When Carmen Fiol welcomes visitors at her home in Vedado, with a welcoming smile that stands out in the bright and airy space, this Guantanamo woman of 90 years of age may give the impression of being a frail old woman. However, during the conversation she shows the force of her personality: it is enough to see the determination in her eyes and hear her speak with clarity and conviction of her ideas, to understand that it is no coincidence that Carmen is one of the great figures of fashion design in Cuba, with over 70 years of experience as a dressmaker. The keys to her success are revealed in her comments: her infinite patience, careful observation, attention to the exquisite detail and the genius to update traditional techniques while adapting to different styles and eras. But mostly it is a strong will that has allowed her to overcome obstacles and strive to achieve her goals; an effort that has paid off through national and international awards, respect for the new generations of artists and all who admire her beautiful creations.
It is important not to weaken; we must fight, fight and fight until we achieve our purpose. And hopefully you can see me multiplied in many, so that my work contributes to cultivate good taste and encourage fashion culture. “
This is expressed in her recently published book Vestir a la medida, which explains in detail her cutting and anatomical seam/dressmaking system. This is the result of decades of study of the female body and measures that make each woman unique and tailor each piece of clothing to allow the most varied figures. To Dress in style of Carmen Fiol is synonym of elegance, comfort and freshness.
Is it true that you learned cutting and sewing self-taught?, Under what circumstances did it happen?
As a child, eight or nine, I paid a lot of attention to the work my aunts made, they were seamstresses, because my mom sewed very little. From looking at them, I grew up with the idea of becoming something in life. But my father was a very strict person, as it used to be before, and I was not easy to go outside to learn. He always said that the girls had to stay home. Then I started to make some baby clothes to my younger sisters and some friends. At first, of course, I messed up a lot, because I had no one to show me, but yes, every time I saw a cloth I liked I used to noticed how it was drawn up, the thread of the fabric, the cut …
At 13, when my mom died, I started to make more regularly my sisters clothes. Later, I remember that I made for a neighbor, my friend, an embroidered white dress in soutache1, for which he got paid a dime. By that time I already had 16. My father had put a little shop where I helped, and one day there came the sister of the girl, looking for a dressmaker who had recommended. I said, “Over here, to my knowledge, there is none.” But she insisted and I finally explained that I was the dressmaker that had made the dress of her sister. “Ah, ‘I said, I made it!” Because, I did not consider myself as a dressmaker. She wanted a dress like that and hired me to do it. From there I began to sew and sew …
How was the transit from those years when you began as a seamstress in his hometown, to the master of craftsmen you are today?
As I said my father was very rigid, and already at 17, tired of that treatment, I went to live with a half-sister of my mother who was also a seamstress. To spend the time there, I could only wear two dresses, some Czechs shoes and an underskirt.
My aunt had a large clientele of “prostitutes” as it was called, who were delighted with my sewing and then they would not look for her but me. At first I was very happy, but my aunt was married to a cigar business man that wanted to open a tobacco shop with the savings of sewing and did not give me a penny, just the food. I needed to buy clothes, have something of my own.
Every afternoon I sat in the doorway, sad, thinking what to do, until I determined to go independent. I went to a clothing store that had a sewing shop and there I told the owner, a Spaniard: “I heard you are looking for someone to sew.” It was a lie, but she called me the next day and when I went she had two sample dresses hanging, tuxedo collar, and on one side the fabric with the molds. She asked me to arm then and by noon it had already finished. She gave me the job and paid me 16 pesos a month, enough for the time.
For me it was life, I thought to work there for the day and help my aunt in the evening, but when her husband knew told me I could not live there. Then I went home of one of my sisters’ Godmother, who was raising her, to live with them, but I could not stay, so I went to the home of some of my dad´ relatives. -Life has put me through many tests.
Already working in the clothing store I was able to experiment a lot, because I had a large clientele. I learned experimenting and wanting to learn, with the will to be “something” in the seam. It was a struggle, but I managed to work up until I got sick and had to leave work, but I kept sewing at home. Then I met the father of my children, dentist by profession. He would visit me every night while we were dating, but the day he did not go I kept on with my machine, sewing for many clients, always trying to learn. If I made today a piece, the next had to be better.
I met a renowned dressmaker in Guantánamo, known as Curiche, I proposed to make her a dress. She gave me a fabric of no less than silk to make it. I did my best and when I finished I went to try it at her home, because I had no pride, i just wanted my work to be recognized. When she saw it, she said: “Do not worry I’ll send you clients.” I had clients of the cream of Guantánamo, very demanding people, but I had a lot of patience because that who demands you teaches you.
I was famous sewing when I graduated in the course of Angélica Fernández Barroso system where almost all who studied with me were rich society girls. With that title I started teaching classes and workshops.
When you realized that what had begun as a trade had become art?
I realize when I get to Havana, when I start working with the Cuban Fund of Cultural Assets (FCBC) and when I entered the Cuban Association of Craft Artists (ACAA) in 1982, a year after its creation. Nisia Agüero2 gave much value to the artisans. In Havana I started working for the diplomatic staff and also when the FCBC was charged special clothing. In my first fashion show for the Fund, the Minister of Light Industry at that time asked Nisia for my collaboration to help develop the industry, which was in very bad shape at the time.
What experiences preserved after so many years of work and what memories you have left?
To Celia Sánchez once I made many pieces for gifts, and she appreciated as they deserved, so I dedicated to my book. I would be very happy if she would be still alive; thanks to her I have a lot of relationships that allowed me to get ahead in Havana. Through her I met many of my clients, as Camilo’s mother and the widow of Lázaro Cárdenas, who once invited me to Mexico for six months, in which I sewed without stopping for her and many of her friends and acquaintances in the Mexican society.
Later, during another stay at the Embassy of Cuba in Mexico in 1989, I had to do alone all the clothing to present and sell at a fair. It was a great effort. The first piece was bought by the wife of a businessman Olegario Vazquez Rana, very famous and rich man in Mexico. Even the clothes that I wore, a very nice dress, all embroidered and frayed, I had to sell when a person friend of mine came to me to insist on buying it.
I have so many stories to tell that would not fit in an interview.
Is it difficult to decide where to make concessions to what’s on fashion and where to keep the traditional styles and techniques?
They talk about the fashion and craftsmanship. From the moment a non-industrial clothes are made, falls into the category of craft. One of the things that characterize me is that I am very curious and I always check the details of each piece. I have always been careful not to forget my roots. I remember when I was nine and went to the market with my aunts, they came out with long dresses, like the ones that are now called siren cut, but they had a work with many turned biases. Those dresses are imprinted in my memory. I really like international fashion-of all the designers Valentino is my favorite – but I’ve always had a preference for my roots, for what I saw when I was little, but I do what I´m ask for, I have no problem doing any style . My hobby is suit-type jacket suits, which are what give me more work, but I like. I’ve always liked to do some fashion, but mostly I liked preserving craftsmanship, such as batons or clothing with many lace and tucks, remembering 1800 clothes.
Currently, what details make Carmen Fiol design unique?
I’ve always said that what is natural for us Cubans, by climate, is to use cotton fabrics, linen fabrics … cool fabrics. The yarn is harder to get, but polyester fabrics with cotton rather. We are a poor country and we use what we can, but always with a sense of fashion: wide necklines, flying, tucks and lace, without being somewhat exaggerated. The laces now cost me a lot of work and I buy them made or order them here, because in Cuba there make laces of high quality. Create the fabric I like a lot, but only when tight, ido not like the open or thick threaded or fabric. I love to sew the soft fabric and if I sew the double fabric is just to make a jacket, shirt-or a narrow skirt, but always looking for the freshness, which is what we need.
Among my clothes you can find very simple dresses I do not want you to think that I only dedicate myself to haute couture, but I do anything, with whatever comes in hand: a piece of fabric, recycled fabric, recycled lace … I my way to iron my clothes, for example I have a treatment with cornstarch, water and alcohol 90 to iron the seams, and if the clothes are cotton or linen put double towel and ironed inside out, that is how you should do to live up clothes.
I did so many things on linen, so beautiful and so worked, people had to touch it to see if it was yarn or cloth, because i gave it a treatment that remain very white. I remember Harry Belafonte’s wife bought me a dress on linen. Weather, treatment and detail are very important for making any piece of clothing. I have a lot of patience, to have the satisfaction that the job is like I think it should be.
In the book Vestir a la medida you repeatedly refer to your desire to cultivate good dress and good taste through your creations. What would you like to teach new generations about the design of clothing and fashion?
You cannot blame people because due to the situation of the country they have had to appeal to T-shirts and jeans to attend places that require other clothing. They no longer feel the desire to dress properly every time. In years when there were many shortages here, I went to a conference of doctors and dentists with my husband, and I was one of the best dressed in the group. But I’ve always had the habit of buying fabrics and save, and when no one had, I could take them and make myself some clothing.
In Cuba you have to try that fashion culture roots again. Even with a single dress, as it was before, that we were not rich, but “Sunday” dress we had. I have realized that is not a problem only of us, but it is international.
Also, in general, is not given due importance to our work. Our creative process is not valued as it is valued that of, for example, visual artists. I say I’m not a designer, but creative, first I imagine what I want to do, then I present it on the mannequin and finally do the design. That’s where experience how lame fabric falls, volume bust separation, etc.. My view is that the designer must know sewing, because sometimes paint something on paper that you cannot take the fabric.
What did you think of the tribute the FCBC has dedicated you, in the framework of the National Art Fair for Mom 2014, after many years of collaboration?
I’ve been happy to work all these years, to be able to do what I like, and I have no words to speak the gratitude I feel for the Fund. Because I understand that I recognize my work, and I am those who to think that you must always be learning, that is, one can never say “I know everything.”
By: Johanna Puyol
1. Soutache: The soutache term comes from French and means twisted cord. This is both a technique and a material: twisting technic which exclusivity falls on the use of a peculiar material Soutache cord itself, a rayon cord made of herringbone.
2. Nisia Agüero: Outstanding cultural promoter that directed the Cultural Assets Fund, where she laid the foundation of the Cuban avant-garde art and artistic craftsmanship.