There is nothing that represents old-school Cuba like Versailles restaurant, where Spanish chatter swirls amidst the aroma of cortaditos and Cuban sandwiches, a heady mix of community, food and heritage.
For Nicole Di Rocco, the iconic neighborhood institution was the perfect fit to celebrate Nicolita, her swimwear line that has, throughout its 11 years, been continually influenced by Cuba and its past.
In a departure from the grandeur of past Swim Week shows, the brand’s 2015 “Weekend in Havana” presentation was an intimate affair, where the colors of Cuba — in the form of teal, coral and guava bikinis — were on display in a back room of the always-colorful restaurant. Against walls bedecked with vintage magazine covers, models wearing jewelry by Amoura Designs, sporting jelly-roll bangs and plunging v-neck one pieces strutted to a soundtrack of Cuban music and paraded between tables with cigar box centerpieces and around trays of mojitos and croquetas.
Cuba wasn’t always a source of inspiration — or even interest — for Di Rocco, who grew up in California as the only Cuban at her school. Di Rocco knew just one other young fellow Cuban growing up.
“It wasn’t cool to be different,” Di Rocco remembered. “My parents spoke Spanish to me and I spoke English back to them.”
Her family spent summers in Miami, where she would imagine what it was like to grow up with other young Cubans. It was during those summers that her family would make what she called the “pilgrimage” to Versailles for authentic Cuban sandwiches, sometimes straight off of a red eye.
Bringing her swimwear line to Versailles on Friday, June 18 was a “dream,” Di Rocco said. In honor of the Cuba of the 1940s and 1950s that her parents had grown up in, the event conjured up the flair of the era but retained a modern feel through floral rompers, caftans and straw fedoras. Ultimately, the line itself belonged best in Little Havana, not old Havana — bright colors and modern prints dominated. A sense of travel and the past even seeped into the smallest details, like the postcard font used to emblazon “I love Havana” on the shirts, and the folded-up maps models used to fan themselves.
For Di Rocco, her Cuban heritage fell by the wayside until college, when she first began to appreciate the value of standing out from the pack. It was also in college that she began sewing, with a machine given by the selfsame Cuban grandmother who gave her the nickname Nicolita. Sewing pillows in her dorm room at the University of Southern California, Di Rocco “fell in love” with the garment district in downtown Los Angeles. Next, she graduated to handbags — selling 2,000 out of her dorm room to her sorority sisters — and then developed Nicolita while working on her MBA.
Though Di Rocco was 21 when she founded the company, far from being at the bar with her friends, she was on the floor in her dorm room, “cutting squares and sewing handbags.”
“Nicolita is about Cuba” above all else, Di Rocco said, starting with the name itself. “It just spun off into a discovery of who I am. I began asking my parents what it was like in Cuba, looking at photos. I fell in love with the black and white and glamour of what Cuba was during that time,” Di Rocco said. “Learning about your past will guide you to where you want to go, to your future.”
After over ten years in the business, Di Rocco said this season’s collection has been about reconnecting with “why we started this, what made me want to do this.” A mural on her office wall — made up of old Cuban posters — brought her back to her vision 11 years ago. This year, she reintroduced the wall at her booth at the Swim Week trade show.
Another source of inspiration was a 2009 trip to Cuba after President Obama lifted the ban for Cuban-Americans. The trip — captured in a documentary, ‘Pastport Cuba: The Search for Nicolita’ — brought Di Rocco face-to-face with the country she had always been trying to recreate through her designs.
Going to Cuba was a creative outlet for Di Rocco, but a much more troubled and painful experience for her parents.
“It’s the story of millions of Cubans that were forced to leave, really. There are a lot of emotional feelings when you say the word Cuba — it means a lot of different things for a lot of different people. For my parents and the older generation, there’s just that hurt, the abandonment. They feel it was taken away from them,” Di Rocco said. “I didn’t have that association, that experience.”
They also wondered what they would find in the country they left 50 years ago, she said. What would they see when they returned? Would their childhood homes be destroyed? Would they be able to find Di Rocco’s father’s farm?
The trip was a way for her parents to heal, Di Rocco said, “not about forgetting what happened, but moving forward.” The trip also brought a surprise: they had cousins remaining in Cuba. Then, Di Rocco said, the trip ended up being about family — how to help their cousins, support them, and create new memories of Cuba.
For Di Rocco, fashion has been a way of learning about her heritage and preserving those stories for the next generation — like her six-month-old daughter, who she plans to take back to Cuba someday.
Photos by Andrew Mikolich.