The svelte models strutted down the catwalk in sexy dresses with bare backs and short hemlines - all under the watchful portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his late father, Hafez. The glitzy occasion was Syria's first ever fashion design competition, meant to encourage young Syrian talents and local products. But perhaps more importantly, it was part of the authorities' recent efforts to soften Syria's image and open up the authoritarian country. A tightly controlled nation often vilified by the West for harboring militant Palestinian organizations and criticized for alleged support for Iraqi insurgents, Syria has worked hard in recent years to shed its drab, socialist image and transform itself economically. Held Tuesday evening at a Damascus hotel, the fashion competition featured 60 designs by 12 Syrian designers and was attended by representatives of Arab and foreign embassies. The top three winners received gifts and certificates, but their hope was that the participation would bring exposure, both at home and abroad. "Syria is now much more open to new ideas," said fashion designer George Shalash, a member of the jury. "The government is keen on encouraging young Syrians to be creative." "I'm very excited, this is a very rare event in Syria, and I hope it is a first step in the right direction," said Emily Jabbour, a 25-year-old Syrian architect who was among an audience of about 150. Assad is credited with starting the reform process since he assumed power from his late father in 2000 and the government has passed laws designed to attract investments and liberalize and diversify parts of the economy. Foreign banks, international boutiques, cafe chains, Western-style malls and hotels have mushroomed across Damascus and the atmosphere is significantly more relaxed than a few years back. Syrian women are generally known to be quite fashionable compared to those of other Arab countries, particularly the conservative Gulf states. Syria's First Lady Asma Assad herself is something of a trend setter, and was selected by French women's magazine Elle as the most stylish of international political ladies in 2008. Still, Syria remains more conservative than neighboring Lebanon, where many fashion designers have gained worldwide fame. Emirates-based Syrian born haute couture designer Rami Al Ali is perhaps Syria's only fashion name known outside the country, and a participant in European fashion shows, including Milan's fashion week. Damascus boasts a few private modeling agencies and a handful of fashion shows a year. Expensive designer boutiques have sprouted across Damascus, catering to an upper class that only few years back used to travel to Lebanon to shop. "People outside Syria have the wrong idea," said Salem Mardini, who runs a private modeling agency that coached the models for Tuesday's competition. "The Syrian people are very open... We love fashion and life but we are low key and are not good at advertising ourselves." One of the competitors, Rania Nashawaty, who runs a small fashion workshop, said there are a lot of constraints on Syrian women. "A lot of things are still not accepted, we have a lot of talents but unfortunately their work is not covered by the press," she said. Strutting down the catwalk to oriental music, the models at Tuesday's event paused in front of the nine judges and gazed seductively at the cameras and the mostly female audience. Many women in the crowd wore the traditional Islamic head scarf and applauded softly only when the show was over. Nashawaty's designs included daring, flirtatious outfits, a blue sequined wedding dress and a glittery black evening gown - but also a folkloric dress with a Syrian flag hanging as a train from the back, an instant hit with the audience. Politically, Syria faces many hurdles ahead: its ties with Washington are only beginning to thaw and there are long-standing disputes with neighboring Lebanon, Iraq and Israel. But Tuesday's competition was a clear sign the Syrian fashion community wants to catch up with the world. Nashawaty, who wore a Muslim brown overcoat with a white head scarf, wants the competition to become an annual event. "It's a small thing, but it's a start and that gives me hope," she said.