Beirut-based photographer Natalie Naccache steps inside a creative space with big ambitions in Lebanon's capital: to become a free university for fashion.

Beirut-based photographer Natalie Naccache trains her lens on stories that challenge preconceptions of life in the Middle East. For this edition of Pivot Points - stories that shift a photographer’s perspective - she found herself drawn towards a creative space with big ambitions: to become a free university for fashion.

Najah Raya, 23, is sitting in the corner of a large apartment in Beirut at a table covered in colourful materials. She still can’t believe she’s here. A few months ago she was studying bio-chemistry when a TED Talk by Sara Hermez changed the course of her life.

“I started crying right then and there,” she remembers. “The tuition for fashion education is really expensive. I couldn’t believe there was a free fashion school in Lebanon. My boss hugged me and said, ‘go, just go.’”

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The Creative Space Beirut (CSB) is a free fashion design school based in Beirut. Founded by Hermez, it provides creative design education for talented individuals who lack the resources for a degree. “Now, I feel like I’m not cheating myself,” says Najah, as she shows me her stitched coat comprised of different materials, deep purple, black tulle, and turquoise. “I’m not doing something I don’t like. I like science, but where was I going to end up? In a lab somewhere, checking urine samples. This is way better.”

The space oozes creativity. Formerly an apartment, it now plays host to nine students from all over Lebanon and Syria. On the table behind Najah sits Ahmed Amer, who is embroidering illustrations about corruption, bribery, and plastic surgery onto a black coat. Another student is cutting, one is sketching, and another is on their sewing machine. In the corner of the room, Sarah Hermez is having an outfit fitting.

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Born and raised in Kuwait to Lebanese parents, Hermez studied Fashion Design, Media and Cultural studies in New York. But she didn’t just want to “make clothes for rich people” after graduating. “It didn’t make sense to me,” she explains. “My work needed to mean something to me, I wanted to mix both social justice and creativity.”

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Having never lived in Beirut, but visiting yearly, she wanted to know what it truly meant to be Lebanese. “If I was going to spend my life doing this work, why not do it in my own country? A country that has a lot of work to be done.”

It was during a meeting with Caroline Simonelli, her mentor and now co-founder of The Creative Space, that the idea was born. “I was telling her what I was doing, and wanted to find a way to merge both my passions of social justice and fashion,” Hermez recalls. “She looked at me and said, ‘why don’t you start a school?’. That was my lightbulb moment. That was exactly what I wanted to do.”

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To find students, Hermez visited orphanages, refugee camps, and NGOs to search for individuals who were hungry to learn about fashion. “It’s not only raw talent that we were looking for, it was also someone who was collaborative, helpful, accepting to others, no matter their background, their sexuality.”

The pilot program was initially funded by Hermez’s family, but is now backed by multiple private donors, fashion show events, parties, and a ready-to-wear label. In the coming months, CSB will be moving into its new space, which will be offered rent free by Solidere – the company in charge of planning and redeveloping Beirut Central District.

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“Our goal is to expand our ready-to-wear brand into the global market, to generate enough income, to build a proper university with different programs,” Hermez adds.

“It’s a huge vision – but if you’re graduating students, the brands can grow, we want to build an ecosystem where we educate, hire, and support individuals in starting their own brands under one umbrella.”

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Pivot Points: Stories of Change from Huck Photographers are shot entirely on the KODAK EKTRA Smartphone, a 21-megapixel camera with 4K video capability.

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