A Havana without rum or Che
There used to be many reasons to want to visit Cuba, but shopping was not among them. There were few display windows or products in Havana, beyond those representing the island’s essence. For decades, these were limited gifts and mementos that you could take home from the island: handicrafts, rum and cigars and (of course) any merch related to Che Guevara, converted – oh the irony of history – into sought-after souvenirs.
Strolling through Old Havana – a Unesco World Heritage Site – you will find the breathing heart of the city. Almacenes San José, on the harbourfront, is overflowing with local crafts, paintings and wood carvings. Or wander down Calle Mercaderes, where, balancing the past with the future, scents from its florists, perfume and chocolate shops intermingle. Or visit the Mercado del Libro in Plaza de Armas square, which is a living library full of new, old and rare books.
However, in parallel to the city that tastes older than the rum from its distilleries – seemingly frozen in the 1950s and with cars from then still running – a new one has now sprung up. It’s one that has led to the island’s opening up in recent years and – above all – that is driving a new generation of Cuban designers and creatives committed to moving the clock forward to the future without losing sight of their history. Artists, fashion designers and artisans are inspired by the soul of traditional Cuba – from its colours and materials to the rhythm of island life – to make designs that are modern, updated and (mostly) sustainable.
‘Actually, I’m in Havana,’ reads one of the English slogans in a shop called Clandestina. And it could be the slogan of this new generation of designers and locals that has proliferated in recent years. Being here is – as they say – not a physical state, but a mental one. It’s a state of being and thinking that exists in Havana and nowhere else. Because, even though visitors still may not come here to go shopping, going shopping is now far more significant.
Open in 2015, Clandestina – Idania del Río’s shop – is already a leader in Havana. It was one of the first to open as the city started to change, and is a very real statement of the ambition and aspirations of younger generations. As Del Rio puts it, they want to create “products that define modern Cuba”. In her case, this means collections of young, colourful, eye-catching and defiant (hence the name) clothing that creates a new image of the country and of Cubans.
2 Color Café Havana
In a single space, Lloypa Izaguirre’s workshop and shop bring together her own creations, which blend classical Cuban traditions and modernity, and accessories and accoutrements made by other artisans and designers in the city. The space is also a cocktail and tapas bar and offers live music.
Unity is not only strength, it’s the future. At Dador, it’s driving force for three Cuban designers – Lauren Fajardo, Ilse Antón and Raquel Janero – who share a shop and studio in the heart of Old Havana. Here, they offer their very limited-edition collections, especially of clothing, which are sophisticated, simple, colourful and embody the island’s relaxed vibe. Their mission is to use only natural fibres and be sustainable.
Piscolabis is the place to go to find something when you don’t know what it is you’re looking for. A bohemian bazaar selling decorative and design pieces, garments, accessories and crafts offers lots of opportunities to return from Cuba with a souvenir or gift that is anything but a cliché. All are made by local artisans and creatives.
5 Malecón 663
It’s a hotel and a shop, but not as we know it. Facing Havana’s so-called Traditional Malecón, it opened its doors four years ago after a restoration. Everything that is used and seen at Malecón 663 during your stay in one of its rooms can be purchased. What’s more, its concept store offers additional fashion and decoration accessories. Many of them are old pieces that have been repurposed by a new generation of young creatives.
6 La Marca
Officially Cuba’s first professional tattoo studio, it was opened by the artist Leo Canosa in 2015 to offer a legal, formal version of this art on the island. At La Marca, Canosa leads a team of local tattoo artists who are occasionally joined by a guest artist from overseas. Since its opening, it has also become an alternative cultural centre – a meeting point for multidisciplinary artists with a small art gallery where some of their works are displayed and sold.