There is Hemingway’s Cuba. There is Castro’s Cuba.
And then there is Lagerfeld’s Cuba.
In what is likely the most ambitious and extravagant (at least in terms of gutsy moves) of the recent examples of fashion’s current obsession with exporting luxury fashion shows to far off places, Chanel’s presentation of its cruise collection in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday has set a new standard for runway daring. Here, on an open-air boulevard lined with lightly decaying colonial mansions, on an island country with almost no representation of global brands, came one of the world’s most famous fashion brands: Chanel.
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I will admit, I was skeptical when Karl Lagerfeld announced that he wished to present his cruise collection in Havana, announcing the move within months of the relaxation of longstanding political barriers between Cuba and the United States. Chanel, in effect, made it to Havana merely a few hours after the arrival here of the first American cruise ship in nearly 40 years from Miami, which brought out hundreds of excited Cuban families to see its arrival. And Chanel’s coup – involving a multinational contingent of producers and publicists to pull off with nearly a year of planning – somehow seemed more momentous.
“Che!” said Gisele Bundchen. “Che!” she screamed to the photographers who had trailed her to a corner of Havana’s central boulevard, El Paseo del Prado. She wore a red dress and a black beret, a supermodel adopting the style of the guerrilla leader, in the 80 degree heat that felt more like 100 with the humidity. With her Brazilian accent, it sounded more like “Jay! Jay!”
“I’m sweating!” Bundchen said. “I’m dripping!”
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Of course, the more logical concern was not what Chanel would make of Cuba, but what Cuba would make of Chanel, which had booked rooms in no less than five hotels for a production that would include hundreds of outlandishly dressed guests being ferried to the show in Havana’s famously retrofitted and antiquated taxi cabs, tours of the revolutionary sites, literary odes to Hemingway, a visit to the Tropicana nightclub, and finally a blowout party at la Plaza de la Cathedral. To a large degree, however, it turned out to be an American misconception that Cubans might find this ostentatious display somehow offensive. In fact, they lined the streets, taking photographs and some even rented balcony spaces overlooking the Chanel show for the chance to see it.
Brand awareness? They screamed loudly for Lagerfeld, for Gisele, for Tilda Swinton (Tilda Swinton?), and for Vin Diesel, who is here filming another chapter in the Fast and Furious franchise. Although Americans may marvel at the absence of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola advertisements, here was spotted a young man, watching from a balcony, wearing a recent season Junya Watanabe nautical striped top with plastic blue sleeves.
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So, let us accept that our brave explorers from planet fashion have landed in Cuba to discover a warm welcome. Take us to your leader, Mr. Lagerfeld.
In this scene of intense heat, as rain drops threatened to fall at any moment, Lagerfeld chose to riff lightly on Cuba’s traditions both revolutionary and flamenco-ary. That is to say there were fewer nods to Che Guevara (his mono-starred beret was rendered in black sequins) than the Buena Vista Social Club, in an uplifting, color-saturated collection that included vintage car prints and bright silver sandals (all the shoes were flat, by the way, without a sighting of a Cuban heel), and, it should be noted, a very diverse casting that made a strong show look even stronger.
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A headline in WWD on Tuesday morning underscored the larger question mark of the impact of such an event on an island that has not been isolated from the luxury market since the 1950s: “Chanel’s Cuba Show Spotlights Potential, Hurdles for Fashion.” But late into the night, as the sister signers of Ibeyi captivated Lagerfeld’s guests, it was reasonable to wonder if his visit had done more to change the outside world’s perception of Cuba, than Cuba’s perception of Chanel.