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Latin America

The Cuban revolution walks the runway with Chanel

All in a Havana day: a march with old socialist slogans, an invasion of American cruise ship passengers and the arrival of Karl Lagerfeld and his top models
3 May 2016 – 01:10 PM EDT
Chanel became the first major fashion house to stage a runway show in Havana on Tuesday Crédito: Efe

Like every International Workers' Day, Cubans did not sleep much on Monday.

Public transportation stopped working the night before and the buses were assigned to carry workers who gathered in the predawn darkness to the annual May Day parade. By the time the sun came up, the Paseo Avenue already was a sea of people.

From a reviewing stand on Revolution Plaza, the country's top leadership saluted its workers. President Raúl Castro, wearing a guayabera and farmer's hat, Machado Ventura in a Panama hat and Council of State Vice President Ramiro Valdés with binoculars.

Sweating under the withering sun as they admired the compact parade of people, some who shouted revolutionary slogans and held up posters cheering the island's sovereignty and independence, as well as salutes to revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl.

A few hours later the socialist anthem, The Internationale, marked the end of the parade. The streets emptied.

By the afternoon, the streets of Old Havana were bubbling over with a different kind of excitement. Police on every corner guarded stood guard waiting for the arrival of the Carnival cruise ship Adonia. Tourists snapped photos of jugglers, mimes and the picturesque black women who smoke cigars and pose for tourists in the city's historic center. Every table at every bar seemed to be covered with mojitos and glasses of foamy beer, with Cuban music playing in the background.

Cargando galería

At the Factoria Habana art gallery it was another world altogether. In the latest sign of warming relations with the West, Chanel director Karl Lagerfeld, a monster in the design world though a virtual unknown among Cubans, arrived in a motorcade of four luxury cars that navigated the cobblestone and narrow streets of Old Havana to launch his photo exhibit, “Work in progress.”

Chanel in Havana, little more than a month after U.S. president Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones were here! A furious commotion erupted, the kind that celebrities can spark when no one expects them. Camera flashes and a hullabaloo everywhere. But few of the Cubans were riveted by the scene. No one knew the distinctive 82-year-old gentleman at the center of the hubbub, with the long and chalky white hair, black tie, silver gloves and wearing sunglasses even though the sun was hiding behind clouds.

Chanel has no store in Havana - at least not yet - and most Cubans can't afford its expensive perfume and handbags. Yet on Tuesday the French luxury goods firm will become the first major fashion house to send its models sashayng down a runway in Cuba, an event unthinkable a few years ago when the island's revolutionary leaders scorned the ideological "deviations" of western culture.

For Monday's exhibition the gallery was packed with foreign journalists, but not one from the official media. European models, tall and skinny, wearing sneakers and colorful dresses that were elegant or extremely short or extremely wide. The men, with slicked-down hair, wore jackets over t-shirts and ankle-length pants.

Entrance was by invitation only. The unbearable heat drove the celebrities outdoors little by little, to the street and the balconies of the gallery's three stories. There were actors Jorge Perrugorría, Ana de Armas and Eslinda Nuñez, the twin sister singers of Ibeyi and some models.

Among them was Miguel Leyva, a young Cuban model who has posed with Tony Castro, a grandson of Fidel Castro, for photographer Brian Canelles. Lagerfeld did not stay long. He went in, said hello and left in his caravan of cars. With his departure, the gallery did not take long to empty. Outside, another caravan, but this one of bicycle-powered taxis, waited to transport many of the participants.

I later read that the well known Chanel models Jon Kortajarena, Jake Davies, Baptiste Giabiconi, Sebastien Jondeau, Brad Koening and Gabriel Kane also had been at the gallery. Cubans don't know any of them. Brazilian super model Gisele Bundchen, the face of Chanel, is also reportedly in town.

That night, walking along the Padro avenue, where the Chanel runway show will be held, I saw the Hollywood actress Tilda Swinton strolling with a man. That is Cuba today, an island where in the morning it can shout to the winds all the old socialist slogans of its revolution, and that very night allows itself to be seduced by what it once condemned.