Totted on red carpets, bags designed by Sarah Beydoun have become in as little as 10 years rarified collectors’ items. Catherine Deneuve, Queen Rania of Jordan and architect Zaha Hadid are all fans and carry bags by the designer’s namesake brand Sarah’s Bags.
Arab women from Kuwait to Cairo are diehard collectors. Today, the brand encompasses styles with Arabic calligraphy of lyrics by famed singer Om Kolthoum done in beading, graphic art images of old Egyptian stars and fabric bags with tiny stitches of needlepoint and crochet flowers.
So original are the clutches with lyrics written in beading, they were part of the exhibit held by the L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris on Om Kalthoum in 2007. And it was also this clutch that Hadid personally chose for herself from the store located in Beirut’s elegant Ashrafieh neighborhood.
But the novelty of Sarah’s Bags is who makes them; female prisoners incarcerated for theft or murder, and marginalized women who have left prison.
The brand started 10 years ago when Beydoun was working on her graduate thesis on female prostitution and prisoners in Lebanon. For her research, Beydoun would visit Dar El-Amal, a nongovernmental rehabilitation center that provides vocational training. She taught women skills such as writing while acquiring information for her thesis. After completing her thesis successfully, she wanted to continue contributing and spoke with the woman in charge who suggested Beydoun focus her efforts on women who have been confined in prison.
Stumbling upon the idea of beadwork on canvas, Beydoun would visit Baabda prison three times a week to teach five prisoners how to bead and supervise their work, and had the beaded fabric made into simple purses. The first series of bags were large flowers with heavy beading, and one bag hangs in framed glass in Beydoun’s colorfully chaotic office today: simple yet striking.
A friend named Sarah Nahouli joined Beydoun’s efforts and the ladies were caught by surprise as the brand grew in recognition.
“All my life I knew I was a creative person but I was not yet oriented towards design. Slowly by teaming up with Sarah I realized we had a lot of potential. The bags had to incorporate handwork so the girls can work and be paid,” she said.
Selling the bags at a local flea market, their popularity had Beydoun start taking orders so she could guarantee paying the prisoners for their work.
“People were intrigued by what we were doing because we were so young, working with women in prison,” she added.
The team grew to 40 working diligently, and the prisoners were allowed to work for longer hours. “All the tension between the girls was subdued and limited because all the girls were working. I have girls who started with me in prison and continued with me when they came out.” Some have been with Beydoun for 10 years.
“My initial investment was $200 which I purchased beads with,” says Beydoun. She initially set up shop in her parents’ garage. Today Sarah’s Bags sells in an airy apartment with high ceilings in an elegant neighborhood of Beirut, with a workshop adjacent to the showroom where women bring fabrics to be made into clutches and handbags.
“With time, all the girls with their skills would return to…work with the women of [their] village, and later on come to the workshop alone with all the work done by the group which she’s supervised. This way she’s been empowered and being given a job directly right after coming out of prison. They would tell you how much their lives have changed coming out of prison, supervising a group and giving money to other people,” she said.
“Because it’s handwork we’re constantly looking at old techniques, reviving them and also ‘re-modernizing’ them. Needlework, sequins, flower cloth and then crochet. The main collection [of the brand] is stitching and embroidery.
“We’re always researching old and new techniques. And I even ask them to dig into their grandmothers’ closets in the mountains. We’ve ‘rediscovered’ a new technique, nobody knows of its name, but we developed a whole line based on this technique and we revived this technique. It’s a continuous struggle to teach them.”
Most popular in Egypt are bags with printed images of Omar Sharif and Om Kolthoum. “All these bags are very personal to me, the influence of my childhood. When I was young I was raised by an Egyptian nanny and I watched a lot of Egyptian movies and now when I watch them I love the drama of it. I love the double edge of kitsch being both humorous and outdated.
“Seeing Om Kolthoum’s images, and knowing how much she was adored and loved, and seeing this lady who wasn’t very good looking and seeing how all the present day divas are stunning ; the bag emphasizes the fact that you can be a diva without being very good looking just having an essence like she had.”
Beydoun has captured the crooner in Andy Warhol-esque pop art print in a bold manner. She’s also recently launched an entire series on iconic Lebanese chanteuse Sabah.
“Starting this whole thing, personally, I never thought about it never working out. It was very fulfilling to work with these girls, and help them, and I know it’s harder than any other designer’s work because of the human elements of other women’s problems and depressions but it’s very gratifying. We’re a big team. At the same time we deal with ladies who are very demanding in the shop. It’s schizophrenic, some ladies come in for bags they consider ‘essential extras’ and they’re really a source of income for these women.”
Today, Beydoun has a 10-women team working as designers alongside her, and up to a 100 women at various times working on bags.
“I never wanted this product to be brought as an act of charity, but because of the quality of the product. There’s an added value to buying the bags because they’re made in prison.” Work is still additionally being done by women in two of Lebanon’s prisons.
Beydoun has also branched out into accessories such as brooches, scarves and embroidered vests.
Beirut: Ashrafieh, Tabaris, 100 Liban St.,
Mhanna bldg, 2nd floor, Lebanon
Tel: +961-1-575-585 or +961-3-640-038
Cairo: Mounaya Gallery, 14 Kamal il Tawil St., formerly Montazah Street.
Handwork being done.
Om Kolthoum pop art clutch is eye catching and modern.