ZULU For the Love of Leather / diseño a flor de piel

By / Por Clara Núñez Foto: Norlys Pérez

There’s a strong craft tradition in Cuba, but we were pioneers in this kind of design.
By starting to work freely, without being connected to a tradition or an institution, we were breaking new grounds without realizing it

The story of ZULU Bolsos was born at the time of the so-called Special Period in the early 1990’s when the collapse of the USSR and the socialist block meant for Cuba the loss of its most important economic ally. It was a decade of enormous material difficulties, marked by the lack of the most basic elements and by the dizzying development of the creativity and resourcefulness of the Cuban people.

During those years, the creators of ZULU, Hilda Zulueta and her two daughters, Odamis and Mady, were forced to begin to resolver (roughly, to solve, to get by), a term that began to be used then, and to this day defines a way to survive certain economic difficulties. Hilda was a high-school Math teacher, Odamis had just graduated in Mechanical Engineering and Mady was studying Art History at a time when prices skyrocketed and the family wage was not enough. So they began to collect leftover pieces of leather from a nearby shoe factory where Odamis was performing social service as a recent university graduate. Once at home, they would place them on the floor and make puzzles with them until they managed to design a handbag that they then sold through their artisan friends at the former G Street Fair, in El Vedado neighborhood. With hardly any tools, materials or experience in design, their household economy got a certain boost from the sale of their handmade bags. But it turned out that they were very good at it and, as it often happens, what had started as a necessity became a passion.

As a result of what they call “empirical work,” their creative process, which over the years has been based on the trial and error method, is totally personal, as Hilda explains: “There’s a strong craft tradition in Cuba, but we were pioneers in this kind of design. By starting to work freely, without being connected to a tradition or an institution, we were breaking new grounds without realizing it.” Thanks to the tenacity and creativity of these three women, since 2011, ZULU has its own store in Old Havana and a small team built from scratch. Their designs, which are based on observing day-to-day Cuban life, have become pacesetters.  Hilda comments on where they draw inspiration from: “We have always been very observant. In order to solve math problems, you need to be very observant. This I learned and then passed it on to my daughters. Our aim is to make our bags, first and foremost, Cuban and at the same time modern. We don’t copy anything—what’s most important is that we want them to be unique and to reflect our reality.”  

Using hand-treated leather, ZULU makes elegant, urban and, above all, original handbags thanks to the effective balance between a European-inspired sobriety and an exuberance that validates its Caribbean roots. This is now becoming a trend among younger designers, but in the 90s, it was a rarity.  Hilda, Odamis and Mady accompany their team during the entire creative process, while stamping their own personal touch, which they have named “zuleado,” a technique they created themselves consisting of exposing the irregular edges that remain after tanning the leather. This is symbolic of their beginnings—where apparently there’s nothing, there may be an opportunity—and of the respect they have towards the material they work with: “You fall in love with this pursuit because it is very noble. Leather adapts itself to whatever shape you want to give it, and this fills your spirit.”

In 2016, ZULU took part in FIART (International Craft Fair) and won the Best Product Award. That same year they were also winners of the Ellas Crean Prize of the Spanish Embassy, with a training proposal for young women from Havana who wished to learn the trade of working leather. Their long-term purpose is to make a social impact on the community and to transmit the love for this profession: “Looking forward, we would like to be able to grow and teach… To pass on what we have been learning all by ourselves all these years to people who are interested in this line of work, so that they can have more autonomy.”

Regarding the situation of design in Cuba, they are very clear about it: creativity is everywhere, the problem lies in having access to materials that allow improvement: “I believe that young people are doing things with plenty of enthusiasm, what is missing is a wholesale business where craftspeople can go and get what they need to make their work better.” Even so, they already know that difficulties do not prevent from fulfilling one’s dreams. The obstacles found along the way have taken them along unsuspected paths and their success is proof of that.  

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