Episode II: Havana, Cuba

Cuba, the Caribbean island nation, is known around the world for its distinct culture and long history, particularly throughout the last century. A once burgeoning economy that served as a catalyst for its development in the early 1900s, the country is now a living testament to the historical repercussions that Communism has had on its people.

Episode II of Tour de Couture takes us on a trip to Cuba. Deeply changed by the aftermath of World War II, Cuba’s decades of leadership under a Communist regime has drastically influenced its development. This economic stagnation has led to a population full of spirit and hope living in a country that is stuck in the past, with limited access to the goods and services of the modern era. Nonetheless, Cuba is home to a young generation of creatives that are trying to find the balance between maintaining their culture, traditions, and history with embracing tourism, globalization, and socio-economic change.

My desire for this journey - find Cuba’s remains, indulge in a golden era when Cuba, and especially Havana, was the sought-after source for architecture, fashion, and lifestyle; to experience a new generation of Cubans and their interest in fashion, both vintage and modern.” -Nicole Reina

Seeing Havana’s sights in style.

Seeing Havana’s sights in style.

In this episode of TdC, Nicole is joined by American menswear fashion designer, Jonathan Skow, (also known as Mr. Turk). Beginning his career as a fashion photographer, he was the perfect travel partner to take to the streets of Havana.

Exploring Havana’s unique style

It’s been said a mind stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions.” -Nicole Reina

The same can be said of the people of a country changed by new experiences, and this is especially evident in Cubans. After a tumultuous end of the 21st century, Cuba is slowly re-emerging from under the veil of Communism. The country and its people are shifting, changing, and adapting to a more connected world, going through a transition to maintain the old while also embracing the new.

Havana, Cuba’s capital, is an ideal place to see this transition occurring. The old city of Havana, founded in 1515 by a Spanish conquistador, remains in the La Habana Vieja municipality, one of fifteen municipalities that make up the city. Vedado is a central business district, a more urban and modern part of the city developed in the first half of the 20th century. It is here that a lot of the examples of modernist and Art Deco architecture can be found. Much of this episode of Tour de Couture is set in Vedado as Nicole and Jonathan explore the architecture and culture of this part of the city.

The juxtaposition of old and new, of historical preservation and modernity, and of tradition versus innovation is evident across Havana, from its buildings to its businesses to its people. Walking down a street in Havana and immersing yourself in the daily life of the locals is like stepping half a century back in time. Colorful apartment facades are strewn about, with charming pastel-painted balconies scattered among dilapidated ones.

The patina-ladened pastels and weather-beaten backstreets invite us into the everyday life of Cubans where time seems to stand still.” -Nicole Reina

Even though there is a clear distinction between tourists and citizens throughout the country, evident in the currencies used  by each (Cuban pesos versus Cuban convertible pesos) and the access to certain goods and services, limited internet access, limited resources, and a very different way of life is palpable, even just spending a few days here.

The modernist architectural tour of Havana

The first stop on the architectural tour of Havana is Hotel Habana Riviera. A historic resort hotel built in 1957 and located on the Malecon waterfront boulevard, the luxury hotel maintains its 1950s style that was inspired by the nine-storey Riviera Casino in Las Vegas. With its many exquisite architectural details, the iconic landmark was the perfect backdrop for one of the episode’s many vintage-inspired photoshoots directed by Jonathan.

At the Habana Riviera.

At the Habana Riviera.

Habana Libre, another high-rise hotel built in 1958 and originally known as the Habana Hilton, was occupied by Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries in 1959. Holding both historic and architectural significance, the hotel is a fitting next stop on Nicole and Jonathan’s architectural tour of Cuba’s capital.

Coppelia is Havana’s famed flying saucer ice cream parlor, still known today as the city’s best ice cream. Another place to stop and take in some modernist architectural details, the oddly shaped building was built in 1966 and is still a popular stop when visiting Havana. As a tourist, you won’t have to stand in line to get an ice cream, but you will be paying a tourist premium over what locals pay (although locals do queue to indulge in some soft serve).

The Colon Cemetery is another quick stop on the architectural tour, featuring some modernist-style mausoleums and local legends like the miraculous Amelia, a revered mother who is buried in the cemetery with her baby. Locals come to Amelia’s grave to pray for her and ask for blessings for their own families.

The Solimar Building, built in 1944, is next on the architectural tour of Havana. An apartment building recognized for its unique shape and design, the Solimar’s modern Art Deco-inspired elements make it stand out in its urban surroundings.

Next on the list is Parque Deportivo Jose Marti, a large sporting complex built in 1959 and 1960. Its distinctive column and buttress design of 26 cantilevered sections makes the construction especially interesting. Situated on the northwest side of Havana, the park overlooks the Cuban coastline.

Seen as both a blessing and a curse by many, Cuba’s history continues to exude through its streets. Vintage cars from the 1950s are a staple of Havana, marking the last time that Cuban-American relations were friendly. Fidel Castro’s revolution and the subsequent trade embargo imposed on Cuba by America in the late 1950s and early 1960s largely affected Cuba’s development and caused it to stagnate. Used mostly as tourist taxi cabs these days, the cars are a constant visual reminder of the past and, as they line the city’s streets, they become a perfectly complementary backdrop to Nicole’s colorful vintage-inspired outfits.

I personally design and fabricate all of the clothing for the photoshoots. Harkening back to the 1950s, I incorporate bold, tropical prints and bright colors as a tribute to the spirit of Cuba.” -Nicole Reina

Speaking of outfits, TdC’s tour of Havana also included meeting some of the city’s fans of fashion.

Cuba Libre, Searching for the Lost Art of signature style

The isolation that Cuba faced throughout much of the 1900s, particularly after the revolution of 1959 and onward, is still having ramifications today for the country and its people. Many buildings that were once amazing examples of various architectural eras have been abandoned and left to ruin, with decrepit and dilapidated mansions and apartments, sports complexes, and commercial buildings scattered throughout the city. Some of these are in the process of being renovated to return them to their former glory, but with a still-struggling economy and a much tougher time accessing materials and resources, only about 10% of the city is currently undergoing these restorations.

Visiting  Plaza de la Revolucion  (Revolution Square).

Visiting Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square).

Similarly, many of the services that can be found in other places are harder to come by in Cuba and this has created an opportunity for the country’s young, energetic innovators to have to come up with more unconventional solutions in the pursuit of their goals.

Celia Ledon’s unique creations

On the way to meet Celia Ledon, one of Cuba’s avant garde fashion designers, Nicole reflects on the differences between Cuba’s slower-paced island life and the hustle and bustle of most of the rest of the modern world.

There is a distinctly slower pace here which seems to provide artists, musicians, and creatives the freedom to fine-tune their respective crafts.” -Nicole Reina

Working with delicate, unconventional materials, Celia creates pieces of wearable art, some of which are displayed in museums. Common materials and fabrics used to make clothing are often difficult to access in Cuba or, if accessible, they are very expensive. Celia is one of Cuba’s innovative creatives that has drawn inspiration from and made use of less conventional materials in her creations, giving her collections a rare twist. Celia’s assortment of vintage hats is a particularly exciting find for Nicole as hats are often some of the most difficult vintage pieces to come by.

Vintage style hunters

Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Tejo is another quick stop on the tour through Havana where local boxers train for their fights. Jonathan uses the opportunity to shoot some of the athletes in his very own stylish short designs.

Fashionable fighters.

Fashionable fighters.

I expected to dig into some treasures of vintage fashion in Havana, but, to my surprise, there is not much to be found - no second hand stores, no vintage shops. We are told that everything is used and reused until it falls to pieces, especially in the humid climate.” -Nicole Reina

Luckily, Nicole and Jonathan are introduced to a movie costume designer named Piedad Ciudad during their trip. A quick visit to her home turns into a lovely treat, diving into Cuba’s old movie stars and the beautiful outfits they wore, designed by Piedad.

The Art Deco Bacardi Building, the original home of the Bacardi rum company, is the location of a salsa lesson for Nicole and Jonathan to immerse themselves in a favorite pastime of Cubans. Complete with a Cuban-inspired suit from Jonathan’s designs, Andres, the instructor, is ready to impart his expertise of this quintessential slice of Cuban culture.

A quick siesta in Cojimar

On the outskirts of Havana lies the village of Cojimar, Ernest Hemingway’s inspiration for his short famed novel, The Old Man and the Sea. In a mid-century house full of modernist details, Nicole and Jonathan take the opportunity to siesta away from the bustle of Havana’s center to get to know one another better, delving into their shared, deeply-rooted love for fashion.

Nicole and Jonathan enjoy an evening outside a mid-century house in Cojimar.

Nicole and Jonathan enjoy an evening outside a mid-century house in Cojimar.

Cabaret and fashion shows

Back in Havana, Nicole and Jonathan visit the famous Tropicana Club, known for its cabaret and lush tropical gardens. They also have the opportunity to attend a fashion show at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, giving them a chance to see what Cuba’s creatives are busy creating.

Katia Gill, a former model turned fashion event organizer, spends some time with Nicole and Jonathan backstage at the fashion show, introducing them to Jose Luis Gonzalez, the fashion designer behind Glam Forever, the collection being featured.

A candid conversation with Katia sums up what a lot of the trip to Cuba has been about - finding a balance between old and new and creating a place where both can be represented and preserved.

Katia Gill: “I think we have something different to show, because of our country, because of how we are as Cuban. [...] at a certain point or at a certain time, [maybe we can] propose some trends for the future.

Jonathan Skow: “Are there specific difficulties to designing in Cuba? It seems like artists have used the scarcity of materials to find unique and interesting ways to present themselves.

Katia Gill: “They use their talent and their creativity to do a lot of beautiful things. We need to promote more the work of our young designers. Cuba is opening to the world and I would love if we can collaborate together to create something because I think that Cuba is a great place with a lot of inspiration for artists. So I think it will be good if more people can come, but we must preserve what we have and we must protect the talent and the people that we have, and still to keep moving forward and to develop more - this is our challenge.

And it is a challenge, indeed.

Reconciling the past with the future

With the recent opening of national doors, a flood of capitalist opportunities, from tourism to technological progress slowly engulfs Cuba’s shores. There is a fear that these looming changes may chip away at Cuba’s one-of-a-kind identity.” -Nicole Reina

Cuba’s strained relationship with its neighboring countries, particularly the US, has limited its ability to access certain materials, develop its economy, and provide for its people. Many Cubans live in poverty and are subject to a system of rationing that regulates the amount of supplies they are able to buy, including food, industrial products like cigarettes and cooking fuel, and other home supplies like light bulbs. Many products are distributed and sold at subsidized prices compared to the “free markets” that are also in operation. However, most Cubans have trouble affording free market prices, while using the ration system often does not provide enough supplies at a reasonable frequency for all of Cuba’s citizens.

Meant to be just a temporary solution to distributing supplies after the revolution, this rationing system has been in place in Cuba since 1962. While there have been talks of getting rid of the system, the Cuban government has not yet done so, perhaps because of the upheaval it would cause in the country’s economic and cultural status quo.

This distribution system, combined with strained diplomatic relations, has stalled Cuba’s development significantly. Access to regular supplies is difficult so artists and other creatives have had to break free of the norms of their respective crafts, resulting in often unique interpretations of style, design, and art.

Cuba’s people are tough, persevering, and creative because their history has forced them to be. Nonetheless, they are proud to be Cuban because they know how much they have to offer to the world.

This island has taught me the value of historic preservation and the lost art of signature style.” -Nicole Reina


Sadly, Jonathan Skow passed away since filming. We dedicate this episode of Tour de Couture to honor his memory.


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