Sarah's Bag – From Social Project to International Success

 

 

What if female inmates in Lebanese prisons were given the opportunity to regain acceptance in their community by sewing, threading beads, and embroidering? Sarah’s Bag was created in answer to that question. Now, 14 years later, the brand is an international success and, even today, every bag is made by hand.

Finding the pink entrance door is not at all easy, hidden as it is in a courtyard off the main street of the busy Achrafieh district in the center of Beirut. Yet, visitors who manage to find their way along the narrow alley soon use the old brass knocker in the shape of a hand – and are admitted to paradise. At least in the opinion of a woman who loves handbags. The paradise behind the pink door is called Sarah’s Bag, and it is breathtakingly beautiful, with high walls, old tiles, and Art Deco windows and lamps. The fittings however are only the backdrop for the real gems in the studio: the handbags by designer Sarah Beydoun.

It all began 14 years ago, the result of a sudden inspiration. In those days, the designer was studying sociology in Beirut and writing her master’s thesis about prostitution in Lebanon. To research the topic, she worked for six months at Dar El Amal (House of Hope), an NGO whose goal is to rehabilitate former prostitutes and convicts. “Through this organization I was able to go into the prisons in Beirut and Tripoli, a harbor city in northwestern Lebanon,” Ms. Beydoun explains. Her work really brought home how sheltered her upbringing had been, and she felt a strong urge to do something to help these women. “I wanted to find something they could make themselves and that I could sell for them so they could earn their own money.” This would enable them to turn away from prostitution and find a better way to make a living.

I had no business plan, but I wanted this social project to be a success. So I had to come up with a marketable idea.

Ms. Beydoun went out and found some fabric with the template of a rose printed on it, bought some beads, and got busy. She calculated the hours she needed for the work in addition to the cost of the material and brought her fabric to a professional handbag manufacturer. Sarah’s first bag came into being and with it a new enterprise was born. Ms. Beydoun started to draw patterns on pieces of fabric, taught the women in prison to sew the beads on, paid them for their work, and brought the finished fabric to the manufacturer to be made into handbags. The first ten handbags were made in the Baabda prison in Beirut. To test the market, Ms. Beydoun rented a small stand and displayed them at the antiques and crafts market in Beirut. By the end of the day, all the handbags had been sold. “I had no business plan, but I wanted this social project to be a success, and so I had to come up with a marketable idea,” she tells us. Her large blue eyes light up as she relates the beginnings of her business – an undertaking that has not only been very successful but that has also fulfilled all the hopes the young woman had placed in it. To work creatively with the disadvantaged women, the social aspect, developing the design: Sarah Beydoun had discovered her passion in life. “The first months I was totally fired up. I could hardly sleep, I was so excited.”

Every one of our handbags has a soul. Someone has put a lot of effort into it, knowing she will profit directly from the sale of this exact piece.

Sarah Beydoun joined forces with her friend Sarah Nahouli and, over the next four years, they built up the brand together. People were fascinated by the idea of these two young women visiting the prisons in order to work with the inmates. But even as a fledgling entrepreneur, Ms. Beydoun knew that curiosity alone would not be enough to establish them in the market and keep the clients on board. “Till today, our brand bases on a two-tiered approach: The social component, empowering women and teaching them a craft they can earn money with, and, secondly, designing products that are trendy and stylish,” the designer explains. Sarah’s Bag grew quickly and the second collection, which Sarah Beydoun and Sarah Nahouli showed in their parents’ garage, was a resounding success. In 2004, her business partner moved to Dubai and Ms. Beydoun moved Sarah’s Bag into the premises in Achrafieh. Today, 200 women work for Sarah’s Bag and produce the materials used to make the handbags by sewing on sequins and beads, knitting, and weaving. Seven artisan businesses in Beirut specialized in making handbags, turning the fabrics into high quality handbags. And each item is one-of-a-kind, with production taking up to three weeks, “depending on how intricate the model is,” Ms. Beydoun tells us. Up to 800 pieces can be manufactured per month and, in addition to the handbags, her product range has expanded to include kaftans, hats, and jewelry.

My clients have been my brand ambassadors from the very beginning.

Sarah Beydoun still employs many women from the early days. These have in the meantime returned to their villages and trained other women in the craft they have learned. The former convicts themselves have been promoted to team supervisors who create prototypes and carry out quality control. “These women now bring work into their villages, and so their social standing has completely changed for the better,” is how Ms. Beydoun explains the principle upon which the operation is based. Each team is specialized in a specific technique, some thread beads, others knit, yet another weaves. The women are paid per piece they deliver. “Each bag has a soul,” Ms. Beydoun tells us. “Someone has put a lot of effort into it, knowing she will profit directly from the sale of this exact piece.” That’s the secret. Each handbag is a high-grade and traditionally manufactured luxury article that contains a strong social element.

Over time, Sarah’s Bag has garnered fans in all corners of the world. Sold exclusively in the Arab world, in 2009 Ms. Beydoun decided she was ready to take the business to the next level. “Going international was a challenge,” the designer tells us, but in the meantime, she presents her latest collection at the Paris Fashion Week twice a year. Today, Sarah’s Bag is available in 50 locations worldwide: in Europe, America, Asia, and the Middle East as well as online. Her client list boasts such names as Queen Rania of Jordania, Catherine Deneuve, and Zaha Hadid. “My clients have been my brand ambassadors from the very beginning,” the businesswoman tells us. She hardly does any advertising, but the brand is present on every social network and her clients can show where and how they wore a Sarah’s Bag product on Instagram at the hashtag #tagthebag.

Ms. Beydoun says her inspiration springs mainly from the Arab culture. The handbag that continues to be the absolute bestseller is her calligraphy bag, which is reinterpreted every season. “This bag has cult status,” says Ms. Beydoun not without pride. Some bags are so elaborate to manufacture and so unusual that they have a waiting list. The Tauleh bag is one of these items. It’s a wooden clutch made after the traditional board game of backgammon with a clasp consisting of two golden die.

With all the bags she has created over time, the designer finds it very difficult to name a favorite. “It’s just as impossible as having to say which child you love more,” the mother of two sons says with a smile. However, the bag with which it all began has a special place in her heart. At the time, Ms. Beydoun’s mother bought the fledgling businesswoman’s first creation, only to give it back later as a present. “To motivate me,” Ms. Beydoun tells us, while pointing to a large golden frame in her office: The black bag with the pink-colored rose will always have a place of honor.

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