It was back in March 2011 that Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, ran a long, gushing profile of Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria. In addition to painting her as a glamorous, sophisticated “Rose in the Desert” – the title of the piece – author Joan Juliet Buck served up a flattering picture of her subject’s hubby, dictator Bashar al-Assad, who came off as a charming and down-to-earth family man. Wintour was manifestly shocked when this piece of inane propaganda sparked worldwide outrage; within days the piece had disappeared from the magazine’s website.
No, you can’t expect people in the fashion business to be world-class models of social awareness. On the other hand, you might at least think they’d have learned a lesson from that episode. Nope. In early June, fashion designer Stella McCartney – Paul’s daughter – held her annual garden party in New York. The theme: “Cuba Libre.” There were “chocolate cuban cigars, Coco Rico, Cerveza Hatuey, special rum cocktails, and various hors d’oeuvres, like vegetarian Cuban sandwiches.” And one more thing: while models showed off McCartney’s new collection, the guests mingled with actors dressed up as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
We’ve scoured the Internet for any indication that any of McCartney’s high-profile guests – among them Alicia Keys and Maggie Gyllenhaal – found Stella’s party theme distasteful. Nothing. The media, for the most part, also responded with a hearty thumbs-up. Note this passage from the Hollywood Reporter‘s account of the event:
From the stilt-walkers in colorful costumes to the multicolored ribbons streaming from the trees, attendees agreed that the party indeed matched McCartney’s exuberant ideas. “When you walk around Havana, it really is like this, music and life in the streets,” said Alan Cumming….he was happy to get into the spirit of the event: “I was just in a Fidel and Che sandwich,” he joked of posing with the actors impersonating Castro and Guevara.
Explaining the party’s theme, McCartney gushed: “I simply wanted to have a fun party, and I think Cubans know how to do that.” She recalled that she’d “visited Cuba over 20 years ago, when Cuba was really Cuba” (a statement she didn’t explain) and called her collection “a celebration of spring: new life, color, hope, energy and fun….Cuba is just to have some fun. Fun on top of fun!” Commented Fashion Week Daily: “McCartney is fun on top of fun; we have to thank her for reminding everyone that fashion is as well.”
We’ve looked at a couple of dozen fashion websites that reported on McCartney’s party; with a single exception – which we’ll get to in a moment – none of them so much as hinted that its theme was in poor taste. Style magazine titled its cheery article “Cuba Libre! Liv Tyler, Amber Valletta, and More Turn Out for Stella McCartney’s Colorful Garden Party.” Calling the bash “a colorful nod to Cuba,” Style quoted attendee Liv Tyler‘s words of praise for Stella: “I always learn something new from her.” The Fashionista website was also ebullient, congratulating McCartney for “manag[ing] to bring the feel and flavor of Cuba to Nolita” by transforming “a garden on Elizabeth Street…into a lively, Cuban-themed fiesta, complete with street performers on stilts, rum cocktails and cigars passed on trays, Che Guevara lookalikes playing dominos as models looked on, and a live band with salsa dancers on hand to set the groove.”
Nor was there a trace of criticism in Women’s Wear Daily, which described the fête matter-of-factly as “a nod to Cuba, complete with costumed characters on stilts, a live salsa band and dancers, and two men who looked remarkably like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro enjoying a beer and chocolate cigars at a picnic table with some models.” In sum: “a cheeky, festive and timely photo-op.” Even Vogue seemed not to have learned from its own Syrian misadventure: “Stella’s world,” concluded its account, “is always sweet.” Elle UK enthused, too: “Stella McCartney knows how to throw a good party….don’t you wish you were there?” Not even The New York Observer saw anything unsettling about the theme of the fiesta, which it dubbed “the garden party of the century.”
At least the feminist website Jezebel got it. Reproducing several tweets that included photos taken at the party, Jezebel commented:
Guests included big names like Cara Delevingne, Miranda Kerr, Liv Tyler, and—most noteworthy of all—two men posing as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Not present: anyone who’s suffered through Castro’s half-a-century-long dictatorship. How fun!
Jezebel suggested themes for future McCartney parties: “Sensual Stalin! Kim Jong’s Krazy Korea!” The Yahoo news site, to its credit, also recoiled, noting that “McCartney famously heralds cruelty-free clothing, while Guevara and Castro aren’t exactly, uh, pacifists—the former leading execution sweeps and training Congo rebels; the latter denying many of his citizens basic civil liberties.” Yahoo noted that New York Magazine had posted a picture from McCartney’s shindig on its Instagram account, only to remove it later after commenters expressed disgust at the apparent homage to a half-century of tyranny.
We mentioned earlier that we found exactly one (1) fashion writer who was actually appalled by the theme of McCartney’s soirée. The writer in question: Anna Quintana, who, quoting a bubbleheaded, self-flattering statement made by McCartney at the event – “I’m just too global for my own good” – suggested that “McCartney was not ‘global’ enough to understand the complex and sensitive nature of the Cuban story, especially given that she had men dressed up as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro mingling and playing dominoes with the guests and models.” Quintana added:
As a Cuban-American, I find it hard to process how a designer I have long admired, and one who prides herself on being ethical when it comes to her cruelty-free designs, could feature a garden party with walking caricatures of Castro and Che Guevara, two figures that many, if not all, in the Cuban-American community would consider to be the epitome of cruelty.
Bingo. Another Cuban-American writer, Humberto Fontova, also castigated McCartney – and, in addition, made this highly salient observation:
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara…made it a criminal offense for their Cuban subjects to listen to Stella’s Dad’s music. During the mid ’60’s Castro and Che’s ever-vigilant STASI-trained secret police was very scrupulous in ferreting out the counter-revolutionary crime of listening to the Beatles. The hapless Cuban youths detected in this crime were herded into forced labor camps at Soviet bayonet point.
Finally, there’s MSNBC journalist Collier Meyerson. She was offended by the party’s theme, too – but for another reason: in her view, McCartney’s capitalistic “commodif[ication]” of “the iconic faces” of the Cuban people’s “struggle” – she was referring, of course, to Castro and Che – showed “disrespect” for those two great socialist revolutionaries.
And having quoted that, what more can we say?