WSJ profiles a Miami Cuban-American Icon

The Wall Street Journal profiles and icon of the Cuban American exile community in Miami: Ramon Puig Guayaberas.

Cuba’s Favorite Shirt Tails a New Generation

Storied ‘Guayabera’ Faced Fashion Exile; Now It’s a Club-Scene Hit
Louis Puig, right, has taken inspiration from his late father Ramón, left.

MIAMI—The guayabera, a pleated, four-pocket shirt worn untucked over trousers, became a ubiquitous fashion here thanks to Cuban exiles fleeing Fidel Castro and his olive-green fatigues.

Now that the original exiles are dying out, some haberdashers are trying to remake the centuries-old shirt for a younger, hipper generation. It can be a tough sell.

Antonio García-Martínez, a son of Cuban émigrés who grew up in Miami, says the classic linen guayabera has clear stylistic limits: It wrinkles easily, looks boxy, and is just too old-fashioned for his taste. The shirt “makes you look like a Cuban grandfather at a funeral,” says Mr. García-Martínez, now in his mid-30s, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

In its classic, long-sleeve form, with lines of pleats tightly sewn into crisp linen fabric, the guayabera has long been a comfortable and appropriate alternative to dress suits in the steamy tropics.

Worn by men in warm countries from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean, the shirt is widely believed to have originated in Cuba, where it spread from the peasantry to become a symbol of elegance in Havana, and with such foreign devotees as Ernest Hemingway.

Nowadays, most guayaberas—with short sleeves and long—are made in Mexico or China, mainly from cotton or synthetic fabrics that conveniently dry quickly when washed.

But there are still tailors in Miami who care deeply about the craft and some of them are looking to update the style for younger men.

A few retailers are pushing wild new incarnations including guayabera-inspired baby wear, dresses, tunics—and even outfits for dogs. The main focus, though, is on trying to make the shirt cooler for the young people who are now among the city’s chief fashion consumers.

As the scion of guayabera royalty, Louis Puig, 52, knows the new target customer well.

His father Ramón, a noted tailor, earned a reputation back in Cuba as a guayabera wizard, then built on it in Miami, where he re-established himself as king of the Guayaberas. Now that “el Rey de las Guayaberas” has passed away, the younger Mr. Puig—who had a career here as a disco DJ and owns Club Space, one of Miami’s most famous electronic music clubs—is trying to jazz up the family business with a flashy new boutique in downtown Miami, a world away from Little Havana, where his father set up shop in 1971.

Pricey linen and cotton guayaberas with stripes and in bold colors hang from racks—a revolutionary departure from the traditional white, beige or light- blue look. There are guayabera-style dresses for women.

The old store is cluttered with mementos and rolls of fabric; the new downtown boutique, rebranded “Ramón Puig Guayaberas,” has portraits of sexy models strutting their guayaberas on South Beach’s Ocean Drive.

“The guayabera is the coolest thing in the world,” says the younger Mr. Puig, adding, “It’s not just your dad’s shirt anymore. It’s Cuban cool.”

The guayabera’s roots are a mystery, but tales point to 18th-century rural Cuba, where a Spanish settler asked his wife to make a shirt with extra pockets, a design that local guava pickers found practical (Guayaba is Spanish for guava.)

Others say the name derives from the Yayabo river, near the Cuban town of Sancti Spiritus. In any case, the shirt allowed planters and soldiers to beat the heat, and quickly spread to other Spanish outposts in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Cuban doctors and legionnaires also took it to Africa during the Cold War.

After the Cuban Revolution, the guayabera’s manufacturing heartland moved to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where makers added embroidery.

Its popularity there was enshrined in the early 1970s by Mexican President Luis Echeverría, an aficionado of the shirt, says Mike Knoll, a folklorist at HistoryMiami, formerly the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

Today, the guayabera is also known as a “Mexican wedding shirt,” and has become popular attire at tropical destination weddings. It remains a favorite among Latin American heads of state, including Mr. Castro himself, who has worn them at summits. Since 2010, the guayabera has been the official garment of Cuban diplomats.

Today in Miami, however, the shirt faces obstacles in winning recent Cuban immigrants, who lived under the island’s Communist regime and have a less romantic view of many old traditions, including guayabera fashions.

Mr. Knoll, who curated an exhibit on the shirt, says that on the island the garment is “not nearly as beloved as it once was.” Most newer Cuban immigrants associate it with state security agents and stodgy revolutionary officials.

Miami-based Rafael Contreras Jr., whose D’Accord-brand guayaberas are made in Yucatán and sold around the world, says love for the guayabera shrinks and expands. In the ’80s, youngsters in Miami wore them with jeans and cowboy boots at nightclubs, he says.

Now some young people want “guayamisas”—a cross between a guayabera and a simpler dress shirt.

They like the untucked style and fine pleats—but “they don’t want pockets” because they give the shirt a more streamlined look, he says.

Louis McMillian, a 34 year-old commercial Realtor who grew up in Miami, is a big fan of the garment. He said he has seven guayaberas, and he wears one at least once a week, sometimes at work. He says that they’re sharp, comfortable in Miami’s steamy weather, and help strike up conversation with clients.

“You can wear it with jeans and still looks good,” he says. They also remind him of his Cuban grandfather, who introduced him to the shirt. “To me it’s something special,” Mr. McMillian says.

With some refurbishing, loyalists are confident that the guayabera can prove as resilient as Mr. Castro, the bearded comandante who still haunts many here.

“I don’t know of a Cuban in Miami who doesn’t own at least one or two,” says Mike Valdés-Fauli, a second-generation Cuban-American. The 33-year old marketing executive owns three—two that his grandfather bought him, and one in pink that he purchased himself. He wears the shirts mostly at family gatherings.

Write to Ángel González at