What Chanel In Cuba Means To The Cubans Who Live There

Jennifer Shyue

There was them and there was us: “Them” being the guests of the Chanel Cruise 2017 show and “us” being the crowd of Cubans and camera-toting foreigners pressed against the yellow tape that sliced between us and the blue-uniformed Cuban police officers standing close enough to touch. A long block stretched between their backs and the runway illuminated by street lamps.

For many of those guests, the evening’s events began at 6:15 p.m., when a fleet of mint-condition almendrones — Havana’s iconic American cars from the ’50s — began ferrying guests from the Hotel Nacional, one of Cuba’s oldest luxury hotels and former playground of the mafia, to the show space on El Prado, a long and narrow park that bisects an avenue of the same name. On one side of El Prado lies the tourist hub that is Old Havana; on the other is Central Havana, which has historically been home to lower-income families.

For the three Cuban models who walked the show — Lupe, Johana, and Yessica — tonight’s events were the end of a months-long process involving auditions, training at a Cuban modelling academy, and waiting to see which models the house would ultimately choose. For Cubans who weren’t invited, like jewellery designer Mayelín Guevara, the show was nevertheless emblematic of the sort of attention Havana has long deserved.

“We have a lot of artists here too, people of great worth,” Guevara said. “It was time, no?”

Chanel is going to mark a before and and an after in the history of Cuba.

Migue Leyva J., model and blogger behind this is this, put it in more definitive terms: “Chanel is going to mark a before and and an after in the history of Cuba,” he said. “Some time in the future, if everything goes the way it has been, we won’t have just Chanel — we’ll have Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey; we’ll have Hedi Slimane presenting his collections here.”

It’s interesting to note that despite this quick change (and what you might have gathered about Cuba from Instagram), Havana is nowhere as developed as Seoul, Dallas, or Salzburg. Currently, you’re unable to actually buy Chanel products, except from its perfume and cosmetics, anywhere in Cuba. For 30 years after the Revolution in 1959, Cuba was closed to foreign enterprises and private businesses were illegal. In the 1990s, however, the Special Period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the heavily Soviet-subsidised economy forced the government to loosen restrictions. These days, more and more tourists are flooding into Havana, European companies are investing in hotels across the island and Cubans are opening private restaurants. The gap between rich and poor, greatly reduced in preceding decades, is beginning to widen again.

Chanel is known for hosting shows in far-flung locales. This particular show, however, was a first in many ways: Chanel’s first in Latin America, and, for Cuba, the first time since the Revolution that so many notable people had come from abroad to collectively view a display of what can ultimately be summed up in one word: capitalism. And unlike the Major Lazer and Rolling Stones concerts in March, which were free and open to the public, the Chanel show was a private event.

“That’s kind of expected from this kind of fashion world, which is really an elite thing,” said Adriana Marcelo Costa, a literature professor and book editor.

“I would prefer it, of course, to be different, but I didn’t expect it to be.” Echoed Guevara, “We all want to see the Chanel show, [but] it has to be done this way, half-closed; that’s something normal.”

Photographed by Jennifer Shyue.

For others, however, the fact that El Prado — normally a public park on a street like any other — had been sealed off for the show was troubling.

“I don’t understand why, if they’re going to make it a private event, they do it on El Prado,” said Glensy Palay Alonso, a psychology student at the University of Havana. “El Prado belongs to the Cuban population. It’s not something with a rate that you can rent.”

Cuba’s prestige has long stemmed from the emphasis it places on equality. Free healthcare and education are two of the country’s greatest selling points on the international political stage and have resulted in two oft-cited statistics: an infant mortality rate lower than that of the U.S. and a 99.8% literacy rate.

“I think that [Chanel is] taking advantage of this moment in which Cuba is in view on a worldwide scale,” Palay Alonso added.

There certainly has been a lot of buzz about Cuba recently — whether, as Marcelo Costa said, it’s “because Beyoncé and Jay Z came here three years ago, or because Rihanna took some pictures here [for the cover of Vanity Fair], or because Obama came a month ago, or the Rolling Stones.” The fashion industry, in particular, has had a strong aesthetic fascination with Havana.

“Right now, Cuba is scenography,” Leyva said. “We’re in the middle of the Caribbean, we have marvellous architecture from a time period that is well-preserved...And for certain people, it’s exotic to come here and find an old car, an old building. It’s like, ‘Let’s go to Havana. We need to use this as scenography.’”

Photographed by Jennifer Shyue.

Right now, Cuba is scenography

This perspective on Cuba, Leyva said, does not bother him at all. Marcelo Costa, on the other hand, is worried about Cuba becoming just another tourist souvenir.

“‘Exotic’ for me is another word for stereotypes. It’s exotic for whom? And who decides, ‘That’s exotic?’ [I]t’s kind of a colonial attitude, for me,” she said. “Everyone wants to be in an almendrón; they want to be photographed with a beautiful mulatta [mixed-race woman] or beautiful mulatto, and they want to dance salsa and rumba — and yeah, those things are really important for our culture. But my concern is that that’s not the only thing that identifies us as Cubans.”

Her concern seems to have been well-founded. On the runway yesterday, many looks featured beribboned straw fedoras reminiscent of those sold in Havana tourist shops. The show closed with a Cuban comparsa, or musical group, dancing down the runway with the models in its wake. A scroll through Instagram will reveal plenty of photos from attendees posing with local schoolchildren against crumbling buildings and inside pre-Communist-era cars.

While the attendees were decked out in head-to-toe double-Cs, that logo is a rare sight for Cuban citizens. If Chanel were to open a store in Havana, there remains the question of who would be able to shop there and who it would be built for. This is, after all, a country where the average doctor, for example, makes £15 to £25 a month.

“[Whether a store opens] doesn’t really interest me, because if they open one, neither I nor my friends are going to buy anything there,” said Palay Alonso. “It’s not bad to like luxurious things or expensive things. What would be bad would be treating people [differently] based on what they’re wearing.”

(“You should give people the option [to buy Chanel],” Marcelo Costa said. “If you have money or you want to sell your house to [buy] a Chanel dress, that’s your deal. You should be able to do that.”)

Ultimately, anxiety about what the arrival of Chanel in Cuba symbolises is twofold: There’s apprehension about what an influx in tourism might mean for how Cuba’s multi-faceted culture is viewed on a global scale; and there’s apprehension about what the country’s increasing interaction with a capitalist world means for the world’s most enduring large-scale socialist project that, despite its many flaws, had almost succeeded in wiping out inequality before the Special Period.

Most people would agree, however, that change is inevitable — and might even be a good thing.

“We want a base for Vogue here. We want NEXT Models, Elite Models, everything here. They should come,” Leyva said. “Maybe we’ll have a Parsons here soon in Havana where I can study fashion — we want it, we want it.”

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