In this fifth installment, we tell the story of the Harfoush brothers who started producing sportswear in 2019, after more than two decades of manufacturing military and hunting attire.
“Welcome to Winnerforce,” said Mahmoud Harfoush with a smile as he opened the door to his factory, within walking distance of the al-Mina neighborhood in his hometown Tripoli.
It was here that the two co-founders began Winnerforce. “It’s our city, it’s our country. We absolutely wanted to stay in Tripoli,” said Harfoush.
While the Harfoush brothers claim to be pioneers in manufacturing Lebanese sportswear, they did not join the textile sector blindly. Being former police officers, the brothers founded the brand Colombus more than 20 years ago. They manufactured military and hunting attire, which they continue to produce in a four-story building converted into a factory for the two clothing brands.
“We started from nothing,” recalled Mahmoud. “We had $1,000 in our pockets and a single sewing machine.”
Drawing on their experience in textile manufacturing, Mahmoud and Mohammad decided in 2019, shortly before the onset of the country’s economic and financial crisis, to enter the sportswear market “which was not being exploited locally.”The gamble paid off for the brothers: with sales exceeding $1.5 million since its launch, Winnerforce has enjoyed dazzling growth, despite the crisis. Nevertheless, their two companies suffered from the drop in demand during the outbreak of COVID-19 between 2020 and 2021. They “lost around $2 million, while a number of factories in Tripoli closed one after the other,” during this period, said Mahmoud Harfoush.
A Tripoli-based business
For Mohammad, however, Winnerforce’s advantage lies in the fact that it is made in Lebanon, which is reflected in the products’ prices in shops. “Our T-shirts are around $15 and our leggings don’t exceed $30. Other [imported] brands average over $80,” said Mahmoud, who is in charge of marketing and production. Mohammad takes care of the company’s finances.
On the second floor of the building, Mahmoud, accompanied by his 19-year-old son Ahmad, a marketing student in London, introduced us to the heart of the business. “All our production is local. Except for the fabric, which we have to import from China, Turkey or the United States. It would be far too expensive to make our own fabric,” he said.
In a vast, neon-lit space, the noise of sewing machines is incessant. “You see, here we put the logo on the clothes,” said Mahmoud, pointing to one corner of the factory. On this floor, more than a hundred employees, men and women, are busy cutting, sewing and assembling lightweight fabrics. The Harfoush brothers know these employees well. “Ninety percent [of them] come from Tripoli,” we are told. “I live there and I know that people need to work,” said Mahmoud.
T The brothers employ more than 1,400 people in all, and have some 50 sales outlets across the country. “Our official shops are the most popular, especially in Beirut,” said Ahmad, adding that most of Winnerforce’s sales come from within Lebanon. The brand is also sold online and available in several countries which include Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
A family story
Having returned from London this summer to help his father, Ahmad is looking forward to taking over the reins of the company in the future. Continuing the tour, he presented a machine imported from China that he described as “essential.”
“It can cut 5,000 pieces of fabric in ten minutes. It’s one of the reasons we produce around 25,000 items of clothing a month,” he said.
But the heir to Winnerforce and Columbus is not the only member of the Harfoush family to work in this building, which looks gray on the outside but is as high-tech as can be on the inside. Between the marketing department, the design department and the photo studio, nothing is left to chance.
A glass corridor led us to the fitting room, bustling with activity. The first fitting for the new children’s line was taking place there. A little girl shyly stepped forward, watched by the designers and Mahmoud. “She’s our neighbors’ daughter,” he said, waving to her mother.
The owner’s wife was present and her role is key. She checks the shape and color of the items. “She’s my advisor,” he said. “My brother Mohammad’s wife also works alongside us.”
“My son grew up here. I remember when he used to run up and down these little aisles,” Mahmoud said. His second son is in Brazil studying design, with plans to return to Lebanon as well.
Winnerforce may be one of the leading sportswear brands in Lebanon, but the Harfoush family wants to continue its journey and expand internationally.
“Our dream is to establish ourselves in the European and Brazilian markets,” said Mahmoud.
In the meantime, Winnerforce is counting on its children’s collection to attract new customers.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.