Clandestina, which bills its cheeky T-shirts as “Designed in Cuba. Printed in the USA,” became the first Cuban brand to launch a website for U.S. sales in late October — just in time for its first experience with Cyber Monday and the Christmas retail season.
Since then, the Clandestina website has had more than 18,500 visits, 350-plus orders, and sold more than 400 T-shirts at $28 a pop. It even ran an ugly Christmas sweater promotion that featured a dinosaur chasing a mojito and the Spanglish message: “Relajate asere (Chillax, dude). It’s Christmas.”
For a small Cuban private enterprise, those are great numbers, said independent Cuban designer Idania del Río. “We’re super-happy. This is a dream we’ve been working on for two years.”
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Founded in 2015 by del Río with financing from family and friends, Clandestina has a knack for finding its way into market niches that haven’t been penetrated by Cuban products in decades. When Carnival Corp.’s Fathom Adonia made the first cruise from Miami to Cuba in more than half a century in 2016, T-shirts produced in Clandestina’s Old Havana design studio were on sale in the ship’s store, and the company’s products are now offered on Holland America cruises to the island.
For its new foray into the U.S. market, Clandestina faced the island’s sketchy internet connections, erratic supplies of raw materials, and U.S. banks that like to steer clear of anything with Cuba attached to it. Manufacturing in Cuba and trying to export directly to the United States is just about impossible for small Cuban entrepreneurs, but Clandestina found a way to make e-commerce and U.S. sales a reality.
The route Clandestina has taken is to digitally upload its designs to Frenzy, a contract T-shirt printer in Columbia, S.C. Frenzy handles printing, production and shipping for the T-shirts, which are manufactured in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Another U.S. company, Niche, a friend of the Clandestina brand, has helped with online sales and payments.
For the most part, the money Clandestina makes on U.S. sales stays in the United States, where it’s used for marketing and brand awareness, taxes, and payment for the next printing run.
Del Río’s partner Leire Fernández, who is from Spain, recently set up a Florida corporation, BMBM Design, that now deals with financial matters. After expenses, extra money goes to pay the salaries of Clandestina’s Cuban designers. U.S. companies are allowed to pay for the services of private Cuban workers. Independent Cuban entrepreneurs also can have U.S. bank accounts and receive payments in the U.S., but not many U.S. banks are interested in this business.
Despite the embargo, U.S. regulations allow the import of music, art and other cultural materials from Cuba, and new rules that went into effect during the Obama administration permit independent Cuban entrepreneurs to sell a wide range of their products in the United States. Although the Trump administration has cut back on some trade and travel to Cuba, the exemptions to the embargo involving private entrepreneurs are still in effect.
“Pretty much any private company is allowed to export to the United States under the Obama regulations, but there aren’t very many of them and there’s no official way for them to export,” said John Caulfield, who headed the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana from 2011 until 2014 and now advises companies interested in the Cuban market.
But the Cuban government hasn’t set up a mechanism to facilitate private trade, and there have been only a couple of symbolic shipments — two containers of artisanal charcoal produced by a private worker-owned cooperative — sent to the United States directly from the island. Nespresso also sells “Cafe de Cuba” capsules in the United States, but the Cuban-grown coffee beans are sent to Switzerland first for encapsulation.
“For Americans, it’s really strange to work with Cubans. The first thing they think is it’s illegal to do business with Cubans,” said del Río. By happenstance, she met Frenzy’s owner when he came to Havana on a trip. When she discovered he was in the printing business, one thing led to another, and she ended up going to South Carolina for face-to-face meetings. They struck a deal.
Caulfield said the Clandestina business model is unusual. “I’m not aware of any other Cuban company doing this,” he said.
Clandestina’s T-shirt designs are fun, a bit tongue-in-cheek with a touch of political or revolutionary edginess — or maybe not — depending on how you take it. Even the name Clandestina (underground, clandestine) is slightly subversive.
But more than anything the Clandestina designs are about Cuban reality.
To “make ethical fashion, that sometimes is a way to resist, to overcome, to reuse and to understand that there is a good side to everything,” is the way del Río explained the Clandestina philosophy in a blog post.
Clandestina’s motto could be resolver, the Cuban practice of finding solutions to life’s problems. “We make something from nothing and the best of what we have. We persevere, no matter what. That’s our inspiration: a way to not only deal with the ups and downs of life, but to enjoy them like the waves of the ocean,” says the Clandestina site.
In Cuba, that translates into Clandestina’s Vintrashe (vintage + trash) line. Because of the scarcity of raw materials, Clandestina has turned to the second-hand clothing market and discarded nylon, thread, paper, plastic and cardboard to fashion shirts, toys, bags, magnets and notebooks. The recycling makes its products unique.
Because there isn’t a developed wholesale market in Cuba, Clandestina must buy its new textiles at Cuba retail stores where it’s not possible to buy in bulk. It buys ink and printing supplies in Mexico or Miami.
“Our production has to be dynamic because when you go back to the store, the textiles we were using may no longer be available. Sometimes it’s stressful [finding raw materials], but it allows you to change and improve,” del Río said. “We try to keep it real, be transparent, be funny — no matter what the situation.”
The cutting and sewing operation is based in a little town outside Havana called Cayo la Rosa that used to be a center for textile production, so it’s been no problem finding people who know how to sew, del Río said.
The company and its products celebrate the idiosyncrasies of Cuban life.
There’s a T-shirt featuring the Google Chrome dinosaur that pops up when something goes wrong and a computer fails to connect — which in Cuba can be quite often. “The dinosaur is the model we’re always working with to reflect our disconnection,” said del Río.
The website model for the “Welcome to the Prehistoric Age” T-shirt, which comes in “heavy metal” gray or pink, is an older woman standing at a Wi-Fi hotspot in a Cuban park with earphones on and her cellphone in hand. She’s del Río’s neighbor Daisy, who was very excited about her photo shoot. “She arrived super early with her hair and makeup all done,” said del Río.
Nearly all the Clandestina models are family members, friends and co-workers. “We want to promote everyday Cubans and show Cuba life as it is — chaotic, interesting and many things at the same time,” del Río said.
Another design features a single star on the chest of the T-shirt and the Clandestina logo, “The star of a revolutionary ... or one of a ninja? You decide!” says the online description.
There’s even a T-shirt to gift to that person who needs an excuse for never responding to texts or Facebook and phone messages. Emblazoned across the front is: “Actually, I’m in Havana.” But Clandestina says the shirt also works for those who really are in Havana, those who have left, those who are passing through and those who dream of coming to the island.
Although Clandestina’s Old Havana shop turns out handbags, beach bags, wallets and various clothing items, it offers just 10 T-shirt designs on its website. But it has big plans: future collaborations with other private Cuban workshops to offer more products and to begin online sales of prints — “the best of Cuban graphic design,” said del Río.
Clandestina is trying to run its customer service operation from Havana where only a minuscule number of Cuban homes have internet and most Cubans who want to stay connected resort to Wi-Fi hotspots at hotels, parks and other public places. “The challenge is to keep the supply chain working properly,” del Río said. “Customer service is a nightmare but we are learning.”
Clandestina’s customer service rep tries to “stay online at least during working hours,” del Río said. To do that, he visits public Wi-Fi hotspots. “It’s expensive and the internet is not always working,” she said.
Del Río said she and Fernández gained valuable insight into how U.S. business works when they took part in the Entrepreneurship and Competitiveness in Latin America program at Columbia University last year. Now they’re trying to apply some of those lessons to their fledgling e-commerce operation.
Although Clandestina’s Old Havana store, studio and printing operation attracts about 20,000 visitors a year and the company provides jobs for 29 people, the Cuba-based business “doesn’t really grow,” del Río said. “It just sustains itself.”
The company also took a hit after the Trump administration crackdown and in the wake of mysterious acoustic incidents that injured the health of about two dozen American diplomats, which prompted the U.S. to pull back about 60 percent of its diplomatic personnel from Havana. In the aftermath, del Río said, “the number of American visitors decreased dramatically and we lost about 40 percent of our market.” But so far this winter season, she’s noticed a slight uptick in American travelers.
The Clandestina partners have decided that the way to grow is through e-commerce. Internet service in Cuba has slowly been improving. “We’ve got our fingers crossed it will continue to improve,” said del Río.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi