At a stall in a Beirut exhibition hall, Syrian businesswoman Reem Abu Dahab displays her workshop's lacy pink and white nightgowns, hoping to attract increasingly elusive buyers.
Syria’s textile industry was once one of the country’s economic bright spots, with its products coveted throughout the region and beyond.
But the sector, like the economy in general, has been devastated by the war that erupted in March 2011, with factories destroyed, workers displaced and sanctions hampering trade.
The migrant crisis and outflow to Europe have also depleted its workforce.
“Buyers used to come from all around the world but the war has scared them and now very few come to Syria,” said Abu Dahab, surrounded by products made in a small workshop in Damascus.
Abu Dahab’s family once owned a factory in Harasta, a Damascus suburb ravaged by fighting between rebels and the regime.
But it was completely destroyed in the war, and now the business is run out of a small workshop in the capital.
“We had 100 employees, today only 30 of them are still working for us,” said Abu Dahab, who was one of around 100 Syrian textile manufacturers at a trade fair set up in Beirut.
Before Syria’s conflict began, textiles represented some 63 percent of the industrial sector’s total production.
The sector was worth 12 percent of GDP, employed a fifth of the workforce and exports netted around $3.3 billion (3 billion euros) a year, according to the Syrian Economic Forum think-tank.
But by 2014, private sector textile exports had fallen by half, with the industry particularly affected by fighting in Aleppo city, the country’s former commercial hub and home to many textile factories.
Factories destroyed, workers gone
“Seventy percent of (textile) factories were closed or destroyed by the war,” said Feras Taki Eddine, president of the Syrian Textile Exporters Association, next to a mannequin in black underwear and stockings.
In addition, many businesses lost machines and employees.
“Some of the machines were destroyed and some were stolen. Thieves took them to Turkey. I had 220 machines before, now I only have 10,” said Alaa Aldeen Maki, owner of Dream Girl Lingerie, an Aleppo-based business.
“Most of my employees emigrated because of the situation and some because they were forced to join the army for military service,” he said.
When the war arrived in Aleppo in mid-2012, eventually dividing the city between government control in the west and rebel control in the east, some businesses relocated to small workshops in the city’s safer areas.
Others, based in the relative safety of Damascus, have done whatever they can to survive.
Muhanad Daadush owns the country’s biggest lingerie and pyjama factory, located in the capital.
He still employs 450 people, many of who sleep in the factory during upticks in violence.
“I had 72 workers sleeping at the factory” at one point, he told AFP at his stall, surrounded by bras of all hues and comfortable cotton sleepwear.
“They started at six in the morning, worked until 11, then slept. They would only go home to their families from Thursday night to Saturday morning.”
For all its challenges, Syria’s textile industry continues to enjoy a reputation of quality in the region, and the Beirut fair attracted some 500 buyers, mostly from the Middle East.
Fadi Baha was in town from Egypt, where he owns a chain of stores.
“I buy Syrian textiles because of their quality. It’s better than Turkish or Chinese merchandise and almost competitive price-wise,” he told AFP.
“I like how Syrian manufacturers create a unique mix between Eastern and European styles.”
But while regional buyers continue to purchase Syrian textiles, clients from further afield were nowhere to be seen.
Daadush Lingerie once exported 70 percent of its products to Europe, but its owner said only 10 percent now goes there.
And the rising costs of production, difficult trading environment and shrinking workforce, all mean competitors from Turkey and China are increasingly able to pinch clients from Syria’s textile industry.
Manufacturers blame shrinking exports in part on sanctions slapped on Syria after the government began its crackdown on dissent following anti-government protests five years ago.
The conflict that followed has killed over 260,000 people and displaced more than half of Syria’s population, with many joining a wave of refugees seeking safety in Europe since last year.
Taki Eddine said Europe should be bolstering trade with Syria to keep citizens at work in their home country.
“It should be in Europe’s interest to facilitate trade, because Syrian workers without jobs now want to leave to Europe,” he said.
Several vendors said they were committed to staying open, ensuring jobs for Syrians and the industry’s survival.
“It’s important for us to show that Syrian industry is still alive,” said Taki Eddine.