Sarah Beydoun’s university project has progressed to become a flourishing business that celebrates Lebanese and Arabic heritage and empowers many needy women at the same time.

Photos by: Tony Allieh

Step into the flagship store of Sarah’s Bag in Ashrafieh and you will find a treasure trove of exquisite one-of-a-kind bags. A dizzying array of products is spread across several rooms of a Lebanese heritage-style apartment, featuring high ceilings and arched windows that welcome plenty of natural light. Bags with intricate colorful beadwork and embroidery sit alongside bags made with carved wood; marquetry techniques and shimmering plexi glass in a harmonious blend of modern and classical. The namesake brand of Sarah Beydoun has become iconic, not just for its handcrafted distinctive designs but for its honorable social cause. Founded in 2000 as part of Beydoun’s university graduate degree project in sociology, she initially set out to help women prison inmates in Lebanon earn some money by having them handcraft bags for her. The project, however, didn’t simply end after her diploma, as she decided to set this up as a business to train the women she met in the prisons during her fieldwork. With no particular strategy, Beydoun worked hard and developed her business organically. In time the project blossomed into a global, fully fledged fashion line.

International Outreach and E-Commerce

A staunch believer in e-commerce as the future of fashion, Beydoun understands how bricks and mortar stores complement online purchases. “Many women already saw my bags maybe in the press or in a shop so they prefer to order them online,” explains Beydoun, speaking exclusively to HOME. Her online store offers the full Sarah’s Bag range and has special editions that can’t be bought anywhere else.

Social Network Process

The bag-making process begins when the designer (usually this is Beydoun or another member of her tight-knit design team) prints or draws on a piece of fabric. This is then sent to the woman who is employed by Sarah’s Bag, who is either completing her jail sentence or has been paroled and is working from her village, to do the handiwork, whether crochet, beadwork or embroidery. Once completed it is sent to a professional handbag maker who will apply it to the final product (Beydoun has chosen to work with small handbag ateliers around the country that can customize the bags precisely the way she wants). Every week Sarah’s Bag team visits the girls in prison, to collect the work and to give them new assignments. Within this structure, Beydoun has developed a training program for the girls, so that after completing a certain amount of training on techniques, they receive an official certificate from Sarah’s Bag. “This can allow them to work for other people too – either ateliers or even haute couture houses,” says Beydoun. Today she employs 50 women between Baabda and Tripoli prisons and an additional 150–200 women outside of prison, who are managed by 10 team leaders reporting directly to her.

Bags of Charisma

In addition to the incredible story behind making the bags, the products themselves are beautiful enough to win you over. They are gorgeously crafted and vibrant in every sense. Don’t expect to find many monochrome, neutral-looking bags in Sarah’s Bag’s collection; it is all about strong colors, catchy slogans, iconic images that cleverly touch on Lebanese and global popular culture, but also celebrate the Arabic heritage.

“I design so that the bags are charismatic and draw you in,” explains Beydoun, who strongly believes that women look at a bag and instantly fall in love with it. “I can’t do something that is shy,” laughs Beydoun. “I mean, we tried but the beading has to be very strong, for example.”

The design team also began coming up with new themes and making a whole collection around it, not to be limited to Arabesque and calligraphy, which are still bestsellers.

A collection called “Fast and Fabulous” focused on cars, “Tropique C’est Chic” featured a tropical theme, “Retail Therapy” shows bags with medicine names and “Amore E Colore” was created after an inspirational trip to Mexico. A recent collection “Discotheque” is a nod to the 1970s, where they looked to Studio 54 and the film Saturday Night Fever for inspiration. Over the years, Sarah’s Bag has cleverly tapped into the zeitgeist, whether it is their cheeky “Bonjus” and “Kaak” bags, or clutches adorned with Andy Warhol style portraits of the singing legends Oum Kalthoum and Sabah. “What we create has to be appealing and emotional,” explains Beydoun.

CSR Ingrained in the Business Model

Today, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the buzzword in corporate and fashion circles, where everyone is integrating it into their business. For Beydoun, however, CSR was her raison d’être, always at the core of her business. Helping these marginalized women in need and creating fashion became a symbiotic relationship. Many years ago, the American University of Beirut approached Beydoun to ask her to lecture on CSR. Beydoun recalls this moment and smiles: “I didn’t even know what CSR was! It was something I did because I was convinced it should be done.”

In 2016, Beydoun received the esteemed “Business of Peace” award in Oslo. She was just one of three people to have won it out of applicants from 68 countries, and Sarah’s Bag was the first ever fashion enterprise to receive this award. Beydoun was selected by an independent committee of Nobel Prize winners in Peace and in Economics that involves the International Chamber of Commerce, UN Global Compact and UNDP. Clearly this meant a lot to Beydoun because it further validated the work she has been doing tirelessly for nearly two decades, opting not to be bought out by businesses that offered more money or strategies to make more bags. She points out that it is harder to work with disadvantaged women and those with many problems than it is to set up a regular atelier and work. “I felt that this part of the business was recognized. I also saw that the whole world is now realizing the importance of giving back.” If anything, this honor, she says, goes to all the women that worked for her all through the years.

When asked if she can turn back the clock and do anything differently, Beydoun pauses slightly to reflect then continues: “If I studied design I may not have worked with disadvantaged women. No, I am very happy the way things developed organically and slowly. I was approached many times early on by businessmen who offered to buy me out or be a part of Sarah’s Bag, but I am glad I didn’t take any step to disrupt working with all these amazing people and learning with them. I still work with the same artisan that did my first bag 18 years ago. These people are my friends and I am so happy to see them do well in their lives.”

Clearly, what Sarah’s Bag has achieved on a social level – by empowering countless disadvantaged women while nurturing artistry in Lebanon – is something money simply cannot buy.

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