Idania del Rio, co-founder of Cuba’s first independent fashion label Clandestina, wore a recycled T-shirt to the recent opening of her New York pop-up. With a ripped neck held together by many safety pins, the refurbished black Cincinnati Bearcats jersey resembled a sort of gender-neutral take on Elizabeth Hurley’s famous black Versace dress.
A publicist for the brand was quick to whisper that the salvaged top, like most Clandestina pieces, was “sustainable.”
The s-word has emerged as one of the Planet Fashion’s buzziest trends, with major players like Levi’s, H&M, and Kering pledging to release eco-friendly designs and initiatives. In Cuba, recycling clothes isn’t just in vogue—it’s been a way of life for more than half a century.
“We didn’t know until we came to New York that there was a [sustainability] trend or movement,” Leire Fernandez, Clandestina’s co-founder, told The Daily Beast. “We heard that and thought, ‘Oh really, this is fashion? Cool!’ We do it out of necessity.”
Del Rio, 37, said, “The funny thing about Cuba is that sometimes you feel like you are 60 years behind everyone, and then suddenly you’re 60 years ahead.”
Del Rio and Fernández founded Clandestina out of a Havana storefront in 2015, after then-president Raúl Castro eased regulations on the country’s private sector. The boutique became the first Cuban company to sell internationally online. In 2015, Racked's Chavie Lieber wrote that “many consider [Clandestina] the future of Cuban fashion.”
Cuba's one-party socialist system owns and operates most of the country’s clothing stores. That has not stopped black market shops from popping up in basements, and Clandestina takes its name from those covert establishments.
“People go abroad to Europe, South America, and Miami, then come back with clothes and resell them,” del Rio explained.
For years, foreign clothes served as status symbols, markers of access to faraway, glamorous places. For this reason, knockoffs have always been popular, said Maria Cabrera Arus, an NYU fashion and society professor who grew up in the country.
After the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where Adidas made the official uniform for the Soviet Union, demand for the German sportswear brand spiked.
Today, that has changed, though Arus said that many Cubans still prefer to buy foreign brands—“Something to distinguish themselves from what they have in stores,” she said.
Clandestina's founders want to challenge that. They are hard at work creating a uniquely Cuban fashion identity, no small order in a country where clothes used to be rationed and school uniforms were standardized nationwide.
“We start with, ‘What do I have? Let me think of how I can build with this,’” Fernández, 43, said of her brand's sensibility. “We start with, ‘What do I have? Let me think of how I can build with this.’”
The Clandestina pop-up, held at The Canvas by Querencia Studio in Williamsburg, sells the label's greatest hits. Nylon tote bags come adorned with a mashup of reused fabrics, making each one unique. It's another nod to Cuba’s DIY spirit that will no doubt speak to Brooklynites enchanted with bespoke goods.
“We work with what’s available,” del Rio said. “We don’t have a fix-it sense of perfection. Everything is completely imperfect.”
One refurbished fatigue jacket references Cuba’s guerrilla history. But it comes embellished with a rainbow-printed WiFi symbol, speaking to the country’s current fight for LGBTQ rights and free Internet access.
“Cubans never give up; they find a way,” Fernández explained. “This is what Clandestina means for a client from Australia. Resilience. People who are doing a lot of things with nothing.”
As a native of Spain and former UNESCO worker, perhaps Fernández isn’t coming entirely from nothing. In 2015, Clandestino began using Google Chrome’s T-Rex—a symbol of faulty WiFi—as a design motif protesting the country’s lack of Internet access. Google itself took note, and has lent the budding line financial support.
Since dispatching orders directly from Havana is a no-go, Fernández brings the parcels to Miami and ships from the United States. As the Guardian first reported in 2017, Clandestina has also tapped a manufacturing plant in South Carolina to print their graphics on T-shirts.
“It’s a really complicated process,” del Rio said. “For us, it’s an opportunity to be out in the world—the challenges are tough, but it’s a good opportunity.”
Donald Trump, whose administration has rolled back Obama-era access to Cuba, is also, as del Rio said with an eye roll, “another opportunity” to flex Clandestina’s ingenuity.
Fernández put Trump’s influence in blunter terms. “It’s shit,” she said “It’s terrible. He’s trying to stop tourists from visiting, and our sales to Americans have gone down around 50 percent. So, we reoriented [selling] to Cubans.”
The duo, who made history as early adopters of Cuban e-commerce, estimated that these days around “80 percent” of their business is done in-store, the old fashioned way.
“I don’t think that Trump knows there is a real Cuba with contemporary young people trying to build a country,” Fernández went on. “He doesn’t think about young people who are 20, 30 years old—artists, architects, real people trying to fight.”
As del Rio put it, “Cuba is more than a Che Guevara T-shirt.”