A report by Brooke Bobb for Vogue.
Souvenirs are few and far between in Havana, Cuba. When you do find a gift to bring home—like I did when I visited for the first time last spring—it’s typically sold in the dusty entryway of an old home or a broken-down 1930s-era apothecary. Aside from the cigars, Havana Club rum, and mugs painted with colorful old cars, there are caps and jerseys with the Cuban national baseball team logo, picked-over panama hats, and tees printed with portraits of the Malecón and Che Guevara. I wound up with a few of the aforementioned trinkets for friends and family, and for myself a slightly sun-bleached red tourist T-shirt that reads Cuba. Despite changes that have occurred in the past few years in Cuba, whether in the private sector or with regard to tourism, the country still has a long way to go as far as retail and fashion are concerned (and, of course, many other industries, too). However, one small startup label called Clandestina is aiming to pave the way for progress on the shopping and sartorial front.
The sportswear and accessories brand has a brick-and-mortar studio and shop in Old Havana, and recently it launched an international e-commerce site that actually manufactures and distributes within the U.S. Cofounders Idania del Rio,a native Cuban, (and whose Cuban citizenship helped with launching the website in the States), and Leire Fernández, who is originally from Spain, started Clandestina in 2015 in an attempt to shine a light on the rich style and artistic substance that exist on the island. At the moment, their website features six styles of graphic tees, the designs of which are sent digitally to American manufacturing companies, which then produce and ship the finished pieces to customers in the U.S. and around the world. The tees are $28 each and boast slogans like Resist and Overcome, 99% Cuban Design, and Actually I’m in Havana.
“Right now, we are super-focused on graphics,” Fernández says. “In Cuba, there isn’t any content being made by the younger generation, and we need a voice.” She adds, “There is really nothing visual to connect Cubans with foreigners, or to tell our story from our perspective, other than the Che Guevara shirts—we are ready for contemporary art, contemporary content, and contemporary fashion.” Fernández and Del Rio have tapped the well-known costume designers for Havana’s Teatro El Público, Celia Ledon and Roberto Ramos, to help expand their brand beyond slogan tees. “The theater is really where the fashion is in Havana,” says Del Rio. “Roberto and Celia know how to make high-end fashion, and we’re now working with them on creating a line of modern guayaberas—the traditional button-down shirts worn by men in Cuba.” The women have also hired local artisans to create handbags from upcycled materials.
Clandestina has experienced a lot of success in the last couple of years, particularly in its recent e-commerce launch and recognition as Cuba’s first independent, international fashion label, but there are still challenges. The number of American tourists visiting Cuba is shrinking due to new sanctions set forth by President Trump and the recent alleged attacks on the U.S. Embassy. Though their label could potentially suffer as a result, it isn’t necessarily a setback for the designers. “This is a good time for us to slow down and get ready for the future,” Fernández notes. “We can take our time and learn how to grow the business. The good thing to remember is that there is no going back to the old way in Cuba.”