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. 

Eau de Havana: Chanel meets Castro

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Lagerfeld (left) in Havana

And then there’s Karl Lagerfeld.

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,” reported Harpers 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.”

chanel-cuba-10The 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.”

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The beret worn by this model was inspired by Che Guevara’s habitual headwear

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!

More tomorrow.