The origin of the guayabera shirt seems to be of some dispute. At least if you read about it on Wikipedia. Some say it originated in the Dominican Republic, some say the Philippines; even Mexico is mentioned. But in every claim, Cuba is also mentioned. The story Berta Bravo tells me starts off in Cuba in the early 1800s.
“It originated in Sancti Spíritus and was first used by men who picked guayaba [guava],” she explains. “So the women used to sew them with oversized pockets in order for them to fit a lot of fruit in there.”
We’re sitting in her clothing store in Coral Gables, Miami, surrounded by light, airy, pastel shirts made for hot weather, and, according to the latest trend, appropriately sized pockets. As part of a long family tradition, Berta started selling guayabera shirts in the business district of Miami from the trunk of her car 13 years ago. She quickly gained the name The Guayabera Lady.
“I had referrals from my dad, people who worked in office buildings in Miami, so I used to go there and sell shirts to employees at banks and insurance companies,” she tells me. “The name came about when the receptionists used to send emails to the employees saying ‘The Guayabera Lady is on the fifth floor,’ or wherever I was.”
Berta Bravo entered the United States as a nine-year-old in 1966, but the tradition of selling clothes had already started in Cuba, where her grandfather opened up a clothing business for her father to take over. When the family moved to Miami it took a while, but eventually her mother and father started anew.
“The day after we got here, my mom was picking tomatoes and my dad was washing dishes. After nine years, they started selling clothes out of the trunk of our car, and a few years later they could finally open up a new store. It was a general clothing store, but the guayabera was always my father’s passion. ‘It will never go out of style,’ he’d say.”
In 1998, her father decided to sell the business. At the same time, Berta Bravo became a grandmother for the first time. “I wanted to take care of my granddaughter, so I decided to stay at home.”
Fate, however, had other ideas. “Unfortunately my dad only got five years before he passed away, and out of guilt and hurt I decided to pursue his dream.” So she started peddling, gained her trademark name, and 20 months later she opened up a store of her own. “I started with a small ‘closet.’ It was only 700 square feet. Two years down the line I moved to a bigger storefront and three years ago I found this place. It’s 3,500 square feet.”
The guayabera shirt is considered both casual and formal. It can be worn at weddings, baptisms and at the beach. Maybe that’s why it will never go out of style. “It’s the only article of clothing you can wear to Miami courts besides a shirt and tie, at least between May and September. You can choose between the two, and guess which one 99 percent of people choose? It’s also considered a formal black-tie article of clothing. Last year, for example, Citibank did a Christmas party that was black tie/guayabera. Again, 99.9 percent chose guayabera.”
Berta is also the reason there’s something called Guayabera Friday in the Miami business district. “I don’t really know how that caught on. I had the idea. The slogan was ‘Guayabera Fridays – Casual with a Flair,’ and it started working out. A lot of banking institutions do it now.”
What started out as a garment that only distinguished gentlemen could afford is, in other words, now for everyone. Even women are included. “I decided to give the shirt curves and make it more risky,” she says with a smile. “But I’m sure I’m not the first one to do that.”
I look around and notice that one of the pillow cases on the couch that I’m sitting on is also a guayabera shirt. It seems like Berta is finding a new purpose for the attire all the time. She’s even catered to our canine friends. “We were taking a family picture, and then I thought: ‘What about Cody and Sassy?’” Berta explains. “They should have some
shirts as well. So we’ve custom-made a couple and they’re fairly popular.”
Nowadays the guayabera is a prominent fashion statement in the cigar industry, and it’s all due to Berta Bravo, but when she introduced it to cigar makers and cigar smokers, she didn’t even smoke cigars herself. “Pedro Gonzalez of Don Gonzalez Cigars thought that my clothing would be a great success at the ICPCR show in Las Vegas. So, in 2008, he suggested that I go,” Berta recounts. “I told my son Joey, who smokes cigars, and he said that if I learned how to smoke I could probably sell some shirts. The first time I tried one was at a party with him. I turned green and purple and choked. I thought I was going to die. The day after, I tried again, and a year-and-a-half later I learned what I like. Today I smoke at least two or three a day.”
It was enough to sell shirts in Las Vegas, though. Ernesto Carrillo of EP Carrillo was the first one to put in a big order – 300 shirts – and apparently her son is now very proud of his mother. “He says he has the coolest mom,” Berta says. “While other mothers tell their sons not to drink and smoke, I tell him to come over and join me. He’s also the only 29-year-old whose mom still dresses him. He’s the national sales director for J. Fuego, so he’s a walking billboard.”
She laughs heartily and takes a puff of her cigar in the lounge corner of the store. Her associate has joined us: James Thomas, a man who has had a significant impact on her business and is now part-owner. “James helped me improve the website and came up with the idea to sell mannequins dressed in guayabera shirts to cigar shops. That way they can promote the shirts. If one of their customers wants to buy one, they can do that, with a discount, from our website, and the store owner gets a percentage.”
“Cigar shops don’t have a lot of room or a big cash flow, so this works out perfectly,” James Thomas interjects. “The Smoke Inn smoke shop, which has about ten locations, has even created a Lady Guayabera corner on their website.”
Behind the window in a fake wooden facade in the back of the store, Berta Bravo’s mother is sitting by the sewing machine, fixing a shirt, as if no time has passed. At the age of 85 she still works with her daughter, keeping up the family tradition alongside a couple of other family members.
“She used to work with my dad, hand in hand, and now she sews the material on the inside of some shirts and picks out buttons. My sons still help out when I need to unload stuff, and my granddaughter Samantha is with the youth chapter in our charity foundation.” Because that’s another thing Berta does. It’s called The Guayabera Lady Foundation, and its mission is “to facilitate educational, financial, and in-kind resources for children and youth with limited resources or special needs.”
“We work with two local charities, the largest Hispanic educational organization, ASPIRA of Florida, and Voices for Cerebral Palsy. We also work diligently with Arturo Fuente’s Cigar Family Foundation. I feel blessed. I have three healthy sons myself, and there’s nothing more fulfilling than giving back. How can I not? How can I not give a smile or make a difference in somebody’s life? Life wouldn’t be complete.”
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2016.