In Cuba, Sourcing Style
Angel Lazaro, 29, was hanging out with his friends (who call him Mayito) at Bar Roma, on the rooftop of a 1920s building in Old Havana. Mr. Lazaro hadn’t ended up at the bar from seeing it on the street. There was no sign outside indicating that a ride up in a rickety open-air elevator would lead him to one of the city’s most interesting watering holes.
Inside, the scene consists of creative types mingling with tourists over mojitos and rum cocktails. “To me, that was an indicator that Cuba was changing,” said Rose Cromwell, a photographer who has traveled to Cuba for over 12 years.
When Ms. Cromwell visited the bar, there was no bathroom. The residents living down the hall opened their homes to patrons for a small tip, a transaction in keeping with part of Cuba’s economy; many people run bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and even clandestine clothing shops out of their houses.
In a country where clothing options are limited by a lack of imports, cultivating a singular style can be challenging. “People will bring clothes in bundles from Miami, Panama or Mexico and sell them up from their homes,” Ms. Cromwell said.
And when there is a particular trend, “you see it everywhere, it’s like wildflower,” Ms. Cromwell said. A few years back, she recalled, everyone was wearing the British flag: “It was just what they had made in China and had been manufactured on a large scale.”
Mr. Lazaro describes his style as “funk” and has tried to not follow these trends. He is one of the many Cubans who go to lengths such as making their own clothes, having relatives bring pieces from abroad or scouring local vintage spots.
Milagros Reynoso, 51, sources costumes from Brazil, which she wears when performing with her dance crew at cultural events around Havana. Her outfits are usually very colorful and include elaborate headpieces. “You just see all kinds of color all the time,” Ms. Cromwell said, onstage and off.
Another key style element for many men is chunky gold jewelry, including crosses and amulets. “Even if somebody doesn’t have a whole lot of money, it’s still important to wear nice jewelry,” she said.
Gabriela Procuza, 21, is a bartender in Havana. Though she is a local, this dress caught her eye at a souvenir shop. “She brought a certain freshness to it,” Ms. Cromwell said.
“Often in Havana you will see people dressed in all white wearing multiple beads, covering their head and wearing socks,” Ms. Cromwell said. Here, Yairis, 19, is dressed in the traditional style of someone who has been “sainted” in Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion with origins in the Caribbean. Part of the rite of passage is to wear all white for an entire year, which represents the process of rebirth and purification.
Alexis, 24, is a street vendor who sells odds and ends from a table in Old Havana. His sunglasses, fitted clothing, gold chains and fade haircut identify him as someone who listens to reggaeton, or “reggaetoneros,” as they are called in Cuba. “Men pay attention to detail in their grooming, from their beards or mustaches to their eyebrows and their haircuts,” Ms. Cromwell said. “You definitely see a high level of self-care, and barbershops are ubiquitous in Cuba.”
Some of those barbershops are in homes, like the one Roberto Alvarez, above, runs out of a rented space. Mr. Alvarez isn’t into trends and prefers to alter his own clothing; the vest he is wearing is made from a women’s jacket that he cut up. When he isn’t shaping men up, he is a rapper and goes by the stage name Robe L Ninho.
Felix Palmero, 21, wants to be a stylist and scoured secondhand shops for the shirt he is wearing. “It’s kind of a retro Caribbean style,” Ms. Cromwell said. “Maybe it would have been something that an older person would wear in a less ironic way.”
Damarys Benavides, 37, is a rapper. “Just being a rapper in Cuba is an underground pursuit because reggaeton is very popular,” Ms. Cromwell said. “So being a female rapper means you’re flying against a much heavier current.”
Brenda Hurtado, 28, is a waitress at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an art and music space in Havana, which was one of the first of its kind. She dresses in the “friki” style, which harks back to the punk and heavy metal scene that got its start in the 1990s. The style involves dark eye makeup and goth clothing, which her friends and family bring her from other countries.
Roberto, 42, is a visual artist and a theater designer for the Teatro el Público. His shirt is made by Clandestina, a label that is designed and manufactured in Cuba, and which uses recycled fabrics to make T-shirts and bags that carry messages of Cuban pride. It signifies a new Cuba of “people having small businesses and artists finding ways to make a successful business.” He also has a tattoo of scissors on his arm, inspired by generations of his family working as tailors.
Laura Catana, 32, and Rafael Bou Lemus, 31, in their neighborhood of Central Havana. Ms. Catana is from New York but has been living in Havana for the past year, working as a music producer with Guampara Records, one of the first independent music labels in Cuba. Mr. Lemus is an up-and-coming rapper with the stage name “El Individuo.”
Rose Cromwell will publish a book of photographs called “El Libro Supremo de la Suerte” in 2018.