One of my favorite childhood memories happened while I was wearing an outfit my mom bought for me at Kress: It was a red top-and-skirt combo with a ruffled neckline and hem, which I paired with chunky white sandals to attend my cousin Esteban’s christening in 2003. The set couldn't have cost more than $50, but I loved it. It was the epitome of what I knew as fashion until that point: affordable clothing bought from Puerto Rican-owned stores.
After 50 years in business, Kress Stores announced in March that it was closing its few remaining locations “in the coming weeks.” To generations of Puerto Ricans who grew up with the retail chain’s fashions and stores as cultural touchstones, the loss is irreparable. Amid a decades-long financial crisis that has eroded many of Puerto Rico’s retail and economic hubs, Kress’s closure represents yet another loss of the prosperous life Puerto Ricans were promised as the archipelago industrialized in the mid-20th century.
Opened in 1963, Kress was one of the main fashion retailers in Puerto Rico by the 1970s. With its catchy slogan, “Kress, la moda que es,” the retailer provided men’s, women’s, and kids’ clothing, intimates, and school uniforms that covered what Puerto Ricans call the three B’s: bueno, bonito, y barato (good quality, cute, and inexpensive). Its commercials were also an iconic landmark of Puerto Rican culture throughout the late 20th century, featuring local celebrities like beauty queen Laurie Simpson and model Ileana Cambó. One of its most legendary commercials came in 2003 when the chain released its 40th anniversary campaign. The ad featured three friends wearing Kress clothes in “cada etapa de la vida” — from college graduation and job interviews to their kids' early steps.
Over the years, as mall culture spread in Puerto Rico, local stores like Kress, González Padín, and Infinito slowly lost the battle against U.S. retail chains. When the financial crisis deepened in Puerto Rico in the late aughts, the archipelago’s retail hubs dwindled, a reality that only worsened as the government filed for bankruptcy and natural disasters like Hurricane María and the 2020 earthquakes propelled millions to leave. Hubs like the famous Paseo de Diego, a walkable, bustling street in San Juan that used to house Puerto Rican-owned stores, theaters, restaurants, and bars in the late 20th century were impacted, too. My mom always used to tell me about Paseo de Diego, urging me to go there in between classes at the University of Puerto Rico, which was just a few blocks away. But by the time I reached college in 2012, little was left of the fabric stores and the cafes that my mom used to frequent. By 2019, local newspaper Primera Hora described Paseo de Diego as “chaotic and depressive.” Somehow Kress, along with all the memories it helped clothe throughout our lives, had made it out of this mess. Until it didn’t.
When I got the news that the retailer was folding, I couldn’t help but think of that red two-piece set my mom bought there for me. As a fashion-minded kid in Puerto Rico, I loved visiting Kress stores with her. I still remember the silver racks packed with tube tops, asymmetric skirts, and low-rise jeans. For our most special occasions, my mom and I would go to Kress to get a new outfit: the pink pajama set I sported to my friend Gina’s sleepover, the white halter dress I had on during one of my last Mother’s Day celebrations with my grandmother, and, of course, that unforgettable red top-and-skirt combo I wore to my cousin’s christening. These outfits gave me just what the ad promised: something “to celebrate every step of life.”
Natalia Nieves, 37, knows this feeling, too. Her relationship with Kress started when she was around four years old, when her father José Nieves began working there as a store manager, a profession that would continue for the next 34 years in the towns of Caguas, Cayey, and Humacao. “My dad was always very passionate about servicing his clients,” she says. “He was very loved by everyone there.” But her favorite memories are when her dad would come home with new clothes for her and her two sisters: “We’d do fashion shows at home with his gifts,” she says. Some afternoons, she’d stay with her dad at the store after school until it was time to close, when she’d beg him to let her say the closing message over the intercom. “He’d never let me, but one day I just did it,” Nieves, who still shops at Kress to this day, says laughing. “Imagine this 8-year-old girl doing the closing message over the intercom. Clients were laughing so hard.”
While the company had shuttered several stores in the last few years, Nieves says the closure announcement still came as a shock: “Losing the store, not having the option of such affordable clothes, and a network of people we met through my dad over the years — it’s all gone.”
Emma Morales, 54, who worked at Kress during college in the 1980s, says that she has searched for any remaining stores throughout the archipelago since the announcement was made last month to check what’s left. “I’ve even looked online to see which ones are still open and nothing,” she says. The memories of those few years she worked as a sales associate in the accessories department at Kress starting in 1985 are still fresh. At the time, she was studying at the Interamerican University in Bayamón, which was close enough to the store for Morales to drive the distance in between school and work in the old Mazda her grandmother had bought for her.
Beyond a job, Kress satiated Morales’ fascination for fashion. “Every time new shipments arrived, we’d all suddenly want to go to the bathroom, but it was really an excuse to go see the clothes,” she says. “We’d put in our layaway orders right there.” Those clothes looked very different from the low-rise mini skirts and tube tops my mom bought for me in the early 2000s. “I remember the colored tights, the thick belts. I mean, it was the 1980s,” she says. Going to work was like a fashion show; Morales and her coworkers refused to wear flats even though they’d be on the floor for hours: “No, no. We were all dressed to the nines.”
For Morales, the biggest impact of Kress was its “family-oriented” offering, which allowed multiple generations to grow up with affordable, fashionable clothes. Throughout her life, Kress was there, just like the ad guaranteed. Kress styled the linen two-piece suit she wore during her first job interview and it clothed her children, Victoria and David, when they were toddlers. “Thinking of all this gives me goosebumps,” she says. “It’s so emotional.”
As Kress closes its doors forever, I can only think I was lucky enough to witness a Puerto Rico where local stores were part of the memories we created with our clothes. Today, with retailers like Kress shuttered across the archipelago, that legacy lives in the Puerto Rican-owned brands, boutiques, and markets that continue dando la batalla and betting on Puerto Rico's future.