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Meet Clandestina, the Cuban brand speaking to a new generation

One innovative designer has found a way around both the regime and the US embargo and become the first Cuban clothing company to ship anywhere in the world

When Havana-based designer Idania del Río runs out of ink for silk-screen printing T-shirts, it’s likely the rest of Cuba has too. When she needs to buy buttons, she scours 10 different stores to find enough. And when she wants to send an email, she has to walk one mile from Clandestina, her independent design shop, to the nearest public wifi hotspot. And yet, despite the shortage of materials and scarce internet access – the ordinary strictures of operating a business under the country’s socialist regime – Clandestina has become the first Cuban brand to launch an online store shipping anywhere in the world – including the US.

The small fashion label celebrated this landmark achievement as relations between the US and Cuba have once again soured after allegations of mysterious “sonic attacks” on US government employees in Havana. In September, the US withdrew more than half its diplomats and warned Americans against travel to Cuba, part of Donald Trump’s rollback of his predecessor’s historic rapprochement.

The Clandestina shop in Havana.

Del Río and her business partner, Leire Fernández, launched Clandestina in 2015, a few years after Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, loosened the laws governing private enterprise. The shop, located in a whitewashed colonial townhouse in Old Havana, became the first independent design outlet in Cuba, a testimony to the wave of creative, entrepreneurial energy sweeping the capital. The duo’s trademark tongue-in-cheek logos, often printed on recycled T-shirts and totes, expressed an attitude of self determination that spoke to this new generation.

For the past year, they have focused on bringing the brand to an international audience, no small feat considering Cuba’s export market, crushed by the US embargo, is virtually non-existent. However, while the embargo restricts the importation of goods to the US, it does not ban services. Del Río uses this anomaly to work around the system, digitally uploading Clandestina designs to an affiliated manufacturer in South Carolina, which prints them on T-shirts from a Wrap (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production)-certified supplier in Nicaragua and ships them globally. In a country where the concept of a homegrown brand is still taking shape, Clandestina’s ambition is striking.

A Clandestina T-shirt. Photograph: JLabradorDeu

Shopping options in Cuba are limited. State-run stores sell cheap imports – polyester dresses and plastic shoes. More popular are the “secret stores” found in the back of beauty salons or people’s private homes selling fast fashion smuggled from overseas. Del Río, like other style-minded Cubans, hunts for elusive vintage pieces at government “rag stores”, which buy secondhand clothing in bulk from the US and Canada.

“You never get what you really want,” del Río explained, speaking from Mexico where she was sourcing new ink (for several weeks they have been able to print only in black). “Cubans have a profound sense of fashion and want the latest trends, but there was a lack of contemporary brands.”

The island went online in 2015, followed by the arrival of style blogs and the country’s first fashion magazine, Garbos. Designers such as Celia Ledón, who recycles found objects into high fashion, and Robertiko Ramos, a costume designer and tattoo artist, are changing the conversation around clothing; but young Cubans, like young people anywhere in the world, want something affordable, accessible and on trend, of which there is little.

Despite demand, launching a label – let alone tackling e-commerce – requires negotiating elaborate red tape and punitive import laws. The fashion industry suffers from the absence of textile manufacturing, which all but disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Del Río, who studied graphic design and worked abroad for several years, raised capital from friends to launch Clandestina; as a cash-only economy all payments have to be upfront. “At first, we weren’t sure how to do marketing,” she said. “There weren’t really channels for advertising, so we threw parties with free alcohol. We tried to gather locals, friends and followers, and they started to stop by.” Now they receive 20,000 visitors a year. Other designers have begun approaching the Clandestina team hoping to follow in their footsteps. “Right now we’re really happy, because this is a major step for all of us,” del Río said. “To be global from Cuba, why not? We think it’s possible and it’s necessary.”

Idania del Río, designer and founder of Clandestina.