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A spectator records a model walking down the catwalk during Havana Fashion Week at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater in Havana, Cuba. Source: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

HAVANA — Like so much else in Cuba, shopping for clothes isn’t easy.

Buying a simple pair of socks or a T-shirt means choosing between the wildly overpriced, shoddy offerings of state-run stores and the bales of low-priced clothing illegally imported by “mules” traveling from the United States, Ecuador or Panama.

This year, a third option is bursting onto the scene after years of growing quietly in backroom workshops and bedroom studios. A small homegrown fashion industry is winning renown and an increasing share of Cubans’ limited clothing budget with simple but fun-and-stylish clothing produced on the island with natural fabrics and sold at competitive prices. 

                                              
Models present the collection of Cuban fashion designer Analu during Havana Fashion Week at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater in Havana, Cuba.
Source: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

Hundreds of private designers are turning out gauzy wedding dresses, brilliantly decorated bathing suits, linen pants and even uniforms for state businesses. Last week, dozens of designers displayed their wares at the five-day Havana Fashion Week at Cuba’s most elegant theaters, where hundreds turned out for runway shows, private fittings and cocktail parties.
                                             
A model wears a swimsuit during Havana Fashion Week at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater in Havana, Cuba.
Source: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa


“The changes that have taken place in this country, the openings, make things easier,” said Jesus Frias, a designer who put on a swimwear runway show on Friday. “There’s a fashion renaissance in Cuba but it can’t be a priority for the state, so it’s we private designers who are bringing it back.”

The growth of the artisanal fashion industry comes thanks to free-market reforms put in place by President Raul Castro after he took power in 2008. Unlike some new private businesses, the fashion industry is receiving a relatively warm welcome from the communist bureaucracy, perhaps because it doesn’t directly compete with the state. After successful runs in the first decades of Cuba’s socialist revolution, state-run clothing businesses were hurt by the collapse of the Soviet Union and had largely disappeared by the mid-1990s.

Alongside the domestic market, Cuba’s own designers are hoping that their lightweight blouses and fringed swimsuits will become popular items for visitors to take home. 

                                              
Cuban fashion designer Analu (centre) walks down the catwalk with a model during Havana Fashion Week at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater in Havana, Cuba.
Source: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

“We all have high hopes for the tourism boom,” Frias said. “I don’t think anyone comes to Cuba to buy imported clothing.”

Havana Fashion Week began in 2015 with 30 designers, organizer Catherine Dorticos said. This year’s edition had twice as many.

“It’s a way to motivate people, for people to see other options and for artisans to produce more and feel inspired to do new things,” she said.

– AP