Last fall, just as the U.S. government’s tighter travel restrictions made it harder for U.S. citizens to frequent Havana’s small but vibrant hipster t-shirt shop Clandestina, the company found a way to bring its t-shirts to America. Its U.S. debut marks the first time a Cuban company has had an online U.S. presence.
In 2014, co-founders Idania del Rio and Spanish citizen Leire Fernandez developed a cult following when they silk-screened phrases such as “99% cubano” or “Actually, I’m in Havana,” on used T-shirts and sold them in one of Cuba’s first private retail shops. Last year, they began considering online U.S. sales while attending the Entrepreneurship and Competitiveness in Latin America program at Columbia University in New York.
They knew the red tape and costs involved with shipping to the U.S. would make for an impossible endeavor, so they looked at workarounds. Instead of shipping locally-printed shirts to the U.S., Clandestina’s artists upload their designs to Frenzy, a T-shirt company based in South Carolina. Frenzy prints the designs on shirts manufactured in Central America, then ships them to customers in the U.S. and around the world.
Clandestina can pay its Cuba-based employees with proceeds from U.S. sales thanks to an embargo loophole that allows U.S. companies to pay private workers in Cuba. Fernandez’s Spanish citizenship, meanwhile, allowed her to travel to Florida, where she registered the BMBM Design Corporation to handle Clandestina’s U.S. production and distribution expenses.
So far, clandestina.co has received around 20,000 page visits and close to 400 orders for T-shirts, which sell for $28 a piece. But there’s one very Cuban idiosyncrasy that can slow down the design, production and sales cycle.
Cuba’s central telecommunications company ETECSA is in the process of expanding Internet services to private homes and businesses, but Clandestina has no idea when it will have such amenities. Until then, employees must buy phone cards and seek out a functioning Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana to check in with Frenzy.
So if you go online to buy a Clandestina T-shirt and the gratification doesn’t arrive with Amazon Prime speed, have patience. It’s all part of that authentic Cuban experience.