In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they've brought home from their travels. Here, the New York-based fashion designer Cynthia Rowley recalls buying a dress in Cuba for the little girl she didn't yet know she would have.

cuba dress
Credit: Cynthia Rowley

It’s a strange story, but in 1998 the Cuban government invited me, along with around a thousand people, to a big fundraiser gala in Havana. It was meant to raise money for the Cuban healthcare system and there was some kind of cigar tie-in. It seemed bizarre. Included in the invitation was a three-month visa so that you could make your travel plans. I RSVP’d “no,” but I still had the visa. I waited until the event was over and then, before my visa expired, I booked a trip to Cuba. I stayed in Havana for five days and it was magical.

I bought this baby dress at a street market from a woman who made all of the clothes she was selling by hand. I wanted the dress whether or not I would have any actual use for it, since this was before I had kids. But I also hoped that someday I would have a daughter to wear it. It was almost like I willed a little girl with this dress because a few years later, I did have a daughter who wore it. I saved the dress after she grew out of it and I had another daughter who wore it, too. They both began wearing the Cuba dress around the age of 2, when it was kind of long on them, but I even remember stuffing Gigi into it when she was about 5 to wear with cut-off jeans. I loved that, with the embroidery, it looked like a typical souvenir, something you’d pick up in Mexico or Acapulco, but because it said “Cuba,” people eyed it curiously.

When I went to Cuba, I was naïve and didn’t understand that when people said there was no interaction with the U.S., it meant none. Of course, I got there and I had some cash, but not enough, and there was no way to get any more. I had to make sure I had enough to pay for my hotel. I worked out an arrangement with a lovely traveler I met at the Hotel Nacional, the big old hotel where I was staying, so that I would have more dollars. That’s also why this dress was the only souvenir I came back with.

Cynthia Rowley Quote

Traveling to Cuba wasn’t about the shopping experience at all. Mostly, I wanted to bring back my memories of having the full-on Ricky Ricardo experience, the visuals of the Tropicana girls, and seeing Hemingway’s house. It was touristy, but I had to do it. That said, you didn’t have to do much to have an interesting experience. I just walked around. There was so much to see, so much mystery, and this sense that as life came into contact with the city, it might just deteriorate. So the experiences were what I wanted from that trip, not a lot of stuff.

Over the years, my daughters have heard stories about my trip and they have fond memories of the dress, too. One day soon I’d like to return to Cuba, and when I do, I’ll bring them with me.

Follow Cynthia on Instagram at @cynthia_rowley. Follow Emily on Twitter at @emspivack and on Instagram at @emspivack.