Glitz and grime: Lagerfeld in Cuba

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Karl Lagerfeld in Havana

We’ve been discussing Karl Lagerfeld‘s recent fashion show – a massive bash to promote Chanel’s new line-up of pricey schmattas for rich people – held in the heart of destitute Havana, complete with 600 well-heeled guests, many of them international celebrities. Forget the cruel Communist reality that surrounded this scene – the event itself was all about fantasy, about illusion. Indeed, as Avril Muir put it in Harper’s Bazaar, “the entire thing looked like a film set, insanely beautiful in the soft evening light.” Never mind, as we say, the half-century of brutal Castroite repression and terror that was responsible for the crumbling backdrops of this “beautiful” spectacle: Lagerfeld and his crew from Chanel, cheered Muir, had “created a moment of fashion history.”

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Tilda Swinton was one of Lagerfeld’s 600 guests

To be fair, Muir was only one of many members of the fashion media – and, for that matter, mainstream media – who gushed over this event. While acknowledging that it was tough to put on “an elite fashion show in a country with an annual salary of £3,000,” and that Lagerfeld’s audacity in doing so “raised a few eyebrows,” the Guardian‘s Jess Cartner-Morley pronounced  Havana “a gorgeous setting for a fashion show” and decided to brand “Lagerfeld’s world view” with the relatively innocuous word “mischievous.” In the Daily Telegraph, Lisa Armstrong quoted a “flustered Chanel PR” person as saying that, yes, accommodation and dining options in Cuba are still “a bit Soviet,” observed that “most of the city is so decayed that only will-power and defiance keep it standing,” and pointed out that the country’s average annual salary is equivalent to the price of one large “classic Chanel quilted handbag” – but more important to Armstrong, apparently, was Havana’s “jaw-on-table degree of beauty,” which for six decades has been “un-besmirched by Western brands.”

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What’s left of the second-floor hallway of a building that collapsed in Havana on May 4

As it happens, on the same day (May 4) that Cartner-Morley and Armstrong filed their stories, one of those “beautiful” old Havana buildings collapsed “after a day of heavy rain and strong winds,” leaving fifty people homeless.  “The building had been declared unfit for habitation 31 years ago, in 1985,” reported Marti Noticias, “but people continued to live there and nothing was fixed. In addition, the wall that gave way, causing the building’s roof to cave in, had been declared extremely dangerous 13 years ago in 2003.”

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“Ordinary Cubans” checking out the glitterati

Despite claims, moreover, that Chanel had arranged for “ordinary Cubans” to be able to take part in the event, CNN, to its credit, noted that “[t]ight security prevented anyone without a coveted invitation from getting too close” and that those ordinary Cubans who wanted to get a peek at the “gloriously exuberant spectacle” had to do so from the windows and balconies of a relative handful of apartments that happened to look out on the Paseo del Prado. As Agence France-Presse put it, “ordinary Cubans were left watching the glitz from afar.” (WISH-TV, Channel 8 in Indianapolis, offered its own angle: Chanel’s show “offered a startling sight in a country officially dedicated to social equality and the rejection of material wealth.” The key word there, of course, being officially.

What Avril Muir and her colleagues were recounting, in short, was nothing less than yet another shameful episode in the history of privileged Western indifference to Communist despotism and deprivation. Alas, as the Cuban “thaw” continues, it looks as if there’ll be much, much more of this sort of nonsense in the months and years to come. 

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