Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
The Textilera de Ariguanabo was built in 1931 by Dayton Hedges, an American businessman whose family owned a successful textile company. The factory produced cotton and rayon fabric, as well as overalls, shirts, and pants, and was Cuba's largest manufacturing site outside of the sugar industry. In 1940, it employed 1,200 workers; by 1958, that number had more than doubled.
When the Cuban revolution erupted in 1959, the Textilera de Ariguanabo was expropriated by Fidel Castro's regime, and the factory shifted to making denim and canvas for the government for several decades. In the late ‘90s, it started shutting down bit by bit after running out of petroleum and the other necessary means to keep running, closing completely last year. The factory is now nothing more than a deteriorating concrete edifice, a whisper of what was Cuba's once-successful textile industry.
And just down the road from the crumbling factory stands an inconspicuous residence that houses the workshop of Clandestina, an up-and-coming brand many consider the future of Cuban fashion. Started by Idania del Río and Leire Fernández in February 2015, Clandestina sells screen-printed T-shirts, tank tops, and shorts, as well as tote bags, hats, notebooks, and posters. Every product features the lowercase Clandestina logo, and many are emblazoned with cheeky sayings like "Beat the Heat, Have a Mojito!" or "99% Diseño Cubano." To commemorate Secretary of State John Kerry's visit in summer 2015 to open an American embassy in the country for the first time in 54 years, Clandestina made shot glasses and paper fans that read "Y sin embargo te quiero," which directly translates as "And still, I love you," with bonus wordplay referencing the American embargo.
"Cuba is very extreme, so our messages promote loosening up a bit," explains del Río, a petite Bauta native with short curly hair and a sharp sense of humor. She's in the passenger seat of Fernández's Peugeot 307 as Fernández drives them the 40 minutes from their retail store in Old Havana to the workshop in Bauta. "It's a good way to get through an intense situation. If you don't laugh about things here, you die," she says with a wink.
They pull up to the small home and lug bags of supplies out of the car. It's a humid September afternoon and the house is completely empty, save for a back room filled with half a dozen seamstresses chattering in Spanish as they work at decades-old sewing machines under wall-mounted fans.
"These sewing machines are always breaking, so we need to have a mechanic on hand at all times," Fernández says, motioning to a young man sitting in the corner. "We started making tote bags from used produce sacks, but the machines kept stalling until we were able to locate the right needle."
During the brand's first few months in business, Clandestina was making its own cotton T-shirts from raw materials bought in the Dominican Republic. It became clear to Fernández and del Río that the company couldn't function on such a model in a country with draconian importing laws, limited textile manufacturing, and an American embargo that restricts wholesaling opportunities in the US and severely limits cash flow opportunities. Obtaining enough cotton to sell clothing on a large scale would cost a fortune and be essentially impossible regardless, given the scarcity of materials on the island.
So Fernández and del Río decided to improvise, hitting up government-owned "rag stores" — shops that sell used clothing bought by the Cuban government from countries like the US and Canada and then sold at a low by-pound rate. They began to repurpose these secondhand items: ripping off sleeves, pulling down necklines, using scraps of fabric from old dresses for accenting, and stamping slogans and the Clandestina logo on top of it all. They called the collection "Vintrashe," a sly joke about how vintage clothes in Cuba are often other nations' trash.
Fernández and del Río were pleasantly surprised to see their clothing take off. Suddenly, people all across Havana were sporting old bar mitzvah, concert, and fraternity tees made new again, which they had bought for around 20 Cuban convertible pesos, or CUC, a pop (about $20; the exchange rate is roughly one to one with the American dollar).The Clandestina store in Old Havana became a popular destination for unique, one-of-a-kind pieces.
"People say, ‘Why doesn't Cuba have designers?' Well actually, we do. It's just really hard to find them."
Fernández, a tall former UNESCO employee from Spain, has been living in Cuba for nine years. She was referred to del Río, a graphic designer by trade, back in 2012 when she was seeking an artist to collaborate on projects with.
"There aren't many places where you can buy Cuban design in Cuba and it's very frustrating," says del Río. "People say, ‘Why doesn't Cuba have designers?' Well actually, we do. It's just really hard to find them."
After they worked together on a few projects for UNESCO, del Rìo and Fernández came up with the concept for Clandestina — easy, fun clothing that represents the Cuban spirit — but where would they find seamstresses to make the pieces? With the decline of the textile industry, the art of sewing and construction wasn't being passed onto a younger generation. And so del Río began looking around in her hometown of Bauta, a place once brimming with seamstresses and textile manufacturers. Her own grandmother had worked at the now-defunct Textilera de Ariguanabo, and through her grandmother's friends she was pointed to Ana Lourdes, a seasoned seamstress who used to work for private embassy clients.
Lourdes, who now oversees Clandestina's manufacturing at the Bauta house, appears from the back room when del Río and Fernández arrive and greets her bosses warmly. The visit to Clandestina's workshop today involves picking up finished pieces, which will later be stamped in the back of the store in Havana, and swapping them out for the latest haul of clothing from local secondhand stores.
An employee named Cynthia has sorted the product into three huge bags, cataloging every piece. Del Río and Fernández will go over the items with Lourdes and then decide which will work as the foundation for garments and which will be ripped apart and used for trimming, pockets, or handles. Today there are ratty Pink Floyd tees, old hospital scrubs, Amherst College football jerseys, J.P. Morgan Chicago 5K race shirts, and a sweatshirt from someone's grandparents' 50th-anniversary party weekend in Costa Rica.
"We usually look at the quality of the clothing but also the pattern of the fabrics," del Río explains as she rifles through the product on a wooden block table. "Sometimes we see something and imagine exactly how it would look as a dress. Other times, not so much."
Lourdes admits that in the beginning, it was hard for her to execute Vintrashe, which now makes up 70 percent of what Clandestina sells; the other 30 percent are T-shirts from that initial DR batch, notebooks, and satirical posters drawn by del Río.
"At first I didn't really get the style because the concept was difficult to imagine," she says in Spanish. "Like taking a T-shirt with a character and re-sewing it so that he's flipped upside down or cutting a logo in half. The concept of taking a finished product and redoing it was strange. But people really like it! Some of us are even wearing it."
Bauta serves as both a reminder of the past and a look to the future. Lourdes understands this better than anybody else. She saw firsthand how the revolution changed everything about daily life in Cuba, including how clothes were made, bought, and sold. Now she sees that once again, that — along with so much else in the country — is on the precipice of change.
The word Alejandro Ingelmo, a Los Angeles-based shoe designer, uses to describe his Cuban grandparents is "glamorous."
"They legit looked like movie stars, they were so chic," he says. "They had that Hollywood glam to them."
Ingelmo is a fourth-generation shoemaker. His grandfather Cristobal, the son of a Spanish cobbler, moved to Cuba in 1917 and opened a shoe factory just outside of Havana. His brand, Ingelmo Calzado, sold wingtips in three different colors and was well-known among wealthy Cubans.
It was around this time, in the 1920s, that America caught on to the allure of Cuba. "The country was very much the place of the rich and famous because of the start of Prohibition, outlawing gambling, drinking, and race-tracking," says Louis A. Pérez, a Cuban historian at the University of North Carolina who has written several books on the country. "Cuba became a place Americans did what they weren't allowed to do." Hotels, yacht clubs, and golf courses began to sprout up.
After World War II, Havana became an even more popular destination for moneyed Americans. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Ava Gardner, and Clark Gable flocked to bask in Cuba's splendor, as did socialites, businessmen, and artists. It was during this postwar era that the Cuban fashion scene exploded.
"Cuba became a place Americans did what they weren't allowed to do."
The country became home to renowned boutiques, many of which also designed and produced their own lines. Perhaps the most famous was El Encanto, which was less a boutique and more a five-story luxury department store in the center of Havana's commercial district with six other locations across the country; the flagship is historical both because Christian Dior opened his only other studio outside of Paris inside its walls and because it was bombed in 1961, days before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Cuban society was one of "extraordinary inequality" by the 1950s, Pérez explains, and many women couldn't afford to shop at these expensive stores. Instead, they recreated the clothing they saw foreign visitors wear, since sewing was a common craft learned at home, explains Jesús Frías, a fashion expert living in Havana who is vice president of the Cuban cultural nonprofit Asociación Cubana de Artesanos Artistas, or ACAA.
As journalist Renée Méndez Capote wrote in her 1981 book Amables Figuras del Pasado, the country's sewing culture encompassed "rich, middle class, and poor women. There was a body of seamstresses in Havana, mostly mulatto women who sewed exquisitely by hand. Embroiderers embroidered like fairies, and fine lace made the country famous for ‘encajeras' [lacemakers]. Even the most modest woman was dressed tastefully, using splendid garments." María A. Cabrera Arús a native Cuban and postdoctoral fellow at New York University researching Cuban fashion, says it was common to buy sewing patterns known as figurines.
The figurines were often imported from the US and featured classic American styles of the 1950s, says Cabrera Arús. These are also styles that had captured the imagination of the Cuban elite. In the case of the Ingelmos, Alejandro's grandfather Cristobal prefered white tuxedo jackets with bow ties, and his grandmother Rosita often dressed in stylish high-waisted skirts.
Like many of Cuba's wealthy citizens, the Ingelmos' lives came to a halt after Fidel Castro's guerrilla forces, fighting for a classless, corruption-free society, took over the Cuban government in 1959.
After overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista, Castro instituted socialist standards like free education and health care. The new administration also seized private property and businesses from both Cubans and Americans, nationalizing them as state entities.
The year of the revolution, essentially all of Cuba's upper class fled the country; by the end of 1962, after Cuba allowed the Soviet Union to build a secret missile base on the island, much of the middle class fled Cuba as well. The Ingelmos escaped Havana in 1961, leaving their shoe factory and a colonial mansion behind as they fled to Miami.
"Things were never the same for my grandparents," Ingelmo says. "They built their lives over, but they often talked about Cuba with this nostalgia. They always said everything was better there."
"One of the major legitimacies of the Castro regime was equality and so fashion was considered a tool for the upper class, an embellishment people could make a profit off of."
Experts reference Cuban fashion in before-and-after terms regarding the revolution. Before, style was of immediate concern to those across the socioeconomic spectrum in Cuba. After, fashion was no longer a priority in the country as it was considered an instrument of capitalism.
"One of the major legitimacies of the Castro regime was equality and so fashion was considered a tool for the upper class, an embellishment people could make a profit off of," says Cabrera Arús. "For creativity, the shift was focused to art and music, where the forms are purer and aren't linked with production or commerce."
Cuba's factories began manufacturing military and school uniforms, as well as simple clothing distributed to Cuba's poor and working class, to whom Castro had promised social mobility. There were some government-led fashion initiatives, like the Taller Experimental de Diseño, an experimental workshop where locals could produce small-batch collections to be shown and sold during Saturday-night fashion shows, but their effects were minimal, says Cabrera Arús.
Throughout the '70s, a few other fashion establishments sprung up. Opina, a bimonthly publication popular for its classified section, commissioned local designers to produce clothing at its local atelier in Havana. Contex, a state-run business that made fashionable clothing for foreigners in Cuba and abroad, opened La Maison, a mansion that, according to Cabrera Arús, hosted weekly runway shows as well as an annual fashion week called Cubamoda, and sold clothing from local designers like Rafael De Leon, Delia Dias Plat, and Raf Cobian. There was also an independent artists' market at Havana's Plaza de la Catedral, where local artists were allowed to sell leather belts, sandals, and linen dresses.
Then came the ‘80s, what ACAA's Frías calls "Cuba's golden age of fashion." Between the unprecedented volume of local designers presenting their collections at La Maison and the number of students enrolling in the fashion program started at Havana's Instituto Superior de Diseño Industrial in 1984, "it was an incredible time period of design and it was supported by the state." These clothes, however, rarely found their way to Cubans as they could only be bought with American dollars, an illegal currency for Cuban citizens at the time, and were thus aimed at foreign tourists.
And then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's benefactor, in 1991. As Pérez explains, "the floor fell out from under the Cuban economy" once Russia stopped supplying Cuba with the petroleum byproducts the country was running on. During the next four years, an era now referred to as the Special Period, Cuba was left paralyzed.
"In a post-petroleum society, factories closed, buses stopped, people stopped working, and blackouts went for up to 18 hours a day," says Pérez. In addition, agricultural organizations shuttered, medical imports stopped, and businesses were left crippled. Since goods were rationed and most textile and clothing factories were shut down, the state began importing cheap clothing from abroad for its citizens to wear.
There are dozens of state-owned clothing stores in Cuba, between the rag stores and stores that sell new clothing. In these stores you'll find poor-quality, off-brand spandex dresses, sequined tops, and plastic shoes imported from Latin America; some of them, including a handful in Havana's Galerías del Paseo mall, sell higher-quality, dressy Italian clothing from companies like Giorgio and Fariana. This is where Cubans buy the majority of their clothes — or at least, where they're supposed to.
However, the prices for both cheaply made Latin American imports and higher-end European goods are unrealistically high for Cubans: Button-down shirts, cocktail dresses, and men's slacks range from 50 to 70 CUC at the Italian stores, while the cheaper stores sell sundresses for 14 CUC, miniskirts for 28 CUC, and colorful jeans for 30 CUC.
According to the Brookings Institution, approximately 75 percent of Cubans are on the state payroll, earning an average salary of $30 a month. Additionally, as senior Brookings fellow Ted Piccone points out, an estimated $3 billion of remittances, or gifts sent from abroad, make their way to Cuba annually; none of this money is monitored by the state and is often cited as a significant source of extra cash for Cubans. Still, most citizens have little disposable income.
"When you go into the state stores, you'll notice there aren't all that many purchases going on," says Richard E. Feinberg, a veteran Cuba analyst at Brookings and author of Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy. "And the sellers could care less about the shoppers. With the quality of service, you think you're back in the old Soviet Union."
Brands like Benetton and Lacoste also have boutiques in Havana through an arrangement with the government, but Cubans refer to these shops as "museums," as they attempt to sell clothing from years ago at high prices and thus stay empty nearly all of the time.
This is all at odds with how Cubans value style.
"Cubans care about how they dress. They always have," says designer Mario Freixas. "Appearance is extremely important to Cubans, no matter how poor they are," echoes Feinberg. "It's true for men, as well as women. In that sense, there's a sophisticated market."
"Cubans are like magicians. It's actually a consumer's culture here, where people are always buying," adds Fernández of Clandestina. "They will always find the money to make it happen — it's the Cuban way."
"Cubans are like magicians. It's actually a consumer's culture here, where people are always buying. They will always find the money to make it happen — it's the Cuban way."
That money usually comes "on the left" or por la izquierda in Spanish, shorthand for the myriad black markets in the country that provide a third source of income to Cubans, in addition to salary and remittances.
"Cuba's entire distribution system is rotten," the Havana Times wrote in 2014. "Importers are paid commissions, shopkeepers sell products under the counter, butchers steal and resell poultry, ration-store keepers mix pebbles in with beans, agricultural and livestock markets tamper with weighing scales and bakers take home the flour and oil."
Careful not to criticize the Cuban government, locals blame the existence of the black markets on the 54-year-old American embargo but will also admit the proliferation of smuggling and under-the-table selling came about due to the fall of the Soviet Union. They refer to this constant hustle as la lucha, or "the struggle."
"We basically have the most liberal form of capitalism ever here because everyone runs their own little black market where they are setting their own prices," jokes Clandestina's del Río, whose own brand pokes fun at Cuba's underground economy.
Cuba has countless black markets that are thriving. Perhaps the most sophisticated of them is El Paquete Semanal, a digital "package" of foreign news, television shows, movies, and music shared via hard drives and USB flash drives through a noncentralized network of messengers. Another flourishing black market? Clothing.
When you land in Havana's José Martí International Airport, it's hard to miss the giant parcels locals arrive with. All along the baggage carousels are oversized packages wrapped in blue plastic and labeled with the name of their owners. Some families have three parcels; others have 15.
Most bags won't be opened by security, especially if they are wrapped tightly with plastic, but passengers must have their bags X-rayed and weighed upon arrival in the country. Cubans are allowed to bring in 30 kilos (66 pounds) per person and can pay a fee if a bag is overweight. More often than not, these bags are stuffed with new clothes, and lots of them, much from the world's premier fast fashion brands.
"Go to Miami airport, and you'll see people headed to Cuba wearing 30 shirts, five hats, and tons of pairs of pants because they are bringing back clothing for their family to sell," says Andrew Otazo, executive director of the nonprofit Cuba Study Group.
Secret clothing stores are ubiquitous in Cuba; everybody knows someone who has one. "In many ways, the black market is just as important as the legal market," says a Havana resident who asked to remain anonymous. "Of course the government knows about this, but it's just understood that this is the way we live here."
There's the waxing spot where clients waiting for their appointments can head to the back treatment room to rummage through bags filled with printed pants from Zara and boyfriend jeans from Mango. There's the beauty salon that has racks of clothing behind a curtain at the back of the space; come in to get a facial and peruse items from H&M and Forever 21. There's even the gynecologist in Central Havana whose medical office features a covert boutique.
In many secret stores, clothes sell for around the same price as those in the state-owned stores (from 20 to 40 CUC), but the styles are far trendier. "When the prices are so high, and the clothing is so ugly, there's no reason to go to the state stores and not shop on the black market," explains another local.
The thriving black clothing market doesn't just exist because Cubans are seeking extra income; it exists because there's a demand for of-the-moment clothing. And the fact that Cuba remains under communist rule and fast fashion — a retail sector emblematic of peak capitalism — is all anyone in the country wants certainly provides for a unique and unspoken tension.
This is just the beginning. As per a recent Boston Consulting Group report, there are tons of "opportunities for multinational companies and foreign investors to stake an early claim in an untapped market." Spanish fast fashion company Mango is already scheduled to open a massive store at the Manzana de Gómez in Havana's historical area by the end of the year. More brands are sure to follow.
In the meantime, while selling clothing brought into the country is technically illegal, the government frequently turns a blind eye. But after several cellphone repair stores in Central Havana that were secretly selling clothes got busted late this summer, locals have been keeping quiet about which stores are still operating. You have to ask around until you find a guy who will admit he knows a guy who knows a guy.
This is what might happen when you do: You'll be escorted down several avenues over the course of 10 minutes, weaving through blocks lined with apartment buildings. The guy who knows a guy will stop at a building and yell up to an open window, where a woman in a house robe will appear. She'll yell down the combination to the front door, and you and your new friend will walk up a narrow staircase.
"When the prices are so high, and the clothing is so ugly, there's no reason to go to the state stores and not shop on the black market."
In her apartment, the woman will open a locked door adjacent to her living room. Inside will be a proper clothing boutique, complete with mannequins, a wall display of shoes, and a dressing room. There will be racks of jeans, tank tops, and dresses from Zara and its Inditex sister brands Bershka, Pull & Bear, and Massimo Dutti. Peppered in will be counterfeit Gucci, Versace, and Adidas.
The boutique owner will say she's been running the underground shop for years and spreads her business through word of mouth. While many underground market owners hire "mules" — people paid specifically to fly somewhere and bring back product — she will tell you she has family in Spain and brings back parcels of clothing when she visits them, often scouring fast-fashion sale racks so she can make the most profit.
You might walk out with a green Zara crop top for 15 CUC — not necessarily the choice you'd make in your hometown of New York City, but when it comes to shopping in Cuba, you take what you can get.
In addition to the state-run stores and the state-ignored secret stores, there are stores like Clandestina. A decade ago, it would have been inconceivable to own a private fashion company in Cuba, and it remains difficult to maintain a private business in a country where the economy is largely controlled by the government. But winds of change are slowly blowing through the island nation — "very, very slowly!" del Río notes. "Two-steps-forward, one-step-back type of slowly."
Since 2008, Raúl Castro, the brother of the recently deceased leader of Cuba's communist revolution Fidel Castro, has ruled the state and Cuba's ideologies have softened, at least when it comes to the free market.
Under Raúl's auspices, Cuba has made it easier for citizens to have their own businesses. By buying licenses to become cuentapropistas, or self-employed entrepreneurs, many Cubans are now able to own private cafés, restaurants (known as paladares), beauty salons, and bed-and-breakfasts, as well as work independently as drivers, mechanics, barbers, and seamstresses. Cuentapropista licenses have been available since the '90s, but in 2010, new laws allowed cuentapropistas to hire employees in order to expand their businesses, causing the number of cuentapropistas to increase from 157,000 that year to 357,000 just a year later.
Guidelines continued to ease and in March of this year, Cuba's labor ministry confirmed the number of cuentapropistas in the country reached over a half a million. The volume of workers involved in this new economy is likely much larger than this, though, as not all employees of the cuentapropistas are officially registered.
This boom hasn't come without controversy — recently the private restaurant sector has ruffled the feathers of the Cuban government — but Brookings analyst Feinberg believes little can stop the cuentapropistas' economic trajectory.
"Don't just look at the headlines, look at the trend lines," says Feinberg. "They've been going up, up, up over the last five years. No doubt, entrepreneurial activity in Cuba is churning."
An increase in available information and communication has also helped Cuba's progress. In 2015, the government began introducing public Wi-Fi spots, giving all Cubans open (albeit slow and costly) access to the world. At these designated spots in cities across Cuba, hundreds of people crowd, glued to smartphones and tablets as they Skype with loved ones, watch videos on YouTube, and browse Facebook. (Prior to this, Wi-Fi was widely restricted and very expensive.) Coupled with the country's diminished controls on travel — in 2013, the government got rid of exit visas, which were expensive and notoriously difficult to obtain — Cubans are now exposed to life far beyond the only country they have ever known.
With the government's ideological softening and liberalized economy has come a mending of ties with America, "so long in coming that younger generations, without much memory of invasions, embargoes, and the threat of nuclear obliteration, barely knew why the bad feeling was so ingrained in the politics of both countries," as the New Yorker put it last summer.
A year after Raúl Castro took office, President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions to Cuba in 2009, and in December 2014, Cuba and the US announced they were moving to restore diplomatic relations after nearly two years of talks between the two governments.
Obama took a historic trip to Cuba in March of this year to meet with Raùl, as well as political dissidents as a means of acknowledging Castro's opposition. The previous summer, the US and Cuba had reopened embassies in each other's capitals, and this past September, Obama appointed the first ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years.
Among the promises of this renewed relationship is that the United States' embargo on Cuba could soon be lifted completely; this possibility is all any Cuban business owner can talk about as more cuentapropistas flood the scene.
"Don't just look at the headlines, look at the trend lines," says Feinberg. "They've been going up, up, up over the last five years. No doubt, entrepreneurial activity in Cuba is churning."
If there's a time to set up shop, that time is now. Cuba's fashion community has lived in a vacuum, its isolation holding it back from international recognition, and local obstacles halting it from flourishing within its own country. As del Río puts it, "The talent in Cuba has always been here. It's just that now, there might be a better opportunity to exercise it."
In the decade of slow recovery following the Special Period, a handful of designers remained in the country, making and selling clothing in their bedrooms and living rooms. While many refer to Cuba as a country that's frozen in time, with its colonial architecture and classic cars, these designers preserved the centuries-old techniques native to the island nation while also creating a new modern style.
Take María Salomé Morales, a 62-year-old Cuban designer who's had her own label, Salomé, since 1996. Salomé Morales specializes in all things linen — linen dresses, trousers, jumpsuits, and guayaberas, the classic Cuban dress shirt. Her clothing comes with handmade pleats and embroidery, and pieces cost between 30 and 60 CUC.
"You might see people on the streets wearing Lycra and cheap stretch pants with sparkles, but that doesn't reflect Cuban style," says Salomé Morales. "Cubans have always liked to dress well and the style of the country is classics, like linen, for example, that look very modern and very beautiful."
Sitting in her office one early fall morning, the soft-spoken Salomé Morales wears a baby blue linen blouse with matching pants. Stacked on her desk are the latest issues of Spanish and Brazilian Vogue and Harper's Bazaar ("Gifts from friends," she says).
Two years ago, Salomé Morales bought this home in Miramar, one of Havana's nicer residential neighborhoods, and has been slowly renovating it to be the headquarters for her fashion line. The front of the house is a boutique with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and white marble floors that is set to open this month. The back of the house holds her office and a workshop, a small room filled with patterns and samples, where a team of three seamstresses, a pattern cutter, and an embroiderer make her clothing.
As handymen work noisily to put the last touches on an outdoor patio, Salomé Morales reflects on her entrance into the Cuban fashion scene. Originally a textbook editor, Salomé Morales started her fashion business on the side by taking custom orders for friends after obtaining a cuentapropista license.
"You might see people on the streets wearing Lycra and cheap stretch pants with sparkles, but that doesn't reflect Cuban style."
"In the ‘90s, there was such an economic need and this was a way to make money. I already knew how to knit and embroider because those are Cuban traditions," she says. "My clients would often save up to buy for special occasions, like a graduation or when they needed a dress for an event."
Eventually she quit her editing job to design full-time. She joined the ACAA so she could legally buy imported materials — a benefit afforded only to government-approved associations. She developed a name for herself by selling her clothes at art fairs, throwing fashion shows for family and friends, and selling her clothing in hotels like the Chateau Miramar. Salomé Morales worked out of her home for nearly 18 years and says she's ready to upgrade to her new stand-alone boutique as the country sees an influx of tourists, not to mention a growing class of cuentapropistas who themselves want better clothing.
Salomé Morales also makes upscale sleepwear: robes, nightgowns, and sets of tees and pajama bottoms made of silk and embroidered with lace. "What happens here is most people are living with multiple generations in a household, where you're living in cramped conditions, without privacy," she explains. "A lot of women walk around in sleepwear because it's hot, so these are modern and elegant versions they can wear."
The new Salomé boutique will also sell a line of children's clothes, designed by Salomé Morales's daughter Katherine, a 34-year-old mother of two who recently joined the family business. "It's really difficult to find children's clothing that doesn't have sparkles and isn't made of polyester," says Katherine. "It seemed obvious because once I brought the idea up to friends, everyone was dying for the option of children's clothing that's actually nice."
Like Salomé Morales, Jacqueline Fumero also got her start making custom orders. Fumero worked as a family doctor in Havana until she stopped practicing in the mid-'90s to raise her daughter, Alexandra. Fumero had learned how to sew from her grandmother, who owned a hat company before the revolution, and made clothes for Alexandra. When Alexandra started school, her classmates' parents took notice of her dresses.
"It was only once other mothers approached me with requests did I realize I could pursue designing as a career," she says.
After winning a fashion contest through a Cuban artist's association in 2003, Fumero was granted permission by the state to make custom clothing. Her collections consist of breezy dresses made of cotton and linen she hand-paints, as well as one-of-a-kind evening gowns featuring tropical motifs and layers of flamenco ruffles.
Three years ago, Fumero opened a bright, airy clothing boutique in Old Havana that also doubles as a café. "I got the idea to run a café-boutique because I was initially selling clothing out of my house, and clients would come with a driver or a husband, and I'd have to make them a tea or sandwich," she explains from a back office of the boutique.
The café offers a more steady stream of income, since customers aren't buying her pricey clothes (dresses range from 60 to 180 CUC) on a regular basis. Her clients, she says, are mostly mothers from her daughter's school, as well as artists. Unlike everywhere else in the world, the Cuban creative class actually earns among the most of any profession and belongs to the country's wealthiest 1 percent. This is also the reason why some fashion designers, who operate as artists instead of cuentapropistas, can bypass difficult importing laws and get materials from abroad.
"You can survive in Cuba as an artist in ways you could not survive in New York City," says Feinberg. For example, musicians are "permitted to keep their foreign earnings," according to the New Yorker, under a "special government dispensation meant to dissuade them from leaving." Del Río of Clandestina posits this social structure fits the ideals of Castro's revolution. "Cuba's art and music is raw and was built by its lower class, and so valuing them is part of the government's class segmentation," she says.
"As much as I would like to dress engineers and doctors and teachers, unfortunately those people today don't have as much economic purchase power," says Fumero. "A lot of my clients are in the cultural world, like singers, artists, and musicians."
But Mario Freixas prides himself on selling more affordable clothing to what he calls the "Cuban masses." Freixas, 51, started his career 25 years ago designing costumes for cabaret shows. Today his brand, which is called simply Freixas, sells an array of everyday menswear — casual button-downs in muted colors and playful paisley patterns, tailored suit pants in light materials, dressy versions of the classic guayabera shirt, leather loafers and double monk-strap shoes — in addition to clothing for women. His prices range from 25 to 45 CUC.
"Authentic Cuban fashion is crucial because a lot of clichés are imported," Freixas says. "People will often buy whatever is available, like clothing that's really tight and made of hot material, but it's not necessarily good for them. We're in the tropics, and so the fabrics should be natural and loose."
"Authentic Cuban fashion is crucial because a lot of clichés are imported."
Freixas has an impressive media presence in Cuba, as he makes the costumes for numerous Cuban television shows and dresses Cuban media personalities and orchestras that travel internationally.
He makes all of his clothing at his home with a team of 10 and sells his goods out of a storefront in Central Havana that he rents from the state. He's in the midst of renovating a workshop upstairs, a large room with over two dozen workstations and sewing machines that should be up and running in about two years. "This will be ready for a time," he says, "when Cuban fashion is ready to move up a level."
But to move up a level, certain pain points — like obtaining materials — need to be figured out.
"Accessing materials is a serious problem here, and when you do get your hands on something, it's never the quality you want," says Fumero. "A lot of people ask me what I'm inspired by and often, I lie. Realistically my inspiration is just coming from what I have. What do I actually have to work with? You buy sheets made of cotton, and then you dye them, and then you do some additional sewing, some embroidery. It's the Cuban way!"
When all routes have been exhausted, the fashion community turns to less desirable methods: straight-up smuggling. "There are different layers of trouble you can get into here," Clandestina's del Río explains. "There are the super-mega-troubles you don't ever touch, like drugs, prostitution, pornography, and politics, and previously, religion. But with smuggling, the worst that can happen is they take your stuff, and you get fined."
The obstacles of operating a fashion brand don't just stop at accessing materials. Freixas notes that Cuba is a cash-only economy, and operating without credit makes it hard to run a business. "Anything you want — materials, supplies, rent — you need all of the money upfront," he says. "So it's never a one-day process, you need to be saving for a long period of time or working it out with friends who will lend you money out of empathy."
Cuban designers are often asked why they keep going. In the words of Freixas, in order to endure in Cuba, "you need tenacity and to work hard all day, every day." He has worked on projects in Miami and New York. With his unique vision and opportunities far more lucrative than anything available in Cuba, why stay?
"A huge number of Cubans have left, to the US or to Mexico, but that's not representative of the Cubans who want to stay and continue," says Fumero. "A lot of us want Cuba to move forward and to be respected and to find its place in the world. It would certainly be easier to leave Cuba, but that's not my dream. I am 100 percent Cuban."
"Buying clothing in Cuba is a complicated subject," says Miguel Leyva, a 21-year-old university student. "If you are looking for oversized T-shirts, or fitted joggers, or a grunge look, there really isn't a lot of that influence here. Sure, you can find something good at a state store — but only once a year."
Leyva has curly brown hair and a gold nose ring and is widely cited as Havana's first fashion blogger. He got interested in fashion a few years ago, when he began going online at school and at internet cafés and discovering fashion blogs like I Am Drew Scott, Kate Loves Me, and Mikko Puttonen.
Last December, he finally started his own blog, This Is This, to document his outfits. He had friends take photos of his looks (consisting mostly of black market-bought pieces from fast-fashion brands like Zara, H&M, and Pull & Bear) and started coordinating group photo shoots too. The blog exposed him to other young Cubans who were interested in fashion and helped him establish a whole network of style-conscious peers.
"Once I decided to start it," says Leyva, "I was pretty surprised at how many were reading the blog. People even stopped me on the streets to tell me they recognize me and love my style."
The blog has managed to get some international attention. After a Spanish news outlet spread the ultimately false rumor that Fidel Castro's grandson Tony was going to walk in the Chanel fashion show that was held in Havana in May, the press pounced on Leyva's blog, since Tony (a longtime friend of Leyva's) had modeled on the site before. Traffic skyrocketed and brands reached out to send him clothing.
Leyva is emblematic of a new generation of Cubans who have a desire for both Cuban and global culture. "There is no longer just watching movies or listening to music that was made here," he says. "There's much more international access now and that influences your taste. If you like the Killers, you want to dress like the Killers."
"Traveling is also permitting change," adds Karina Valer, a 20-year-old musician and model who is part of Leyva's crew. "I traveled to Spain last summer and saw the fashion there and learned about their companies, and then I begin to develop ideas. I still have Cuban style, but those trips to Spain changed me."
On Thursday and Saturday nights, Valer and Leyva join scores of young people who pack into the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an art gallery-nightclub hybrid started by the Cuban fusion musician X-Alfonso. He worked with the government to turn an abandoned, state-owned cooking oil factory into a community space.
"Fashion in its purest form is a dialogue, a conversation, where you are telling someone something about you in the way you dress."
The Fábrica, as it's called, is now the epicenter of nightlife for Cuban youth, its cool, contemporary aesthetic dispelling the notion that all of Cuba is frozen in time. Two CUCs buys entry into its giant warehouse parties, which often feature live music. In addition to gallery spaces with rotating exhibits, the Fábrica houses several bars, a coffee shop, and a restaurant, all run by local cuentapropistas.
The Fábrica contains a small Clandestina shop, as well as a small fashion wing where every three months different local designers showcase and sell their work. The Fábrica also hosts frequent runway shows, where clothing designers, along with jewelry merchants, hair stylists, and makeup artists can present recent projects.
"It's a great responsibility because there aren't many places in Cuba that show off our fashion," says Katia Gil, a 43-year-old former model and fashion consultant who now curates the fashion projects at the Fábrica. "Most people think of Cuba as an image from the 1950s, with the Tropicana and old cars. But we have a lot of new talent coming out, and if we don't promote them, I don't think much will happen. We believe in the new designers because not only does Cuba have a great tradition of design, but these designers have the will to bring change. They are the future of Cuban fashion."
Leyva believes there's great value in young Cubans who push the boundaries of creative expression through fashion: "Fashion in its purest form is a dialogue, a conversation, where you are telling someone something about you in the way you dress. In a delicate way of putting this, when people come here from abroad, they see that we aren't just a tribe who follow and do. The job of a blogger is to create a style and help push that forward. My blog communicates to the fashion world what a young Cuban really wants to wear."
One goal Leyva has is to work with local brands as a consultant. A few months ago, he teamed up with Yali Romagoza, a Cuban designer who recently moved to the States to study fashion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and work on a business plan for her line.
"Miguel and his generation, they are critical to me," 30-year-old Romagoza explains over breakfast a few weeks earlier in New York City. "Miguel is young, and he's created this sort of movement, a lifestyle, with a whole group of teenagers following. It's very clear to me that this is an important moment."
There remains a huge gap between the Cuban youth and Cuba's fashion community. For one thing, most, if not all, of the clothing Leyva and his friends wear comes from abroad, bought on the black market and also shipped from friends and family in the States.
Romagoza posits this is because local designers don't ascribe to trends the way H&M or Zara do. Salomé Morales or Freixas are authentically Cuban, but that doesn't make them appealing to a younger set influenced by foreign styles. "Cuban design right now isn't critical enough for a new generation," Romagoza says. "Trendy fashion is a particularly strong priority for the younger generation because for the most part, the ideals of the revolution are already gone. They just want to wear things that make them feel differently."
Of all the local labels, Clandestina is perhaps the best positioned, and it's figuring out ways to work with other local designers. The brand already has one capsule collection in the works with Celia Ledón, a theater costume designer with Alexander McQueen-like creations. Jono Matusky, the director of the Innovadores Foundation, a US-based nonprofit that funds and advises Cuban startups and is currently working with Clandestina, says the brand has made an impact on contemporary culture not just because it's figured out a sustainable way to make clothes but because its style and themes speak directly to locals.
"A lot of places tend to peddle Cuban culture to an American audience, but Clandestina is very much geared to a Cuban audience made up of young millennials who are a part of an emerging Cuban culture," says Matusky.
Other than Clandestina, though, Leyva admits most Cubans don't even know local fashion exists. "There are a lot of missing steps here," he says flatly.
"It's quite hard to penetrate the local markets," says designer Isadora Angulo Alvarez, referring to the state-run clothing stores. "Besides, the clothing there looks like ‘90s chaos!"
Feinberg posits the government not stocking local designers in its stores is intentional.
"They're worried about economic competition against state-owned enterprises and about the potential political competition an emerging private sector could propose to a Communist party."
"There's tension between the desire to offer more prosperity and more opportunities for Cubans," he says, "and the fears of the emerging private sector eventually becoming a political voice that escapes from the omnipresent control and surveillance of the regime."
"As the government has opened the private sector, it has also been fine-tuning the regulations, the taxes, and the supervision," adds Ted Piccone, the senior fellow at Brookings. "They're worried about economic competition against state-owned enterprises and about the potential political competition an emerging private sector could propose to a Communist party."
This is why even La Maison, the beautiful colonial mansion that some American expats in Havana refer to as "the Barneys of Cuba" looks more similar to Filene's Basement these days: dimly lit, sparsely stocked, outdated. Fumero's dresses and Salomé Morales's linen jumpsuits would be a serious upgrade for the store. "The talent really needs to be more visible," says ACAA's Frías.
Rebecca Alderete and Gabriel Domenech are keenly aware of this visibility issue. Last winter, the pair, who met through their bandmate husbands, started Garbos, Cuba's first fashion magazine since the revolution. Garbos, which means elegance in Spanish, is put together by a team of 12 and goes out monthly on the digital Paquete Semanal. The editors pay 15 CUC a month for a messenger to come to one of their houses with a hard drive and upload the latest issue.
"We don't want to call ourselves the Vogue of Cuba, but..." Alderete says laughing over lunch at a restaurant near the Fábrica. "Basically, after the revolution, Cuba was totally void of fashion publications, but with the internet and the Paquete, people are being exposed to good style. We wanted to provide a place where Cubans could promote their designs and work."
"There's a Cuban designer named D'Zuarez, for example," Alderete continues, "who mostly makes men's clothing but also makes nice women's handbags. But most people don't even know about it, so we want to promote those types of stores. We want to be the source for Cuban fashion. In Cuba, there isn't enough information about happening on the inside. The black market is the most important way for Cubans to find clothes, but we want them to be shopping locally. We will be the connection."
Describing those local designers, Domenech says that "despite lack of resources, the results are great," and the same could be said for Garbos. The magazine is a glossy compilation of professional photography, good writing, and slick graphic design; the September issue included an op-ed on Disney's first Latina princess, a list of boutiques worth browsing in Havana, an interview with Cuban actress María Isabel Díaz, and a photo shoot featuring a local swimwear designer.
Garbos sells ad space in the magazine, and Alderete and Domenech hope to turn it into a profitable business, but for now, they run it cheaply, working with models and photographers they are friends with. The list of local designers they can feature in the magazine is limited for the time being, they admit, being that the community is small, but they don't except that to be the case for much longer.
Says Domenech, "All of our friends want to be become cuentapropistas and start their own things."
One of the most potent forms of exposure is live events. Cuba's Ministry of Culture has organized state-sponsored fashion shows and conventions over the years, and artists and cuentapropistas participate in independent fairs of their own, but the two spheres have largely remained separate. Roly Rius, who was educated at the Instituto Superior de Diseño Industrial and started his label RYO seven years ago, believes it's hard for Cuba's fashion community to persevere this way.
"If we combined private and state and had just one big fashion event with everyone, we'd be unified and could show everyone's collections, because that's the best way to see Cuban design," says Rius, citing the countless local fashion weeks around the world as examples of organized, consolidated events that bolster local design. "Everything here is really scattered and it's really hard for Cubans to get into events or even just hear about it."
The most recent attempt to bring the fashion community together happened in early October. Salomé Morales, Frías, and others from the ACAA helped organize the second-ever Havana Fashion Week, a state-sponsored event that featured 40 shows from 50 Cuban designers.
A main incentive, Salomé Morales says, was to form alliances within Cuba — ambassadors, diplomats, and state officials were on runway-show guest lists. The event also helped introduce the public to local designers, as shows were open to anyone and tickets cost less than 1 CUC.
"Showing your work stimulates growth," says Salomé Morales. "When there weren't any fashion events in Havana for a few years, the designers starting hitting a wall. When everyone works independently, it can be very isolating."
"I didn't care about not getting a seat. I cared that Chanel completely ignored Cuba's fashion community."
Havana Fashion Week is also intended to help Cuba's small fashion community gain some international recognition. The greater fashion industry may purport to love Cuba, but it generally only uses it as a backdrop.
There was the September 2015 Marie Claire editorial in which Lithuanian model Giedre Dukauskaite was photographed standing next to a fruit cart in Havana while wearing a $4,900 Gucci dress. There was W's August 2015 photo shoot with Adriana Lima and Joan Smalls leaning against peeling city walls in Givenchy and Alexander McQueen and posing with an elderly Santería woman. There was Vanity Fair's Rihanna spread, which put the pop star in the heart of Havana without so much as mentioning the country in the accompanying article.
Coupled with recent collections from Valentino and Stella McCartney that appropriated Cuban design and didn't involve anyone from the country in the design process and a televised visit from the Kardashians which showed little but cigars, rum, and colorful convertibles, it's clear there's risk of "exoticizing Cuban people and culture," as Racked wrote last year.
Perhaps the most questionable of these examples is Chanel's resort fashion show hosted in Havana this past May. Many locals felt Chanel used Havana without actually involving it. The show was closed off to the public, even though it was held on a public street. Out of the 47 models who walked the show, Chanel only hired two local models. Hardly anyone from Cuba's fashion community was invited.
"While Chanel has always been an icon and an inspiration for me," says Freixas, "it seemed like they were interested in Havana on a social level, by only looking at people who could possibly be clients, like famous musicians. But there are more important things in the world than money. Chanel's show could have been an opportunity to involve the Cuban fashion community and be a session to meet and exchange ideas."
"I didn't care about not getting a seat," adds Gil of the Fábrica. "I cared that Chanel completely ignored Cuba's fashion community."
Fumero, however, believes it was "promotion for the island — you start as a backdrop today, but tomorrow, more people know you." To Leyva, Chanel actually traveling to the country was a big deal. "It didn't look like Valentino had visited Cuba," he says of the Italian fashion house's resort collection. "It looked like Cuba had visited Valentino. To me, this is a step forward. I just want us to be a part of the conversation."
Things won't change for Cuba overnight. According to the Boston Consulting Group, Cuba's current gross domestic profit is roughly $82 billion, with potential to grow up to 4 percent over the next five years if the Cuban government continues to ease business restrictions.
Emilio Morales, a Cuban analyst who now advises American businesses interested in expanding into Cuba, writes in an email that "the Cuban government is moving very slow. In sectors such as tourism, telecommunications, air transport, and maritime, the businesses are moving at an acceptable pace, but in other sectors the Cuban government has not moved a finger." And then there's the matter of the not-yet-lifted American embargo.
"The optimism toward change in Cuba is valid, but it's going to take a lot longer than people think," says Brookings's Piccone. "President Obama has gone far, but the embargo is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
There's also the issue that President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to undo all of Obama's work if the Cuban government is "unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people." Even if Trump does continue down the path Obama has laid out, the fine print of the embargo states it can't be lifted unless there's critical political change in Cuba. The impending spring 2018 retirement of Raúl Castro might prove to be significant, Piccone notes, but until the Cuban government is run by someone with true distance from the revolution, he says, "we're probably stuck."
"We've been enemies for so long that in order for us to have a future. I think both sides have to open their minds."
In addition, there's much that needs to be done to repair the bitterness still felt by Cubans, Americans, and Cuban-Americans.
"Cuban families feel passionately about compensation because they lost everything," says Annie Vazquez, a Miami fashion blogger whose grandfather, Oscar Vazquez, owned a successful tobacco farm in Cuba and came to America after Castro expropriated his business. "We're talking about adults who worked their way to the top, owned properties and businesses, and had to flee to the US and scrubs floors to live." In addition to economic resentment, Cuban exiles also feel deep hostility toward the harsh, often bloody tactics of the Castro regimes.
Cuban designers know that a long road is ahead. "We've been enemies for so long that in order for us to have a future," says Ruis, "I think both sides have to open their minds."
Maria Salomé Morales dreams of a time when she'll be able to easily import materials from Miami. In an ideal world, Jacqueline Fumero says she would sell her clothing in Canada, where her husband is from, without having to worry about rigid importing laws. At Mario Freixas's workshop, there are all those sewing machines sitting sanguinely under tarps, waiting to be used.
"There's an overwhelming air of optimism in Cuba because people are seeing more change in three years than anything that's taken place over the last 20 years," says Matusky. "The future is bright."
As for the Clandestina duo, they too are feeling bullish.
"I don't think the state wants all this change, but they don't have a choice because it's happening," says del Río. "A year ago, it was a completely different country. We can only hope that more jobs open and that the people can make money out of their ideas. There are so many talented people here."
And those talented people will keep on pushing. Hustling, as they say, is the Cuban way.
Chavie Lieber is a senior reporter at Racked.
Editorial assistance by Patricia Morgovsky, Jauretsi Saizarbitoria, and Kathryn Lindsay. Special thanks to Enrique Del Risco.