I had just arrived in Havana when I first saw them. A young guy in a tight T-shirt and denim shorts. And on his feet, bright white rain boots. It wasn’t raining. The sky wasn’t even threatening. I didn’t think much of it until, a few blocks later, I saw another pair of white rain boots. Then another. I asked my young Cuban friend Tony what was going on. “Are they in some kind of cult?” Tony, a slight young man who works as a chef and tour guide for one of the city’s new private, boutique hotels, exclaimed: “It’s style!”
The rain boots reminded me of something that surprised me the last time I was in Havana, two years ago. Most of the young guys looked straight off the streets of Miami: shiny print T-shirts, tight shorts. And bright white sneakers. Pair after pair.
Here’s why that was startling: Havana, especially Central Havana, is rundown and kind of filthy. Streets and sidewalks are crumbling, disintegrating. Some gutters run with opaque, foul-smelling liquids. Every few blocks there are open piles of garbage. In short: a minefield for white shoes.
Everywhere you go in Havana, you’ll see Supreme T-shirts, bags, hats…anything you can put a red rectangle on. “They’re all fake,” Tony assured me. He knows they’re fake because they’re all from the black market. “You can’t buy Supreme in government stores,” he told me, and that would be the only legal source of authentic brand name goods. And so, the only way to get your hands on anything Supreme is through dodgy back alley transactions. Not exactly Saks Fifth Avenue.
The white shoes, and the white boots, signify something new in Cuba. Partially that you have the money, or access to overseas friends, to get a new pair of fashionable shoes. But more importantly, the footwear means you have the time and patience to maintain them. In a country where not too long ago all your efforts were needed simply to survive, having the time to clean anything white is a luxury. Just like in the 19th century, when only aristocrats and the rich could afford to wear white tights. Style is a class signifier. You may not be from a higher class, but at least you aspire to be.
On this visit, the white shoes were gone. So were the shiny shirts. In their place one look, one brand reigns supreme: Supreme. Everywhere you go in Havana, you’ll see Supreme T-shirts, bags, hats…anything you can put a red rectangle on. “They’re all fake,” Tony assured me. He knows they’re fake because they’re all from the black market. “You can’t buy Supreme in government stores,” he told me, and that would be the only legal source of authentic brand name goods. And so, the only way to get your hands on anything Supreme is through dodgy back alley transactions. Not exactly Saks Fifth Avenue.
Tony and I spent a couple of days window shopping through Havana’s few meagre shopping areas. The clothing economy in Cuba is dead simple: the government sells 99% of it. Anything sold in a store, even a major foreign brand, is done through the authority and control of the Cuban government. There are a few shops scattered around that sell clothes made in Cuba, but those are mostly women’s dresses and shapeless men’s shirts. I was shocked to see that inside the government stores, in contrast to the empty shelves I saw a decade ago, there is now row after row of relatively fashionable clothing. “They’re paying attention,” Tony nodded, impressed by the selection. Skinny jeans and hip T-shirts, imported from China, at the bargain price of 20 convertible pesos (a.k.a. CUCs, about $25 Canadian).
A bargain in Canada. A state employee’s monthly salary in Cuba.
More shocking still were the stand-alone brand-name stores. Adidas and Puma, selling shoes for the impossible price of 90 CUCs. “Who can afford this?” I asked Tony. “The nouveau riche,” he said. Tony was talking about Cubans fortunate or hard-working enough to rent out rooms or run restaurants. With access to tourist dollars but without mortgages to pay or anywhere else to put their money, they buy new, fashionable clothes. It shows other Cubans they’re tuned in. And successful. Meanwhile, these stores are a way for the government to siphon off some of that new wealth, in the name of socialism.
But nothing prepared me for the small shopping plaza on the first floor of the Manzana Kempinski, a recently opened five-star hotel just off Parque Central. Montblanc, Versace and Armani. Shirts for nearly 200 CUCs. Suits for $1,000. Watches for $5,000. I asked the staff at the Versace store who their clients are. “It’s a mix,” a young woman with impossibly long fingernails told me. “Some tourists, but also a lot of wealthy Cubans.”
Up until my first visit here a decade ago, it was considered anti-revolutionary to spend a lot of money on your clothes. Or to even be someone who cared about clothing. Especially international brands. Then branded stores started to open. First United Colors of Benetton, then Adidas, and, more recently, these luxury brands. Once the government gave its tacit permission, the style floodgates opened.
Ok more like a tiny release valve on a huge damn. But where does the desire come from? In a country seemingly cut off from the world, where does a Cuban find style inspiration? “Gossip Girl was huge here when it came out,” Tony told me. “And the Kardashians. And hip-hop videos, of course.” Cubans don’t have Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime. Internet access exists, and is relatively open, but costs are high and signals weak. So outside inspiration comes via the Cuban Internet, better known as “El Paquete.” This series of shows, movies, videos, magazines and more makes its way into the country on smuggled USB sticks, which are then sold on the black market, passed around and copied until everyone has seen the latest episode of Project Runway.
The thing is, if you see something you like, you can’t simply order it online or head to the mall. I asked Tony where he gets his clothes. “I have friends who bring me things,” he told me. They can be expat Cubans or tourists who’ve visited before and to whom requests can be sent ahead of time. Another option is to see what’s on the black market, but that’s hit and miss. The government stores are even less reliable. “You may have to wait a year to get something you want,” Tony told me, a bit exasperated, “and it may not be fashionable any more when you get it. But it’s still new in Cuba.”
Then he smiled. “We have a saying here in Cuba: ‘Wear it today because tomorrow you may die.’”