Like so much else in Cuba, shopping for clothes isn’t easy. Buying a simple pair of socks or a T-shirt means choosing between the wildly overpriced, shoddy offerings of state-run stores and the bales of low-priced clothing illegally imported by “mules” traveling from the United States, Ecuador or Panama. This year, a third option is bursting onto the scene after years of growing quietly in backroom workshops and bedroom studios. A small homegrown fashion industry is winning renown and an increasing share of Cubans’ limited clothing budget with simple but fun-and-stylish clothing produced on the island with natural fabrics and sold at competitive prices.
Hundreds of private designers are turning out gauzy wedding dresses, brilliantly decorated bathing suits, linen pants and even uniforms for state businesses. Last week, dozens of designers displayed their wares at the five-day Havana Fashion Week at Cuba’s most elegant theaters, where hundreds turned out for runway shows, private fittings and cocktail parties. “The changes that have taken place in this country, the openings, make things easier,” said Jesus Frias, a designer who put on a swimwear runway show on Friday. “There’s a fashion renaissance in Cuba but it can’t be a priority for the state, so it’s we private designers who are bringing it back.”
The growth of the artisanal fashion industry comes thanks to free-market reforms put in place by President Raul Castro after he took power in 2008. Unlike some new private businesses, the fashion industry is receiving a relatively warm welcome from the communist bureaucracy, perhaps because it doesn’t directly compete with the state. After successful runs in the first decades of Cuba’s socialist revolution, state-run clothing businesses were hurt by the collapse of the Soviet Union and had largely disappeared by the mid-1990s.
Celebrities and fashionistas have made Havana a hot destination over the last two years amid a boom in tourism set off by detente with the United States. In May, French label Chanel took over Havana’s Prado boulevard for a runway show that garnered global attention, and anger among many Cubans for its privatization of one of the main thoroughfares in the capital of a country that has declared socialist equality as its guiding principle.
Privately designed clothes remain out of reach for Cubans on state salaries of about $30 a month, but those with private-sector jobs or help from family overseas can afford them. Mario Freixas, a well-known designer who dresses many of the stars of state-run television, sells shirts for $20 and men’s and women’s pants for $30.
Alongside the domestic market, Cuba’s own designers are hoping that their lightweight blouses and fringed swimsuits will become popular items for visitors to take home. “We all have high hopes for the tourism boom,” Frias said. “I don’t think anyone comes to Cuba to buy imported clothing.” Havana Fashion Week began in 2015 with 30 designers, organizer Catherine Dorticos said. This year’s edition had twice as many. “It’s a way to motivate people, for people to see other options and for artisans to produce more and feel inspired to do new things,” she said.