As more and more clueless and uncaring characters have made their way to Cuba during recent months, we’ve been following them there. Recently we took note of the Chanel fashion show that Karl Lagerfeld brought to Havana, spreading a thick layer of Seventh Avenue glitz over that crumbling city’s decades of Stalinist grit and grime. We’d be remiss if we didn’t add to the list the family whose name has become synonymous with the utter indifference of privileged Western celebrities to political and economic systems that have denied other people the rights and opportunities that have made them (i.e., the celebrities) rich and famous. We’re talking, of course, about that awful, ubiquitous clan whose name begins with a K and who, in early May, took their reality show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, to the island prison as part of their endless effort to stay in the spotlight and cultivate world-class photo ops.
“Both the Karl Lagerfeld Chanel fashion show and Kardashian trip to Cuba for their TV show is emblematic of celebrity culture at its worst,” Cuba-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the Los Angeles Times. “I know it might be a high bar to ask famous folks to draw attention to human rights abuses by the Castro regime, but playing a role in making Cuba a fun, no-worries destination is nothing but a cruel trick on the Cuban people. The Kardashians are taking lots of selfies in Havana, but are they taking stock of the reality on the streets they walk on?”
If you believe the gossip corner of the New York Post, Page Six, the Kardashians were “freaking out they [couldn’t] post on Snapchat in Cuba.” Even better, they didn’t managed to scare up the kind of attention there that they’re accustomed to. “Finally,” observed CNN’s Emily Smith, “there’s a place where no one cares about the Kardashians.” But this doesn’t mean that their slumming didn’t make headlines back home. In a welcome departure from the usual stateside indifference to such hijinks – at least according to Refinery29 (“the fastest growing independent fashion and style website in the United States”) – a photo posted by Khloé K. on Instagram, which put on display “the Kardashians’ apparent lack of knowledge (or disregard for) the country’s fraught political and social history,” made many social-network mavens “livid.” The picture (above) shows Khloé standing in front of a wall on which is written Fidel, the name of the never-elected monster who led the Cuban “Revolution” and served as “president” of that totalitarian empire for nearly half a century until, in 2008, he yielded power, nominally or not, to his brother, Raúl.
The picture, reported Refinery 29, “garnered comments on Instagram accusing the Kardashian[s] of disrespect and ignorance,” with some followers comparing the picture “to a tacit endorsement of Hitler.” Charged one commenter: “Might as well stand in front of a picture of hitler [sic] with emoji hearts in your eyes! I’m Cuban and this is fucking disrespectful.” Many social-network fans noted that the snap was particularly bemusing given the fact that Khloé “has spoken up about the Armenian genocide.” But the surprising thing, needless to say, isn’t that these PR whores are insensitive about Cuban Communism; it’s that one of them has even heard of the Armenian genocide.
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.”
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-Morleypronounced 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 Armstrongquoted 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.”
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.”
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.
In recent weeks and months, we’ve been toting up some of the American pop-culture figures who’ve been jetting down to Havana since the so-called thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations made that destination even cooler (at least in the minds of some of our more ethically challenged celebrities) than it was before. This week we’ve looked at the high-profile filming in the Cuban capital of the latest Fast and Furious masterpiece and the recent release of the movie Papa Hemingway in Cuba, shot almost entirely on the prison island.
Here’s another item for our roster. “To unveil his Cruise 2017 collection for Chanel,” reportedHarpers Bazaar the other day, Lagerfeld, the pompous, preposterous 82-year-old German designer who is head designer and creative director of Chanel, “flew the fashion pack out to Cuba, staging the first ever fashion show to be held in the country since the 1959 communist revolution.”
The open-air show took place on the Paseo del Prado, “a street landscaped by a Frenchman and lined with colonnades on either side, painted in faded pastels.” Lagerfeld’s guests, 600 in all, including such celebrities as Tilda Swinton and Gisele Bundchen, “were chauffeured in a rainbow-coloured convoy of 170 old cars to a front row of park benches underneath trees that lined the centre of the street.” Lagerfeld’s glitzy garb, a “multicoloured sequin tuxedo,” made it clear he was “here to have fun.” And fun it was, with “dancing models and a delightfully eclectic collection that mixed up colour and print, masculine and feminine, Parisian chic and Cuban flair.”
The Harper’s Bazaar contributor we’re quoting here is Avril Muir, who, scribbling in the storied style rag, described Lagerfeld’s big show as “a gloriously exuberant spectacle that showed the global reach of this supremely powerful brand.” Part of what made it so “glorious exuberant,” Muir emphasized, was that it was set in Cuba’s “beautiful capital city,” which she described as “a beguiling mix of ruined colonial houses, rusting Cadillacs and seafront boulevards which turn into a kind of catwalk for locals every night.” How supremely romantic! Cuba, Muir stated, is “a country where time has largely stood still since the late 1950s.” True enough; but the way she put it made it sound magical. Cuba, where time has stood still – just like in Shangri-La!
Muir didn’t realize it, of course, but what she was recounting here was an act of slumming on a truly monumental scale. Through the sheer wizardry of the fashion biz, one heartbreaking manifestation after another of abject poverty and oppression was transformed into a token of the utmost in chic.
Ruined houses? Dazzling! Rusting Cadillacs? Bewitching! Penniless serfs dragging themselves along the waterfront every night because they can’t afford to do anything else? Hey, it’s not a sad slog, folks – it’s a catwalk!
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 fêtematter-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 UKenthused, 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.