Cuba’s Fashion Industry is Small, but Growing

The fashion scene in Cuba is brand new and rapidly changing. For decades, Cubans have foregone fashion as it is sometimes seen as contradictory to the ideals of the revolution. But as Cuba opens up and increases its exposure to the outside work, new and exciting opportunities in fashion are beginning to emerge.

Typical Cubans on the street get their clothing in several different ways. One is through state-run clothing shops, where they can pay in cash or with their monthly supply of clothing stamps from the government.

Recently, some higher-end state stores have opened up, buy they sell the same types of merchandise—clothing that is manufactured oversees in countries like China in styles that are selected by the Cuban government. The products are selected to meet basic needs for clothing and not for any trends or fashion. Options and variety are limited and it’s uncertain what will be in stores any given month.

Cuban receives donated clothing from abroad, which means you’ll see a polo for a New England country club on the back of a dirt-covered construction worker. These pieces are sold in state-run markets, but by the time they make it to the shelves they’ve often been picked-through for all the best merchandise. These “premium” second-hand clothes are likely resold on the black market at a markup.

Cubans are good at making things last, which means that their clothes are worn for years, possibly decades, repaired and re-stitched and sometimes repurposed. The only practical way that Cubans can access the latest style are through mulas—mules—that bring clothing back from the US in their checked luggage. It’s the only way for Cubans to get their hands on hip, fashionable clothing. This comes at a steep up-charge.

This is the way that nearly all Cubans received their clothing for the past decade. More recently, they’ve witnessed the appearance of a small but growing design scene on the island, with a variety of designers trying to create locally made clothing with what little resources they can access.

Designers struggle to obtain the materials they need to manufacture their clothing. There’s also no official fashion design programs, though there are programs for costume design, graphic design, and visual arts that many Cuban designers adapt to clothing.

As a result, many Cuban designers focus on high-fashion, creating single, unique pieces to sell. There a variety of designers pursing this type of strategy, many of whom display their art in fashion shows at spaces like the Fabrica de Arte Cubano.

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Cubans relaxing and mingling at the Fabrica de Arte.

This type of “fashion as art” is interesting, but certainly challenging. These pieces would be far outside the price range of typical Cubans and likely sell to international buyers. Some designers are pursing more sustainable strategy, manufacturing their designs in larger quantities and selling in fairs or out of workshops.

The Cuban government traditionally reserved all economic activity to state-owned entities, but in 2010 began authorizing certain self-employment categories, including seamstress, tailor and creative artist. In recent years some of these self-employed persons, or cuentapropistas in Spanish, have expanded their activities. Although what is actually permitted is often ambiguous, it is clear that authorities have recently begun to take a more tolerant approach.

The clothing brand Medusa, created by Jennifer Llanes, offers a variety of dressed and cover-ups, each slightly unique. Medusa’s clothing is manufactured entirely by Llanes and sold in limited quantities at craft fairs, though they’re opening an online store soon.

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Jennifer Llanes, creator of the Medusa clothing line.

There’s only one design team that’s grown beyond this—Clandestina 99% Diseño Cubano, run by designer Idania Del Rio and Leire Fernandez (which we’ve mentioned here and here). They have their own workshop and store in Old Havana and employ teams of buyers, designers, seamstresses. It’s been a challenge for them to make it as far as they have, and they’re unsure what the future holds, but their path provides a template for other Cuban designers looking to take their business to the next level.

A big focus of Clandesta is upcycling, particularly with their new Vintrash line of clothing. They repurpose used clothing from aboard, re-cutting shirts and printing their own designs on top of existing logos and branding.

This type of repurposing and juxtaposition creates fascinating and funny pieces, but it certainly wasn’t invented by Clandestina. Cubans have become used to reusing, recycling, and borrowing ideas from other cultures for decades. On the street, you’ll see fashionable young Cubans pairing items from state stores with ironic second-hand shirts or hip accessories brought in from the states.

Tattoos are also popular, especially among the younger generations. Originally made by friends with equipment made or smuggled in, a few tattoo parlors have opened up outside the country, including the now well-known La Marca in Old Havana. Recently, barbershops were permitted to open up, which has created a boom in men’s haircuts. The general style seems to be a play of the fashionable men’s styles around the world—short on the sides, long on top—with many variations.

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Cuban street fashion—and tattoos—on display at Art en la Rampa, an outdoor art festival.

The Cuban fashion scene is new, but growing. It borrows from many influences, both domestically and internationally, and adapts to the many constraints on the island. It will be fascinating to see where the trends go as access to resources and information increases.

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