On a side street just off the Plaza Del Cristo, a few blocks from the Cuban Capitol Building lies the best shop in Old Havana: Clandestina. Known by its full name, Clandestina 99% Diseño Cubano, the shop is at times easy to miss: at the moment their name is splashed across the front in zebra-print letters on a white background. How fitting.
The name, a bit tongue-in-cheek, refers to the fact that the shop operated in a sort of legal grey area, something you hear of so frequently in Cuba that it’s practically a official government classification. The shop is technically an artist’s studio, with the store area acting as a gallery where the works of art are t-shirts instead of paintings.
Run by the now-famous Cuban designer Idania del Rio along with her partner Leire Fernández, the shop sells all sorts of hip collectibles and souvenirs, from graphic t-shirts to notebooks to posters. The products are designed by del Rio and her network designers. In many ways, she views the Clandestina brand as a platform for Cuban designers, a means to showcase their work for a wider audience.
Where the shop excels is in creative reuse, whether they’re remaking goods or ideas. Their notebooks are cut from recycled paper in cardboard. Many of their shirts are screenprinted on top of old, recycled shirts that are donated to from the US. These provide a fascinating juxtaposition, whether it’s an upside-down mickey mouse paired with the Clandestina logo or an American country club insignia obscured by their trademark “Actually, I’m in Havana” slogan.
Founder and designer Idania Del Rio holding up a recycled t-shirt, soon to be reprinted at the shop. ©ifCuba
Even their supply chain is reused. As they grew into a larger operation, the team realized they wouldn’t be able to cut and sew all of their t-shirts and handbags in-shop. For this, they reached back in time, to Del Rio’s hometown, which before the revolution housed a large textile operation. The factory had long since closed down, but the knowledge and talent remained, in the heads and hands of the now 80-year-old seamstresses who lived there. Del Rio and Fernandez recruited the women to not only to sew, but to train and manage the next generation of seamstresses.
To produce non-recycled shirts, the women at Clandestina must supply the cotton fabric, often brought from the states in carry-on bags. As an artist, Del Rio can also request these materials from the government, but months of delays make this impractical. The lack of reliable materials means that keeping the shelves stocked is a constant struggle.
The most unfortunate result of all these supply chain issues are the costs: the price of most of the goods are higher than what the average Cuban can pay. For a tourist popping in after a day of sightseeing, however, the prices are just right. These customers provide the shop with the majority of their business, but the team has much larger goals than being a souvenir shop. They want to be the first clothing brand that Cuba’s seen in five decades. In many ways, they already are.