Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: Sarah’s Beautiful Bags

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What woman doesn’t love a beautiful handbag? But when was the last time you thought about the bags (and clothes, shoes, etc.) that you were buying, how they was made, who made them, and under what conditions? Many of us love to buy beautiful things but it can be depressing to think that we’re spending a load of cash on something that was made by a person who was mistreated. That’s why ethical businesses are on the rise and social entrepreneurship is becoming more and more popular.

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Many already know the story of Sarah’s Bag and how it was conceived. In a nutshell: Sarah Beydoun was doing her Masters in Sociology and joined NGO Dar El Amal to work on rehabilitating women in prisons. She also loved fashion. Then she put these two things together and “Sarah’s Bag” was born in 2000. Sarah’s employees are underprivileged women, many of them in prisons or recently released. She teaches them crafts like crochet, beading and other handwork. She designs the bags and they work on them, together creating amazing pieces. Her employees earn a salary that allows them to start a new life, and her customers are happy with the unique creations they can wear with the perfect outfit. The idea is gold  – and it’s not going unnoticed. Customers flock to buy the bags around the world.

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Sarah’s Bag was recently selected by international beauty brand Clinique for a unique kind of partnership. The company created pouches especially for Clinique, and if you buy $200 worth of Clique products, the pouch is yours (and it’s full of goodies!) Women at the Baabda prison worked to embroider the pink and beige baggies with the Kaf (Hand of Fatima) symbol. “We work with companies that are sensitive to who we are and we made sure the bags were made with handwork,” explains Sarah. Sarah also made sure the press conference was held at the brand’s flagship store in Ashrafieh, located in a charming old house on a quiet alleyway amid the hustle and bustle of the city, to allow press to familiarize themselves with it – if they hadn’t done so already.

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This isn’t the first time Sarah’s Bag has had partners. Of course the very start of the company was with Dar El Amal, and Sarah continues to support the organization with funding opportunities, marketing and in other ways.“I always feel I have an affiliation with Dar El Amal because this is how I discovered that I want to do this,” she says, explaining that much of the logistics (such as entry permits) regarding working with women in prisons is provided by Dar El Amal.Sarah is also highly involved with the Lebanese Autism Society, and has created special bags and bracelets to profit the organization.“I’m in a position where with very little I can do a lot,” Sarah says. “I always talk about autism to raise awareness and to reach out.” 

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Most recently, Human Right’s Watch asked the company to create something to auction off at an upcoming event. After talking to the ladies who work in the prisons, Sarah created a quilt with quotes written by the imprisoned women. They were asked to write down a right they believe was taken away from them, and answers varied from wanting a general pardon for all the prisoners, to being able to choose what TV channel to watch (the cellmates usually decide what to watch on the television together, so no one has full ownership of the TV).

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New bags are always on the agenda, and inspiration comes from far and wide! Last year Sarah’s Bag launched an African collection inspired by the continent’s many colors and cultures. This year, it’s Mexico. On a recent trip to the country, Sarah drew inspiration from the nation, and loyal customers are on the edge of their seats waiting for the new capsule collection to drop in June. “I decided I’ll have one collection that will launch in the shop that’s inspired by a country we travel to. We can gain from their craft and it’s exciting to come up with a collection inspired by a country,” she says.

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One of the best things about Sarah’s Bag is the diversity of the bags, from colorful creations inspired by travels, to prints reflecting vintage Arab pop culture, to detailed crochet and embroidery with traditional Arabic symbols or calligraphy, to funny and unique ideas that are just delicious.

The fun Man’oushe Bag has recently been launched at the brand’s new boutique in Mar Mikhael. It looks just like a real man’oushe (Lebanese bread with thyme or cheese), folding over in half when carried, and opened up to reveal a zipper to an inner compartment. This follows other food item ideas, the Kaa’ke bag, and a Bonjus triangle bag from previous years. “Everything can be inspiring – it’s the way you look at things,” Sarah says. “Handbags are my obsession. These ideas are the result of a build up of ideas… Lots of ideas, and brainstorming, and work and tweaking.”

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And it’s not just new bags anymore. Scarves, jewelry and accessories are also  being designed now. Bright kaftans with crochet and beading are going to be on the menu this summer too. Sarah hasn’t forgotten the original purpose of her company and explains that they try to incorporate the crafts that their employees know into the products made (or teach them similar crafts). “Most of the things we design have hand work. It’s our mission. It’s where we started,” she states.

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“I love designing jewelry,” Sarah has recently discovered. It’s also apparently easier than designing bags that take lots of work with a lot of people, from artisans, handwork by the women she commissions, and other details that make it a complicated process. What jewels are on offer? Headpieces are one thing. “I love headpieces,” says Sarah. “Fashion is becoming so repetitive and having a headpiece really makes you stand out and adds to a woman’s beauty.”

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The Arqam (Numbers) collection is a series of gold and silver-plated brass rings with Arab numerals. You can buy more than one to make up the year of an important event in your life or another special number. Last year she had a collection of necklaces that look like rays of the sun, and we can expect more unique designs soon!

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Not only does Sarah’s Bag sell at the flagship store, Lebanon’s ABC Department Stores, and 15 points of sale outside of Lebnaon, recently Sarah’s Bag acquired another shop in Mar Mikhael, shared with designer Diane Ferjane. “We popped up!” says Sarah of the pop-up store. “The neighborhood is becoming very hip and trendy. Walking there is really nice and it’s great to discover a shop and buy something nice while on a walk,” she explains.

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In April Sarah Beydoun is off the USA for 3 weeks to join Vital Voices, a leadership program for women established by Hilary Clinton in 1997 with the US government, the World Bank, the EU and other partners. Sarah was selected as the only entrepreneur from Lebanon, and has been partnered with a mentor, Ann Taylor CEO Kay Krill, to observe how the company works. “I’ve never worked in this kind of company. It will be an eye-opener, being around someone who’s done so much. Under Kay Krill, Ann Taylor has completely changed. She made it cooler and more accessible—and she also made a lot of money,” says Sarah.

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 There is no question of the beauty of the bags – nor the quality. But it’s not only that which makes Sarah’s bags beautiful. They have a story to tell and take customers who are so used to purchasing cookie-cutter pieces that are becoming much too common. Hers are bags made with ethics, and that makes them even more beautiful. On the way to becoming our evening companions, these bags are made by women who are given hope – each little bag is a droplet of hope and help. This is in sad contrast to the larger-scale companies that all too often employ their laborers in poor conditions.

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Sarah’s bags are so popular because people people see the idea as very innovative, according to Sarah. But it’s not only that. “From the start to the end, the product is nice, regardless of the background. The bag alone is nice too,” she says. “The design and the cause behind it have made many people responsive to the brand. The cause is a plus. But we focus a lot on designs,” she says, because sadly many people still don’t care enough. When she sells her bags to buyers in Paris to distribute around the world, many are completely neutral to the cause. Sarah says she wishes more people would give back to their societies in some way. “You hear about a lot of designers, but not with a cause. There are lots of entrepreneurs, but not many are giving back,” she says.

At least her company is a start and a stellar example of how to run a business with an underlying purpose that goes beyond just making money, or just making something that’s beautiful on the outside. Sarah makes bags that are also beautiful on the inside.

When asked what is something she hears too often, Sarah has two answers. In the prisons they say, “I want to get out of here.” In her shops, customer’s ask “What’s new? What’s the latest?” This perhaps perfectly illustrates the contrast and dichotomy of her work, between the recovering women who make the bags, and the high-end customers who buy them.

All photos courtesy of Sarah’s Bag.  Like them, follow them, view them on Instagram and buy them.

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