Karl Lagerfeld, head designer and creative director of the fashion house Chanel, is in Havana this month to present Chanel’s 2017 resort collection.
The Chanel fashion event begins tomorrow with its new Cruise Ship Collection. Previously the company held its traditional parade in other exotic places like Dubai, Singapore and South Korea. Also, today marks the first time a cruise ship from the US called on a Cuban port in almost 60 years.
Last year, I was in Havana visiting the city’s best hotels when I happened to find a Cuban fashion shoot underway at the famous Hotel Nacional. The imagery was a sight to behold – the coincidences remarkable – especially considering the fashion events happening in Cuba this week.
This is how Cuba-born Gloria Estefan reacted to the news about Chanel’s Havana event this week: “That’s wonderful,” Gloria said at the Actors Fund gala on Monday. “The more people that go there and show them the free world, that’s great for the Cuban people.”
Her comments sum up Cuba’s deep historical connection to fashion, sensuality and exoticism that I witnessed at the fashion shoot last year.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter, it’s there, the image is there, they’re seeing beautiful clothes, they’re seeing fashion,” Gloria said. “And by the way, Cuba was huge in the fashion world. In Cuba B.C. — before Castro — the fashion would come out in Paris, and it would be in Cuba the same day. And it was a very, very elegant country; people dressed to the nines there. If you look at the fashions of Cuba in the ’30s, ’40s’, ’50s, it was always cutting edge of fashion. So one day again it shall be. Right now, they’re just trying to find something that they can wear, and it’s tough.”
In this photograph, I was standing behind the photographer when my camera captured the light from photographer’s flash as it washed half way across the subject. I couldn’t help but think this symbolizes Cuba in transition.
Gloria added that when planning their Broadway musical On Your Feet, she and Emilio based some of the costumes on old photos of her mother, who, she says, dressed beautifully when she lived in Cuba. “Cuban women would not leave the house unless they were put together. Whether they were going to the supermarket or wherever it was, they were very well dressed, and we wanted to capture that here in the play.”
These images reminded me of the novel, Cecilia Valdés, (by Cirilo Villaverde) that excavates the nuanced issues of race relations in Cuba. In the novel, there are the elite social circles of Spanish-born and creole whites; mulatos, of mixed race (like Cecelia), and blacks: some slaves, some freed men. The blacks are also divided between those who were born in Africa and those who were born in Cuba, those who worked on the sugar plantation and those who worked in the households of the wealthy in Havana. Cecelia is said to have established the mulata as the ideal of Cuban beauty. Cecilia Valdés is also a Cuban zarzuela (Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes) about a tragedy of manners, love and revenge, in colonial Cuban society of the early 19th century.