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Chanel Cruises into Cuba, a Country on the Cusp

Although the fundamental incongruity of the moment was lost on no one, both Karl Lagerfeld and Fidel Castro share an ability to imagine a world and bring it into being.
Chanel Cruise 2017 | Source: Olivier Saillant
By
  • Tim Blanks

HAVANA, Cuba — After Chanel's Cruise 2016 show in Seoul a year ago, Karl Lagerfeld happened to mention to company president Bruno Pavlovsky that he fancied Havana as the site for the next presentation. He insists now that he was joking. Yet, in one of those "your wish is my command," moments that don't usually exist outside fairytales, here we were, twelve months later, 700 people lining El Paseo del Prado, Havana's most impressive street, to see Lagerfeld's proposals for Cruise 2017.

The fundamental incongruity of the moment was lost on no one. Cuba is very poor, Chanel is not. Cuba is only now relaxing from the rigours of Fidel Castro’s communist dream, Chanel has long benefited from different dreams, the ones Karl Lagerfeld realises with the bottomless capitalist resources of a huge French fashion house. But you could also say that something the two men have in common — aside from the fact they’re both in their 80s — is the ability to imagine a world and bring it into being. The force of will that has taken is acknowledged in their sobriquets: Castro the Comandante, Karl the Kaiser.

In the past, the farflung locations for Chanel shows have usually had some connection with Coco's own history. There was none this time, aside from an irresistible alliterative synchronicity (Coco, Cuba, Karl, Castro, Chanel, Che). In fact, there was more the feeling that Havana connected with something in Lagerfeld: a place he'd never been, a fantasy he'd always had.

The designer showed clothes that idealised the essence of cruisewear, something light and pretty to wear in holiday heat and humidity.

On the same day that the first American cruise ship in nearly 40 years docked in Havana, the designer showed clothes that idealised the essence of cruisewear, something light and pretty to wear in holiday heat and humidity, the kind that had guests furiously fanning themselves throughout Tuesday’s presentation.

The best looks matched sheer blouses with full skirts and flat sandals, or pearl-clustered slides. Sometimes the sleeves were rolled, other times they were puffed. In misty shades of grey, the look was so easy but so sophisticated that it wasn’t hard to imagine someone like Ava Gardner, holidaying with Hemingway in Havana, trailing clouds of glamour in something similar through the streets of the old town. Unsurprisingly, it was those ghosts that Lagerfeld was channelling, more than the realities of modern Havana.

But even modern Havana has been an art director's out-of-time dream for so long now that its visual signatures border on cliche. The decrepit beauty of the architecture, the faded hothouse colour schemes of the old colonial buildings, the fleets of big American cars from the 50s all found a niche in the Chanel collection, as a print in the case of the cars, as an over-print on lace that looked like paint flaking off walls, in the palette that included hot pink and turquoise, sequinned and ruffled for a hoochie-koochie finale that had a Club Tropicana vibe.

The Tropicana is, in fact, a classic Havana cabaret where elaborate, slightly surreal celebrations of the body beautiful are still the order of the day. There were other echoes of classic Cuba, in the detailing of the traditional Guayabera shirt — Vin Diesel, in town to film the next instalment of the Fast&Furious franchise, was wearing one in the front row — which was duplicated in the little shirt-jacket paired with cuffed shorts, or in the palm frond prints and appliques (again loveliest in that ghostly grey).

It was the ghosts of Cuba's past, more than the realities of modern Havana that Lagerfeld was channelling.

Stella Tennant opened the show in a boxy black jacket, white shirt, pinstriped pants, Panama hat and correspondent shoes, looking like a taxi dancer in a Latin American nightspot. OK, tango tourism was an Argentinian thing, but it’s hardly a stretch to imagine the rumba and the salsa spawning the same phenomenon in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

As for post-revolutionary Cuba? Che Guevara's beret? A dash of army green? No, that is a stretch. This show was about celebration, not sub-text. That much was clear long before the Rumberos de Cuba troupe made their exultant way down the boulevard at show's end. And Lagerfeld is a longtime lover of Latin culture.

Of course controversy swirled, critics seizing on the presentation as symptomatic of everything Castro’s revolution stood against, now circling round again to get its hooks back into Cuba. How material that would be for people whose annual salary would scarcely cover one of the collection’s Coco Cuba t-shirts, let alone a cute cigarbox bag, is moot. Besides, the lack of reddies to shop Chanel is hardly an issue unique to Cuba.

It felt more logical to see the show as an entertainment, with the best of Cuba's musicians providing a live soundtrack. "A cultural event," was Tilda Swinton's take. "And how often is a fashion show one of those?" The Habaneros lining balconies and rooftops along El Paseo would have understood that point of view more than a fashion update for Resort 2017.

The biggest concern, voiced by locals and visitors alike, is that the pace of change will overwhelm and destabilise Cuba. It’s hovering on a cusp, and there is no doubt that the Chanel show will be remembered — along with the recent Rolling Stones concert and Barack Obama’s visit — as key to that cusp. “Let’s just wait and see,” Swinton said carefully. But the world is at the door. The morning after Chanel’s spectacle closed El Paseo, Havana’s seafront esplanade was co-opted for Vin and co.

Disclosure: Tim Blanks traveled to Havana as a guest of Chanel.

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