Karl Lagerfeld’s decision to decamp to Cuba for Chanel’s latest Cruise show was met with understandable controversy. Given that the average Cuban wage is around £17 a month, it goes without saying that Chanel’s luxury wares have no place in the country. They’re not sold there, and the last designer boutique on the island belonged to Dior and was closed in 1959. In short, an ostentatious display of wealth is at odds with the state of affairs in Cuba, to put it lightly.
Cuba only recently opened its doors to the West, with US president Barack Obama making an historic visit there last month, followed by a momentous concert by the Rolling Stones. And now, the world of luxury fashion has infiltrated the socialist country.
Chanel arrived in Havana with its usual entourage of supermodels, celebrities and fashion insiders including Tilda Swinton, Gisele Bündchen, Stella Tenant and, er, Vin Diesel, who just so happened to already be in the country filming Fast and Furious 8. How’s that for coincidence?
The setting for the show was to be the 170 metre-long Paseo del Prado, to which guests were driven in vintage convertibles in rainbow shades. These American sedans were to feature as a prominent print on the clothes, too. With the glossy front row in place, local Cubans also lined the streets in order to catch a glimpse of this spectacle, albeit from behind police lines.
The collection itself was packed with the kind of covetable clothes that have made Chanel such a roaring success while Lagerfeld has been at the helm. A riot of colour, Panama hats and sugary tweeds, there was mannish tailoring in the same breath as frothy, chiffon skirts. Midi dresses came crocheted, worn over white shirts and were realised in vibrant patterns. Brogues were backless, berets were sequined, sandals were embellished with pearls.
There were organza skirts, sheer blouses, feather trims, red-and-white striped trousers and a smattering of denim. There was lots to see, both for Chanel’s specially selected guests and the locals who found themselves in the midst of a fashion furore. One Cuban designer, Idania del Rio said: “I think that catwalk is going to be more for Chanel than for Cuba. I don’t know whether the people here in Cuba are ready for this type of product. I want to see what $40,000 clothing looks like.”
Karl took his bow as a cacophony of conga drums and applause rang through the Havana air, dressed in a jacket designed by Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent.
“The world is finally opening up to Cuba. Everyone wants to come and taste the forbidden fruit. Everyone wants to discover it, savour it, enjoy it, explore it,” said Mariela Castro, the daughter of the president, Raúl Castro.
Despite improving diplomatic relations, there is still a US trade embargo against Cuba, which means no commercial exports can be made to the island. As a result, it seems unlikely that high fashion will find its new market in the country any time soon. As Cuba’s best-known designer, Raúl Castillo said: “When we become a normal country, without the embargo, we will be leaders of fashion.” And Chanel will always be the first fashion house to have staged a show on the streets of Havana.