Finding a place for high fashion in communist Cuba

Posted: 25-Apr-16 17:48

While some of the world's most renowned fashion designers and celebrities romanticise Cuba, a recent editorial questions whether a communist country is the best location to promote high fashion. With concerns ranging from spotty mobile phone service to poverty and crime, one writer argues Cuba is far from glamorous. We're here to dispute such disproportionate claims; Cuba is far from perfect but and it is definitely one of the safest countries to visit in the Caribbean and the whole of Latin America. Get your fact rights and steer away from political propaganda; the only way to see real Cuba is by really being there!

Finding a place for high fashion in communist Cuba

As some of the world’s most fashion-forward celebrities, models and socialites descend on Cuba, others raise questions about whether the communist country can rise to meet their expectations. Author Gabriella Hoffman writing for conservative American online newspaper, The Resurgent, lays out her response to Cuba being in Vogue in her article “Life in Cuba ain’t glamorous”.

In the editorial, Hoffman resents the fact that Cuba is the top destination for fashion this year, thanks in part to Karl Lagerfeld, creative director and fashion designer for Chanel, who, as we’ve reported earlier, plans to unveil his 2017 cruise collection in Havana on 3rd May this year. While Lagerfeld claimed he chose Cuba for its newfound openness and cultural richness - two real facts that reflect the changing times in Cuba - Hoffman questions both things whilst not managing to provide strong cases against either.

Especially ridiculous is her claim that the majority of Cubans have no idea what Chanel is. The majority of Cubans may live on limited resources, yes, but they aren’t ignorant, indeed Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the Americas, and most people in Cuba know what Chanel is and what it stands for. This author is clearly out of her depth when talking about a Cuba she doesn’t know and hasn’t been to. She clearly doesn’t know any present-day Cuban and hasn’t travelled to the island. Else she wouldn’t make such obnoxious generalisations.

Equally and utterly ridiculous is the writer’s claim that Cuba isn’t safe, or as she puts it “violent crime in Cuba is quite high” a statement she later attempts to back up by linking it to an odd incident reported by The Telegraph back in 2013. It tells the story of a British teacher who was mysteriously murdered in her hotel room during a holiday in Cuba.

No question this is a disturbing piece of news, but something that could have happened (and has happened) to any tourist in the world in any other country in the world, at any point in time. It’s not like this case is recent (happened three years ago and was a one-off) or that cases like this are seen in Cuba every year, it’s one in a decade or longer, really. You can easily look up the real facts and see that Cuba is one of the safest countries in Latin America, with the lowest incident of crime against tourists. Don’t take my word for it, check the official government’s Foreign Travel Advisory on Cuba, where it clearly states:

“Crime levels are low and mainly in the form of opportunistic theft.”

So, there, nothing along the lines of violent crimes. Attempting to discredit Cuba’s worthiness as a fashionable destination, Hoffman then goes on to quote a blogger from Fashionista who last year penned:

“...this does bring up the question of whether or not it’s insensitive for a luxury label to descend upon- and to borrow heavily from aesthetically- a country still rife with poverty?”

She then makes a similar reference to another piece published in Town & Country Magazine earlier this month. In that piece, author Sarah Bray presents her own reasons to support the argument that a fashion show in Cuba will be challenging, catering toward a crowd used to luxury. Bray wrote:

“Chanel has a reputation of being able to pull anything off, but a luxury event of epic proportions in a communist country with still-strict visa, commerce, and trade laws?”

Bray went on to sarcastically outline Cuba’s limited cell phone service and undependable Wi-Fi. She writes:

“Will bloggers and editors actually have to watch the show instead of fiddling with Snapchat filters?”

Yes, Cuba is under-developed country with difficult economic challenges to overcome, it’s no secret to anyone and no one denies it, not even the Cuban government. Everyone is aware of Cuba’s limitations in terms of infrastructure, we’ve reported the lack of high quality hotels in Cuba to meet growing demand in numerous occasions, nothing new there.

But none of these is reason enough to disqualify Havana as a fashionable or photogenic destination, indeed there’s much beauty to be admired in Cuba, whether it’s faded by years of neglect, it’s still beautiful, there are still countless grand architectural marvels in a variety of styles (Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Baroque, Neoclassical…you name it, Cuba has it).

A good number of these prevail and stand tall against all odds and through the relentless beating of weather and the passage of time – they are a metaphor for the resilience of Cuban people themselves, who are known to face every difficulty with a broad smile. But more than anything it’s all authentic here, no cookie-cutter beauty anywhere. No wonder most photographers fall in love the second they land there. And controversial politics or poverty doesn’t detract from any of the appeal.

Yes, Wi-Fi connection in Cuba is patchy, slow and expensive. But what’s that got to do with a fashion event? For once, like Bray sarcastically says, all eyes will be on the show and not on the audience’s phones. What a refreshing change in times when everyone seems to busy glued on their phones to notice real, unfiltered beauty! Karl Lagerfeld is a very smart man indeed! All eyes will be on his haute couture perfectly juxtaposed against the leafy Prado promenade – the perfect urban catwalk!

To further her point, the writer then outlines three reasons why Havana won’t be able to provide the luxury standards that fashionable travellers expect. She’s onto something here, Cuba’s hotel industry is still developing and Cuban luxury is not par with international standards, everyone knows it, everyone gets it. No one comes to Cuba expecting Dubai style red carpet and royalty treatment.

That said there are award-winning luxury boutique properties in the capital like Hotel Saratoga (ranked in Conde Nast Traveller’s Gold List 2010 and winner of Conde Nast Reader’s Travel Awards 2009 and 2010) and in more recent times privately-rented properties (a.k.a casas particulares) have upped their ante with chic flats in Old Havana and entire mansions with private plunge pools in upscale neighbourhoods like Miramar. So, they are limited, but luxury options do exist in Cuba. And there’s more to come, as luxury Swiss hotelier Kempinski has announced they will be opening a new property on Manzana de Gomez with the new Manzana de Gomez Central Park is expected to be ready by the end of 2016.

Hoffman also says that visitors seeking the glamour and glitz of the old days will likely not find it in Havana. Oh, but how very wrong she is! She couldn’t be more off the mark with this remark! There’s plenty of old world glamour to be spotted in Havana, so much that most don’t have time to see it all in a single visit, and so rich it has been featured in several publications and photobooks and more recently in an article by W Magazine. Rihanna didn’t choose to be photographed in Cuba for the cover of her Vanity Fair photoshoot by accident. Fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz specifically picked Cuba as the location for a reason, or rather, for a bunch of good reasons, as stylist Jessica Diehl revealed:

“It’s a combination: you have Rihanna, then you have Cuba, then you have [photographer] Annie [Leibovitz] who loves Cuba, and has photographed lots of things there. It’s taking into account the coloring, and the mood, and the sort of patina of the places and houses and music venues and things like that. It became about what would be, in our imaginary world, believable, because it didn’t feel completely right to go 4,000 percent over the top—we wanted to be part of Cuba, we didn’t want to be outside of Cuba.”

She writes the country is dotted with shoddy buildings, crumbling and about to fall to the ground. Yes, that’s not great (and they are working on it) but, has she ever heard of a fashion trend called shabby chic? Cuba has it, in troves, by accident sadly, yet oddly (or not) quite enchantingly eerie in its own unique nostalgic way. Therein lies precisely the appeal and hence the fear of many travellers that further tourist development could take away that old-world-forever-stuck-in-time allure.

Hoffman adds that most Cubans are not wealthy enough to afford Chanel, she has a point there too, but isn’t it true that neither does the vast majority of the world population? Only those in the higher strata of society around the world can afford an elitist fashion brand like Chanel. Come one, everyone knows Chanel is an exclusive household name and a pretty expensive brand. In relation to that, Hoffman claims that most Cubans won’t be able to attend the fashion show, either, because it won’t be public. Well, have I got news for you Hoffman, Chanel’s shows (or any big fashion show for that matter) are not public or free anywhere in the world and most tickets are strictly by invitation only.

If all the above points weren’t enough, to conclude, Hoffman calls the decision to host a fashion show in Havana “disrespectful” and that holding the show will allow the Cuban government to continue perpetuating human rights abuses and crimes. Now, that’s stretching it a bit far. Human rights controversy is another matter altogether and not a reason for a fashion house to pull out a show. Indeed even the U.S. Human Rights records is questionable; especially since the Guantanamo Bay prison still hasn’t been closed down. Yet you don’t see any fashion designer pulling off shows in the U.S. so if they don’t delve into the world of politics anywhere in the world, why in Cuba? Ain’t that a bit of disproportionate scare-mongering?

Hoffman should move on with the times and leave the Cold War era in the past, where it belongs. The U.S. president has done so (and she criticises him for doing so) and the best way to help Cuba and the Cubans is by going there and engaging with them, not by alienating them. Taking away from Cubans a major novelty event like Chanel’s fashion show – the likes of which the island has never seen before -would be further ostracising them and punishing the locals for their government. After all if you stay at a casa particular or dine at a paladar the profit is going straight to the Cuban population. Cubans are in Vogue and they’re happy to be so.

And all you have to do to prove Hoffman and her claims wrong is go to Cuba. There you will no doubt come across crumbling architecture and impoverished neighbourhoods but you will also encounter fun-loving Cubans with a can-do attitude. Cubans are happy people, they don’t take themselves or their problems too seriously and have an amazing ability for laughing in the face of adversity.

They are uniquely creative and imaginative people, able to make-do with little – the old 50s cars still roaming the streets are another testament to that. Just watch The Discovery Channel’s Cuban Chrome documentary series if in doubt. Of course Chanel should go to Cuba, everyone that wants to should come and the Cuban people will be welcoming them with open arms. Karl Lagerfeld’s entourage might lack world-class luxury comforts but he will take away something far more precious to inspire future collections: the kaleidoscopic and colourful microcosm of puzzling, enchanting Cuba. How is that for a fashion statement?


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