Starting a new business is never easy, and new apparel lines are particularly challenging. There are many, many retailers and brands trying to outfit the world, and standing out in the crowd is difficult.
But even on the already pitched startup terrain, apparel startup Clandestina, based in Havana, Cuba, had some unique troubles all its own. The brand became the first to launch a website for U.S. sales last month — and it is spinning up to take on its first-ever Christmas season. Since opening a few weeks ago, the shop has seen 18,500 visits, logged more than 350 orders and sold over 400 T-shirts at $28 a pop.
And while those numbers aren’t likely to keep Amazon or H&M up at night, for a small Cuban eCommerce startup operating out of nation where internet access is patchy and from which the company can’t ship goods directly to U.S. customers, these early figures are pretty exciting.
“We’re super-happy. This is a dream we’ve been working on for two years,” said independent Cuban designer and company founder Idania del Río.
The firm has been up and running since 2015, though the recent expansion into U.S. eCommerce has been challenging. It is mostly impossible to manufacture goods in Cuba and send them directly to the United States due to the strained diplomatic relations between the two countries. Clandestina, living up it its name, found a way around that issue via a loophole in the law that allows certain types of work — specifically design or “idea” work — to be exported from Cuba to the United States. And so, Clandestina exports its ideas — T-shirt designs — to a contract T-shirt printing operation in South Carolina called Frenzy. Frenzy manages printing, packing and shipping. The shirts themselves are made in Guatemala or Nicaragua. The funds from sales generally do not flow back to Cuba, instead paying for marketing, taxes and payment for future printings.
Leire Fernández, a citizen of Spain, is also crucial because he allows the firm to incorporate in Florida under the corporate name BMBM Design. Designers can be paid directly by that firm, as U.S. law allows American companies to pay for the design services of private Cuban workers. Independent Cuban entrepreneurs are also permitted to have U.S. bank accounts and receive payments in the U.S., though relatively few banks offer this option.
“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, noting that it was mostly luck that facilitated her firm’s entry into the U.S. She happened to meet Frenzy’s owner while he was vacationing in Havana, and the two worked out an arrangement during that visit.
With its U.S. launch of product and incorporation done, Clandestina’s goal as a brand is pretty simple, if a bit ambitious. From the ranks of its clever T-shirts and sweatshirts, the firm aims to build Cuba’s first global fashion brand.
It might, admittedly, be a long climb. To manufacture its goods for sale in its home nation, Clandestina has had to become a near expert in up-cycling, because wholesale textile imports or purchases aren’t an option in Cuba. That means the firm has gotten creative in its efforts, and finds ways to re-use all sorts of products creatively — particularly in its Vintrashe line (a portmanteau of “vintage” and “trash”) where things like magnets, cardboard or discarded bits of plastic might find their way into a fashion item.
“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 startup has also been greatly helped by recent travel to Cuba, particularly from the U.S. as relations between the two nations began to improve in 2014. The brand reports that 70 percent of its shoppers are foreigners, and that half come from the United States. But recent changes in the political climate in the U.S. — and travel warnings issued over alleged attacks on U.S. diplomats — has left many concerned that travel to Cuba may be set to drop dramatically.
That possibility is a real concern for del Río, but one that can ultimately be managed by the fledgling brand, which has already introduced itself to the world and even found a way to stand up as a U.S. eCommerce operation. A tourism slowdown is a problem, but one that the brand hopes to be able to beat with its recent expansion.
“If the Americans don’t come to Cuba, well, we will go to the United States,” said del Río.