Upcycling in Cuba isn’t a trend. It’s a necessity. Cubans have been reusing and repurposing for decades. As a tourist, you’ll notice this in the 1950’s car taking you for a spin. It’s got a 1992 mitsubishi dashboard and engine parts from Mercedes Benz and Kia with a few other magical pieces in there.
Go even a little bit deeper into Cuban life, and you’ll quickly recognize that people upcycle everything. Nothing is wasted. A fan breaks? Go get another broken fan for parts and make a new one out of the two — voila: Frankenfan. Now, as the world starts to zero in on real solutions for climate change and re-use of materials, looking towards Cuba’s history could teach us all a lesson.
“You can feel like you’re living in prehistory, and suddenly you realize you’re actually in the future.”Clandestina co-founder Leire Fernández
Perhaps nobody is better suited to teach our consumer driven culture this lesson than Clandestina, Cuba’s first independent fashion brand. Representing the country’s ability to recycle and reuse to the world, the brand creates awareness and teaches us what’s possible through upcycled products that we all want to buy. Plus, while they’re upcycling products, they also seem to be doing the impossible: upcycling Cuba’s image by leveraging old messaging to create a new identity for the island.
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Clandestina represents a younger generation of Cubans who are artists, designers, coders, entrepreneurs, and creators. It’s a generation that knows how to connect and communicate ideals to their peers off-island. Their products respond quickly to changing circumstances on the ground and the world, and that has proven to be one of the things that make their clothing and brand stand out. They make hard-to-hear messaging palpable for all of us, telling us what we need to hear without hitting us over the head with it.
As co-founder Leire Fernández put it, Clandestina’s designs reflect “the crumbling buildings, and slow Internet of a country that is still developing, full of inventors that make something out of nothing persevering against all the difficulties.” When Clandestina came to the US to do pop-up shops in NYC, Miami, DC, and other cities they were ahead of the eco-fashion trend that has been taking root in recent years.
I met with them in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in an industrial building that had been converted into a multi-use gallery space. Among other independent pop-ups, Clandestina fit in surprisingly well. Clandestina’s focus on reuse, upcycling, and zero-waste production has helped them connect with consumers and has made them trailblazers internationally. As climate change takes center stage, shortages are on the minds and hearts of people around the world. “You can feel like you’re living in prehistory, and suddenly you realize you’re actually in the future,” Leire Fernández told me.
As climate change takes center stage, shortages are on the minds and hearts of people around the world.
At an event in 2016 in Havana with Cuban entrepreneurs and state enterprise leaders, Clandestina began its collaborative roots with the US when co-founder Idania del Río had the opportunity to speak with former President Barack Obama on the impact of Cuban private business on Cuban society. The collaborations continued with a partnership with Google, titled Pais en Construccion or Country Under Construction that featured clothing inspired by construction workers of Cuba and incorporating Google’s iconic T-rex dinosaur (which is displayed whenever a user doesn’t have internet access on their Chrome browser). Unsurprisingly, Cubans have become all too familiar with this dino icon.
Being a business owner anywhere in the world is an uncertain path with many twists and turns. Cuban entrepreneurs have a different mentality altogether. With the U.S. embargo and the turbulent US-Cuba relationship comes great uncertainty that makes any single business model difficult to sustain. Furthermore, investment is very hard to attain, both because of the high-risk factor for foreign investment, and also because of U.S. financial regulations that make many deals illegal. The business ecosystem blossomed during the Obama era, was pulled back during the Trump era, and now faces a possible opening under the current Biden administration, which brings the possibility of increased travel, engagement, and much-needed cash flow to a Cuban economy that has struggled over the past few years.
The political context greatly affects entrepreneurs more than most average Cubans. During the Obama era, they were greatly helped both by the boost of tourism and by positive US-Cuba relations. A study by Cuba Educational Travel conducted in 2019 found that 97% of Cubans operating small businesses report that American travel brings their business more earnings. The study goes on to say that “of over 200 respondents, none said limiting travel would help the private sector in Cuba” (source). Under the Trump administration as tourism fell, everything changed. Businesses like Clandestina lost more than 50% of their clientele and, facing huge revenue losses, had to once again adapt or perish. It is common for cafes to pop up one month and be gone the next. Those businesses that can survive often rely on remittances from family outside of Cuba.
In this changing landscape, businesses like Clandestina began to focus again on their Cuban customers offering different products that appeal to Cubans and trying to find mutual sustainability for the Cuban consumer and proprietor. Clandestina continued to sell online but needed to diversify its revenue, without being able to rely on tourist dollars.
Clandestina is a model for how other companies can legally navigate the complex laws and regulations surrounding commerce in Cuba, and the even more complicated challenge of selling internationally. Their use of up-cycling leads the way for eco-friendly fashion, an industry that continues to be very wasteful on a global scale. They don’t have a playbook, rather they have a community of cuentapropistas who are able to share learnings and mistakes to try and find viable paths forward to do business, and to do it legally.
And, teach us all how to do the same in a planet that is changing, quickly.
[Today’s article is part of the Re-Evolution series that focuses on upcycling and fashion in Cuba. It’s a story about the well known fashion brand Clandestina blazing a trail as one of Cuba’s first independent fashion brands, and the first of its kind to sell online in Cuba and in the US, and at pop-up shops in the US.]