Conversation with Clandestina, Cuba’s First Clothing Brand

032“We’re 100 percent Clandestina,” Leire Fernandez responded to a question on how an ecommerce site exists in a country that barely has access to the internet. Leire and Idania Del Rio, the founders of Clandestina, joined the World Affairs Council on December 6, 2017 at The Riveter for a discussion on entrepreneurship in Cuba and what it means to be a “businesswoman.” Co-founder and CEO of The Riveter, Amy Nelson, asked Leire and Idania about where the brand began and how it has grown into an international endeavor.

While the number of self-employed Cubans has been steadily increasing in the past five years, Leire and Idania explained that getting permission from the government to open a business involves much less paperwork than one might expect. Instead, the two founders had to knock on doors and ask permission to start the company. If you knock on the right door, they explained, you can succeed even in the Cuban system.

046A major challenge to starting any business in Cuba is finding funding. Leire and Idania relied on funds from a friend as well as their own family. Since the legal system does not offer any binding agreement to repay the loans, Idania explained that in Cuba, funding a startup business is a high-risk endeavor requiring a lot of trust.

However, the biggest challenge the women experienced wasn’t all about the money. Lacking business schools and training programs, Cuba does not foster a business-friendly ecosystem. Creating a strong strategy for a growing business and realizing a business plan is left up to the founders. The entire chain of production, from designing to producing and selling and marketing, is also all left up to small business owners. Leire explained that internalizing the title of “businesswoman” has been a strange transition for her, as Cuba has traditionally not supported such a framework.

052While Idania described a typical day working at Clandestina as being a fireman putting out fires everyday, the brand has continued to grow. Now, Clandestina has both a store in Old Havana and an online store. Due to trade embargoes between the United States and Cuba, the physical shop and the ecommerce site essentially function as different business units: the Old Havana store sells only to Cubans and tourists in the city while the online store caters to international buyers.

With relationships changing between the U.S. and Cuba, though, Idania and Leire noted that the excitement around starting a business in Cuba has been replaced with skepticism regarding the possibility of success. In the future, these women hope to see a restoration of relations between the two countries to bring that energy back.