workshop between rows of different designs, patterns and colors, discovering a hub where creativity takes a life of its own. Students are absorbed in their world of imagination as I take a peek at their work and speak to a couple of them. Ahmad, a 22-year-old who studied Interior Architecture at the Lebanese University, showed me his sketches and collages of androgynous women and men, explaining his desire to eradicate predetermined judgement in our society. 26-year-old Noor’s collection stems from a lucky mishap, when she accidentally placed fabrics too close to a heater. When she saw how the texture of the material changed, she had a lightbulb moment and decided to use the heater as a tool to create a bubble-like esthetic, mimicking the moon’s surface.
With creative minds and skilled hands, the students focus on their personal projects but work together towards the same goal: breaking social boundaries. “Our students are very aware of why we are doing this, so they should take that social responsibility out into the world with them,” says Goulordava.
Lebanon’s only free university does not have a fashion design program and CSB is filling that niche. Whereas people jump at the opportunity to invest in business and technology, creative fields seem to take a back seat. This prevents talent from showing itself and making a mark on Lebanon’s social and cultural scene. People’s wealth should not be determined by materialistic possession but should surpass them to encompass the richness of their minds. It’s about time we pay attention to Lebanon’s youth instead of focusing on making our wallets fatter. We might just be surprised at what talent is hidden right under our noses, if only we would allow it to prosper.