Scrappy Cuban clothing line exemplifies ingenuity with U.S. online store opening

HAVANA (Reuters) - Hip Cuban clothing brand Clandestina is not waiting to see how tighter U.S. restrictions on travel to the Caribbean island affect visits of Americans shoppers. Instead, the line is taking its apparel to the United States through e-commerce.

U.S. tourists look at products inside the Cuban private design store Clandestina in Havana, Cuba, October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Its site,, went live on Thursday with an initial selection of T-shirts with Cuban slogans like "resistir y vencer" (resist and conquer), no small feat in a country with minimal internet access.

While the designs will remain Cuban, U.S.-based manufacturers will produce the apparel and ship them to U.S. buyers, Clandestina said. The U.S. trade embargo and supply restrictions in Cuba make it virtually impossible to ship from there. The Spanish citizenship of a Clandestina co-owner gave the brand the ability to set up in the United States.

Clandestina’s move highlights the ingenuity of Cuba’s fledgling private sector in overcoming obstacles on the communist-run island and abroad.

The clothing brand is one of the success stories among the private stores, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts that have emerged under President Raul Castro, who has implemented market reforms to modernize Cuba’s Soviet-style command economy.

“The Clandestina brand has always been one about succeeding against the odds and overcoming the seemingly impossible,” said co-founder and creative director Idania del Rio, 36.

She and her Spanish business partner Leire Fernandez, 42, created Clandestina in 2015, opening a flagship store in Old Havana selling clothes, bags, posters and trinkets that have quirky Cuban designs and slogans reflecting local humor.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

“Actually I’m in Havana” reads one T-shirt, while another says “I’m a mamey (fruit), you can make a milkshake out of me”.

A lack of wholesale stores and restrictions on importing for the private sector in Cuba meant they had to get creative to acquire textiles and keep up stock.

Friends brought batches of raw T-shirts in their suitcases from abroad that they print their designs on, and Clandestina became even better known for its “upcycling” of second-hand clothing to make unique pieces.

They say they now have 27 employees and their shop attracted more than 20,000 visitors last year.

Like many private Cuban businesses in Havana, Clandestina benefited from a boom in U.S. travelers since a thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations in 2014. Some 70 percent of its shoppers are foreigners, half from the United States.

But U.S. President Donald Trump in June ordered tighter restrictions on travel to Cuba from the United States. Washington also issued a travel warning to the island last month after allegations of health attacks on U.S. diplomats.

A likely drop in U.S. customers in Cuba and the desire to expand their business made it the perfect time for them to open up the first Cuban online fashion store in the United States, the Clandestina duo said.

“If the Americans don’t come to Cuba, well, we will go to the United States,” said Del Rio.

As a Spaniard, Fernandez was able to register a company in the United States, and a loophole in the embargo allows her firm to hire Cuban designers. The aim, eventually, is to build Cuba’s first global fashion brand.

“Not a lot of people know what’s going on in Cuba,” said U.S. visitor Kasha Trogak, perusing their Havana store. “Curiosity can definitely help to sell the product.”

Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Cynthia Osterman