When I say it’s taken me a year to write this, I’m not exaggerating. I first met with Idania and Leire, the owners of Clandestina, well over a year ago, March 2017, in their studio above their small shop on Villegas in Old Havana. We talked for well over an hour, a luxury given our meeting was mere days prior to a big show they were putting on at Fábrica de Arte, an arts and event space in Central Havana.
The studio was littered with evidence of an upcoming show: hand painted shoes lay on the floor, stacks of clothing were ready to go. The scene wasn’t alien to me; it was a scene I’d participated in many times before in my role as Director of the Los Angeles Fashion Council.. Emerging designers preparing to showcase. We could have been in any studio, anywhere in the world, but we weren’t. We were in a three story walk-up of a bustling and somewhat dilapidated street, in a city long kept at arms reach for Americans thanks to its Communist government.
Clandestina was founded by Idania del Rio and Leire Fernandez in 2015 after then President Raul Castro lifted some of the restrictions on private business. After working on a couple of projects together, including a performance art piece, Idania and Leire realized they worked together well and founded Clandestina for three reasons, “to make money, to create jobs and opportunities and to celebrate design and the culture of the ‘New Cuba'” in a way that no one else was doing.
“You couldn’t find a product, no handbag or a cool t-shirt, that was about real contemporary Cuba everything is about Che Guevara it’s about rum, from all these things with the car, the mulatto and the music which are okay and they all exist and they are important there, is a whole other world that is not represented so we wanted to do something that represents the other life; the new Cuba.” -Idania de Rio
Leire took this concept of cultural design one step further and described themselves as “content creators” a term American modern internet culture is all too familiar with.
“Creating this kind of dialogue between the population, it’s important for us, you know for young people to be connected with something cool, to feel like they had ownership over an identity, but not the identity of Che Guevara which is cool and very Cuba, but it’s not the same, young people are not really connected with this. We wanted to create this not to be the only ones creating this but to open this dialogue and try to have an opinion and express your opinion” – Leire Fernandez.
Disseminating this content was the original business plan of Clandestina. They planned to collaborate with artists and set up their own screen printing shop to print their work on t-shirts and posters. To launch the business they ordered three-thousand t-shirts from the Dominican Republic. Immediately after that, new bureaucratic restrictions were imposed on import/export and import/export was paused indefinitely. Three-thousand t-shirts were all they were ever going to have.
They launched the store with those three-thousand t-shirts, 9 designs and set to work on a new plan.
“In Cuba there is a philosophy called resolver. The Cubans never give up, even in the past 60 years where there was nothing, no food, no internet, no whatever, so they will use everything, they do whatever they have to do but they keep moving. So we did the same, inspired by this philosophy. If we need to do t-shirts we will find second-hand t-shirts, we will choose the best fabrics and we will reshape them and we will re-sew them and basically that’s what we’re doing right now 80% of our product is upcycled, which is based on this resolver philosophy.” – Leire Fernandez
With 80% of their product up-cycled, the remaining 20% of the product is produced on organic cotton t-shirts that they manage to acquire. It was important for Clandestina to use organic cotton in a country which is environmentally conscious out of necessity. By default Cuban farms are organic, they have not had access to chemicals and pesticides, there is no Monsanto. Between the organic cotton tees and the up-cycled clothing, Clandestina feels it’s being consistent with the Cuban culture as opposed to new trends of sustainability in fashion, “It’s in the DNA of people to reuse things, it is not an effort it’s normal” says Idania.
Choosing to up-cycle existing garments into new ones came with new challenges for Clandestina. As a country with no manufacturing and limited open import/export policies and Capitalism hyper-controlled, their raw goods come from the second-hand clothes the government buys by the pound from countries like the US and Canada (yes, your Goodwill cast-offs could be sold in a State store in Cuba). A t-shirt costs between a $1-2. These pieces are rarely modern or ready for the racks which presented challenge number two, how to make them wearable.
Idania grew up in Bauta, a small town about an hour outside of Havana known as Textile Town. The town got this nickname from its pre-Revolution past as home to Textilera de Ariguanabo, an American owned industrial textile factory. The factory employed a thousand people before it was closed after the Revolution, and one of those people was Idania’s grandmother. Idania connected with one of her late Grandmother’s close friends, who, at 85 years old, has worked with Clandestina to train a new generation of workers on left behind pre-revolution equipment frankenstein-ed together into working machines. “So now we working with the generation trained by the generation of Idania’s Grandma” says Leire. The newly-trained team takes these second-hand garments and up-cycles them into new garments, shapes are altered and reconstructed and then screen-printed with designs from Idania and other local artists. This is resolver culture in action.
With the business growing and everything now produced within Cuba, it was essential that the team continue to grow. Creating jobs was one of the original goals of Clandestina but employing a workforce came with an unexpected challenge. In a country where food is rationed, and Capitalism (to a larger extent) simply does not exist, money is not an incentive to work. Time is valued more than money, workers prefer to spend time with their families, at leisure, since there is nothing to spend that money on. While this is changing, especially with the increased tourism from the States and better access to the internet (which is driving an increase in the want of things), Leire and Idania had to focus on other incentives to build their workforce. They found that community and creating a sense of family was what brought workers to them, and ultimately created their workforce.
“These people don’t need extra, they are used to living with what they have and they are okay and cool with that, with the little motorcycle and the house, they feed the dogs they have like five dogs and they are super happy. There are a lot of people that are not contaminated with this disease that we have. There are people that are vaccinated from it and they can live easily, easy going and an easy life. But now [with Clandestina] they are part of something bigger they are part of a family, they are part of a project and they are feeling that and that is more important than money. They are people who are interested in being part of something, being something, or feel like they have a family that can rely on if they have a problem. They feel like they need to be part of a bigger clan”
Of the goals of Clandestina, creating a market for Cuban design for Cubans has been the hardest. The team felt strongly about creating Clandestina for the Cuban people, a brand beyond the cars, cigars and Che posters. They wanted it to feel own-able to the Cuban people. The messages are cultural rather than overtly political and they speak to to Cubans, almost like an inside joke. An example of this is their 99% Diseño Cuba graphic tee which highlights that to be Cuban is to be a part of the world at large, to have a global identity, despite their reputation of being closed for 50+ years.
“Everything you see around you is done with a little bit extra of somebody, it’s not only Cuban there is always some Spanish lady or some Swedish guy, there is a lot of expats here because they married or they want to make business or they have a friend, there has always been somebody that is putting in the money or putting in in the ideas and I think that is really important because it’s what’s keeping this island less of an island; it’s making it more open”
In the spirit of creating a brand for Cubans, Clandestina works hard to keep the prices affordable, to encourage Cuban customers, but they still see the majority of their sales in their store come from international tourists. To combat this they plan on launching a “locals only” card, with a further discount for local customers. They are still finding, however, the more they focus on Cubans only, the more attractive they become to tourists. It’s not something they discourage, as ultimately this offsets costs for the Cubans. They have recently launched an online business based in the U.S and catering for the U.S consumer. This model is slightly different and speaks to their original plan, they work with a team in the U.S to have their designs printed onto organic cotton t-shirts. All of this manufacturing happens in the USA and allows them to sell the t-shirts and other goods globally.
The spirit of Clandestina, feels much like the spirit any young brand starting up in the US. Their ideas are moving at the speed of sound, their motivations stem beyond purely Capitalistic gains, they’re fired up and they’re dealing with hurdles as and when they approach them. A story any young brand can relate to. With some added resolver spirit.
You can shop U.S.A made Clandestina goodies in their online store, alternatively, if you find yourself in Cuba, stop by their store: 403, Villegas, La Habana, Cuba.