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In the Land of Castro and Cigars, Lycra Rules : Capitalism Turns Up the Tropic Heat as Locals Get Into the Business of Sexy Clothes

July 02, 1998|WENDY MARSTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the first things a visitor to Havana notices is that Cuban women are beautiful. The second is their ubiquitous "sssst," heard on the narrow Havana streets day and night, used to keep children under control or get someone's attention from across the street.

Besides their beauty and Cuban hiss, the women demand attention with the clothing they wear: form-fitting dresses, sassy shorts and tops, and elegantly flared pants. What isn't immediately clear is where these clothes come from. Except for tourist hotel shops, where Cubans are banned, most Havana clothing stores sell only serviceable pants, modest dresses and T-shirts.

Standing on Calle Obispo, a main thoroughfare in Havana, the Plana Montecina sisters Jamira, 21, and Marlena, 19, attempt to explain Cuban fashion. The tighter the better, but that isn't the half of it. The art of spandex outfits, though a longtime staple of Latin American womanhood, has reached custom-made heights in Havana in the last three years. "Men love it; the tighter you use it, the better they love it," says Marlena. "If a woman with an ugly figure walks by wearing Lycra, the Cuban men make fun of her. You have to have a good figure--like ours--to wear it."

And you have to know where to buy it. Cuban street fashion originates in small, private businesses that make and sell clothing from homes. In fact, much of Cuba's dollar-generating businesses are private restaurants run out of homes or cars used as taxis. After Castro legalized the U.S. dollar and allowed capitalist small enterprise, one of the most lucrative businesses is supplying clothing.

An epicenter of Cuban fashion is the second floor of a colonial apartment house on Calle Sol of Old Havana. In this apartment, the floor-to-ceiling balcony doors are thrown wide open, letting in sounds of music and children playing on the street. Inside the living room sit seven women, a few accompanied by children and one with a husband in tow. They are waiting for Lidia Dominguez, a diminutive woman in her early 50s, to finish making their new outfits. Here Dominguez custom-makes thousands of outfits out of bolts of Lycra.

Three years ago, bolts of Lycra (pronounced "lee-cra" by Cubans) were permitted to be imported into the country. Before then, only manufactured clothing--spandex shorts, leggings and bras--was available. But the raw fabric has inspired the "Lycra boom," as Dominguez calls it, and has become the standard of fashion.

Only a year ago, the hot outfit was a sleeveless short catsuit with vertical strips of contrasting colors, usually black and red. "Everyone wore that," Dominguez says. "And they were really easy to make." Now, only older women wear the catsuit: "I think the girls give them to their mothers after a while," Dominguez says.

Dominguez, a lifelong resident of Old Havana, was a lab technician and part-time seamstress until migraines made it too difficult for her to hold a steady job. She has been a seamstress in some capacity for the last 37 years, but only began working full time at sewing four years ago. Now she runs a workshop and is assisted by nephew Jesus. "There are many changes in Cuban fashion these days," Dominguez says. "And many of them take place in my living room."

From her living room, which doubles as a manufacturing plant, Dominguez produces up to 30 outfits a day. The bolts of Lycra come from Cuba or are imported from the United States (usually as gifts or brought through Mexico), Venezuela, Mexico and Europe. Recently customs has become stricter, and Dominguez relies on friends to bring her the material. The fabric costs from $6 to $9 a square meter, and from 1 meter, Dominguez can make either three pairs of shorts, three short skirts or a single shorts-and-top outfit. Her profit is usually $6 to $8 a meter.

When Dominguez has Lycra, business is brisk; she works 14-hour days until the fabric is used. During those periods, her apartment is full of customers. Recently, she worked through a migraine until 1 a.m., when the fabric ran out. She works fast and doesn't waste time with fittings: "After all these years, I have no need to measure. I just look my customers up and down and I know." She and Jesus have ancient Singer sewing machines, both dating back to before the 1959 revolution.

Today, the hot item is a halter top that fastens with strings winding multiple times around the waist. The halter is called a bomboleo, named after an all-girl band. A bomboleo with cortos calientes, or hot shorts, runs about $14. The bomboleo has been in vogue for the past six months, and Dominguez expects it to reign throughout the summer.

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