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Scrappy Cuban clothing line exemplifies ingenuity with US online store opening

US tourists look at products inside the Cuban private design store Clandestina in Havana October 23, 2017. — Reuters picHAVANA, Oct 27 — Hip Cuban clothing brand Clandestina is not waiting to see how tighter US 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.

Its site went live yesterday 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, US-based manufacturers will produce the apparel and ship them to US buyers, Clandestina said. The US 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 modernise 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 humour.

“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”.

Cuban private design store Clandestina co-founder and creative director Idania del Rio talks to an employee (not pictured) at her office in Havana October 23, 2017. — Reuters picA 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 US travellers since a thawing of US-Cuban relations in 2014. Some 70 per cent of its shoppers are foreigners, half from the United States.

But US 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 US diplomats.

A likely drop in US 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 US visitor Kasha Trogak, perusing their Havana store. “Curiosity can definitely help to sell the product.” — Reuters