Designer Sarah Beydoun’s handbag label gives female former prostitutes and prisoners in Lebanon the chance of a new future.
With a background in sociology, Sarah Beydoun had an acute understanding of the risks faced by women on the margins of Lebanese society. This, coupled with her desire to do something creative, resulted in the launch of Sarah’s Bag in 2000. Since then, the handbags and clutches label has built up a global following, with a long list of prestigious stockists including Net-a-Porter, Matchesfashion.com and Colette.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Beirut, which, despite the long years of civil war and continued instability, remains one of the most vibrant, creative and liberal cities in the Arab world. I did both my undergraduate and graduate studies in sociology, an unorthodox route to fashion!
So how did you go from a sociology degree to setting up an accessories label?
I have always known I wanted to work in something creative but I also enjoyed my studies. I was writing my master’s thesis about prostitution in Lebanon and for my field research I volunteered with a local NGO called Dar Al Amal that helps rehabilitate women at risk, such as former prostitutes, prisoners and ex-prisoners. The head of the charity encouraged me to start a business that could employ these women and the idea really resonated with me.
How did you start working with prisoners?
I knew a group of prisoners were trained by Dar Al Amal staff in beading and embroidery so I decided to work with them on beaded bracelets. The results were mediocre. I then had them work on beaded canvases and gave them to an artisan who made handbags. I really liked the final result, it was something I would have worn myself. After a few attempts and many trips to prison to work with the women, I had 12 bags – a capsule collection. I showed them at an arts and crafts exhibition in downtown Beirut. They sold out on the first day and Sarah’s Bag was in business. That was exactly 15 years ago.
What is the production process?
I work on concepts and sketches with my creative team. The designs are then distributed among various teams of artisans, all of whom are prisoners and ex-prisoners, and who specialise in different techniques. Once the artisans finish the decorative elements of the bags, I work with very talented craftsmen to turn them into handbags.
What changes do the opportunities you offer your staff bring about for them?
We work with 200 women, both prisoners and ex-prisoners. I pay them upfront whether the item is sold or not. Some of these artisans have been working with us for the past 15 years. They started in jail and continued to work with Sarah’s Bag once they finished their sentences. A couple of them used the money they earned to hire lawyers and overturn wrongful convictions. I encourage them to train other women in their communities too and in this way, these talented artisans, who are former prisoners, start running ateliers of their own and become respected members of their communities who provide much-needed jobs. It’s a virtuous circle I am very proud of.
What inspires your designs?
Inspiration can come from the most unlikely people and places. My collections have been inspired by everything from Arabic love poetry to Lebanese street food, Egyptian film stars from the golden age of Arab cinema, the tiles on the floor of my atelier, the intricate wood marquetry on backgammon boards, graffiti from walls around Beirut, and tropical fruits and birds, to name just a few.
What is the best thing about your job?
That I love what I do. There is no greater blessing when work occupies such a large chunk of life. My job has made me happy.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
There are all kinds of highlights: I have received letters from the artisans who have worked with me, writing to thank me for giving them a chance to rebuild their lives when they had little hope of doing so behind prison walls. These letters give me a profound kind of joy that no fat profit margin can. However, that is not to say I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed highlights like seeing my bags worn by women including Amal Clooney, Queen Rania of Jordan and Zaha Hadid.
What do you enjoy doing outside of Sarah’s Bag?
I spend time with my family. I have a husband and two boys, one of whom is autistic so I am involved in fundraising for the Lebanese Autism Society.