A Cuban Postcard: Chanel’s Ignorance
December 4, 2016
President Obama’s commitment to improving relations with Cuba was solidified when last March he became the first president to visit the island since President Coolidge in 1928. There, he met with President Raul Castro to discuss how U.S.-Cuba relations should progress in the coming years. Following his visit, millions around the world- and especially here in the United States-- proclaimed the U.S.’s relationship with Cuba was already quickly improving and that people need to travel to the island quickly before it changed too much. These invalid conclusions were reached prematurely, however, since a simple statement of intent does not concretely change anything on the ground.
Only two months later in May, Karl Lagerfeld and the Chanel entourage set out to the streets of Havana to reveal the Chanel Cruise 2016/17 collection. The show spurred a myriad of reactions from the public. Fashion elites and celebrities excitedly ventured into the Caribbean territory. Cubans on the island appeared to be in awe of the celebrities and models who filled their streets, though they were in fact barred from witnessing the show. Cuban exiles in Miami, like myself, however, were hesitant to admire the show.
Lagerfeld chose one of the most controversial and complicated cities in the world to host his show: Havana, and his intentions for doing were not outwardly genuine. In an interview for New York Magazine he shared his inspiration for the show as follows, “‘This is all about my vision of Cuba,’ Lagerfeld says, and then he smiles and shrugs. ‘But of course, what do I know about Cuba? It is very childish, my idea.’” From the start, he seemed to be driven more by a trivial whim to travel to the island, uninformed of the implications of that decision for the Cuban people and Cuban exiles.
The show brought with it hundreds of celebrities, models, photographers, and fashion journalists to the island. Though it spurred a huge amount of media coverage leading up to the show and during the show, the publications didn’t benefit the Cuban public.
Lagerfeld and the celebrities he brought with him ventured into a country for a few days and left without ever having learned much about it. They remained in their government-created tourist bubble of vintage cars, salsa dancing, and an abundance of food and drinks wherever they went, completely oblivious to the living conditions of the Cuban people. This was starkly visible in the dozens of articles and posts made by those attending and participating in the show perpetuated the inaccurate idea of Havana as a paradise stuck in time, a Havana that natives have never known.
The ignorance about Cuban history and the current state of the country was especially prevalent in the Instagram posts of the fashion elite-- for examples just search #ChanelinCuba. For instance, Carine Roitfeld, editor-in-chief of CR Fashion Book, is pictured below with an elderly Afro-Cuban woman dressed as a stereotypical habanera. The habanera became a popular representation of Cuban culture decades ago when it was normalized by tourists, though it actually represents the rampant sexism and racism that harms the people of the island daily, especially Afro-Cuban women. Elderly women on the streets of Havana dress as habaneras because it is their only way of making a living. Posing ignorantly with a woman dressed as an habanera only furthers the systems of oppression that forced her to be in that position.
In the ultimate assertion of hegemony, Lagerfeld went into Havana to stage a fashion show which completely excluded the natives-- a move that further emphasized the divisions between the developing and developed worlds that occupied Havana during the fashion show. The Cuban public proved so burdensome to Lagerfeld that he was adamant about preventing locals from watching his fashion show, and created a blockade around el Paseo del Prado, the long promenade which divides Old and New Havana, where the show took place.
Interestingly, Lagerfeld recruited aspiring model Tony Castro, grandson of revolutionary leader and dictator Fidel Castro, to walk in the show. Young Castro modeled an outfit which featured a shirt that read “Viva Cuba Libre.”
Featuring the grandson of the person responsible for the horrific conditions the Cuban people have been forced to live in for the past 57 years is an extreme sign of disrespect, especially by having him wear a shirt with a slogan that translates into “Live free Cuba;” a move that appears to ridicule the hope of a free Cuba.
Cuba is indeed a beautiful and fascinating country worthy of hosting cultural events, and it should by no means be excluded from fashion as a form of expression and culture. The show in Havana was the first show Chanel ever held in Latin America. It represented a milestone for the fashion industry—an opportunity to comment on the complex state of Cuba, its politics, and its people. The fashion industry has an immense following and a worthy platform to bring important issues to light. As artists they have a responsibility to uncover the truth. Chanel failed at uncovering said truth in Cuba. I hope that both the fashion house and all those who participated in the event realize the error of their ways and the next time they venture into another country, they expose its multidimensionality rather than ignoring its complexities by living exclusively in inaccurate postcard representations of that state.