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Felix Arbeo's Mysterious Origin Story

Like most human endeavors, the fashion world has had its fair share of twists and mysteries. Some of these can be marked up to accidents in reporting or to confusion fed by too many whispered rumors. No doubt some are deliberately cultivated, and it can be impossible to tell which is which.

Havana-born designer Felix Arbeo is a perfect example of such a story. 

1970s Felix Arbeo for Aventura label from the Label Archive

In early 1969, a young Arbeo was stopped on New York City’s Seventh Avenue and briefly interviewed by Daily News photographer Jimmy Jemail (whose picture of Arbeo is included here.) Jemail asked Arbeo what he considered his most prized possession and Arbeo said he valued his liberty, as he and his family had fled Cuba when Fidel Castro rose to power.

During this time in Arbeo’s life he was beginning to make his way in the fashion world as a designer for up-and-coming fashion house Don Luis de Espana. But when Don Luis de Espana’s first collections saw Arbeo’s star rise, his account of his origins became more and more dramatic.

A 1970s dress with attached cape, Felix Arbeo for Aventura.
Courtesy of the
Label Archive.

Felix Arbeo, 1969. Image by Jimmy Jemail

By the time he was interviewed in late 1970, Arbeo’s story had subtly changed. He explained his parents had been journalists in Cuba who had sent him to New York to study architecture. When they discovered he wasn’t dedicated to his studies they stopped sending him money and he was forced to go back to Cuba. Arbeo said he later returned to New York, met people who liked his sketches, and when Castro took over Cuba he decided to remain in the city to attend the Traphagen School of Fashion.

A 1974 newspaper ad for a Felix Arbeo design.

Arbeo was again interviewed in 1979 about his creations, and this time the story he told the interviewer about how he’d arrived in the United States became grander and more dangerous. In this version of his story, it was 1966 and he and a friend had escaped Castro’s regime on a boat which had been chased and fired upon; he and his friend had barely managed to jump overboard and swim to the shore of a deserted Florida key. After two days stranded on the island he was picked up by a fishing boat and taken to Jamaica, where he met a Cuban woman who was helping Cuban refugees get to Miami. After he arrived in Miami, he made the move to New York City.

A 1974 newspaper ad for a Felix Arbeo design.

Putting aside the question of which of his drama-laden origin narratives is closest to the truth, the reality is this: the rest of Felix Arbeo’s story is shrouded in the drama and tragedy he had attempted to create in his interviews. Arbeo had founded Felix Arbeo Ltd. in 1977 and his Felix Arbeo for Neiman Marcus line had launched by the end of the 1970’s. Things were looking up.

But there was an epidemic lurking right around the corner of the 1980’s which by the end of the decade had taken such fashion notables as Chester Weinberg, Willi Smith, Patrick Kelly, and Perry Ellis. That epidemic was AIDS. According to actress Marisa Tomei, whose aunt Barbara Tomei was a fashion designer and Felix Arbeo’s best friend and business partner, Felix Arbeo was one of its victims.


For further information about Felix Arbeo, you can see his page in the
Fashion Constellate Label Archive.

Do you know more about Felix Arbeo? Get in touch, we'd love to hear about it!


​​​​​​​References:

Advertisement. “Images of a California Summer.” (1 May 1979). Santa Ana Orange County Register [Santa Ana, CA], p. 13. Retrieved 29 Jun 2021 via newspaperarchive.com

Ames, Elinor. “Gowns Are Wonderful The Second Time Around.” (14 January 1973). Daily News [New York, NY], p. 85. Retrieved 28 Jun 2021 via Newspapers.com.

Davis, Shirley. “Says New York Designer: Buy A Mood, Not A Length.” (11 October 1970). Quad-City Times-Democrat [Davenport-Bettendorf, IA], p. 3D. Retrieved 28 Jun 2021 via Newspapers.com.

“Felix Arbeo Designs.” OpenCorporates(2021).

Grossman, Ellie. “Felix Arbeo’s fashion: A fondness for snails.” (11 February 1979). The Childress Index [Childress, TX], p. 4. Retrieved 28 Jun 2021 via Newspapers.com.

Jemail, Jimmy. “The Inquiring Fotographer.” (3 February 1969). Daily News [New York, NY]. p. 33. Retrieved 13 Jul 2021 via Newspapers.com.

Morris, Bernadine. “Fashions With Price and Flair Both Moderate.” (30 April 1970). New York Times [New York, NY], p. 53. Retrieved 29 Jun 2021 via NYTimes.com.

O’Sullivan, Joan. “Evening Allure: Spanish Designer Dresses The American Woman For Enchanted Evenings.” (4 August 1971). The Post-Star [Glens Falls, NY], p. 10. Retrieved 28 Jun 2021 via Newspapers.com.

Spring Shaping.” (14 March 1974). Syracuse Post-Standard [Syracuse, NY], p. 25. Retrieved 29 Jun 2021 via newspaperarchive.com.