May 4, 2016
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Chanel glitz comes to Havana, Cubans watch from afar

May 4, 2016

French fashion house Chanel staged its first Latin American catwalk show in newly trendy Havana Tuesday, but ordinary Cubans were left watching the glitz from afar.

Chanel's performance at the Prado promenade in Havana, Cuba - ©AFP / Adalberto Roque

International celebrities and Cuban bigwigs graced the red carpet as Karl Lagerfeld showed his latest collection, which the German designer infused with the styles and colors of the Caribbean island.

Cubans without an invitation to the exclusive event meanwhile packed the balconies of old Havana or lined the police cordon outside, straining to catch a glimpse of the beauties in the distance.

"What a sight. But I would have liked to be closer to the models," said 52-year-old Mireya Correoso, who told AFP she had never seen so much luxury and showbiz in one place.

It was the latest in a stream of international cultural events on the communist island as it opens up its diplomatic and commercial relations.

"The world is finally opening up to Cuba. Everyone wants to come taste the forbidden fruit. Everyone wants to discover it, savor it, enjoy it, explore it," said Mariela Castro, the daughter of President Raul Castro and a prominent gay-rights activist on the island.

Other high-profile attendees included Hollywood stars Vin Diesel, Tilda Swinton and Geraldine Chaplin.

Diesel is in town shooting the latest "Fast and Furious" action movie.

Among the parade of visiting celebrities and top officials, the Rolling Stones also played a concert here last month after a visit by US President Barack Obama.

Chanel's performance at the Prado promenade in Havana, Cuba - ©AFP / Adalberto Roque

Obama and Castro's December 2014 announcement of a rapprochement between their two countries has kindled new interest in Cuba, long isolated by a US embargo and its status as one of the last bastions of communism.

In announcing the show, Chanel said that "the cultural richness and the opening up of Cuba to the world have turned it into a source of inspiration."

The show took place on an open-air catwalk on the Paseo del Prado, a long seaside boulevard in a scruffy neighborhood that got a deep makeover for the occasion.

The opulence inside the tightly guarded venue stood in stark contrast with the poverty of the ordinary Cubans dressed in shorts and T-shirts peering in.

The half-hour show ended with a brief appearance by Lagerfeld, dressed in his trademark gloves and a sequin jacket, who received a burst of applause and conga drums.

- 'Too nostalgic' -

The show was not entirely to local designer Idania del Rio's liking, however.

"It was very interesting and maybe too nostalgic. A lot of Cuban cigars, colors and hats from another era. It represented a Cuba that doesn't interest me right now, because today's Cuba is another, more contemporary Cuba," said the 33-year-old entrepreneur.

For years, the communist principles that ruled in Cuba after revolutionary Fidel Castro won power in 1959 insisted on equality, even in clothing.

Foreign brands were not available until the 1990s, when the market started to open up gradually.

Chanel's performance at the Prado promenade in Havana, Cuba - ©AFP / Adalberto Roque

Cuba entered a crisis after the Soviet Union, which had financially supported its communist government, fell in 1991.

Cubans had to wear imported second-hand clothes from state-run stores.

Authorities called it "recycled clothing" but ordinary Cubans referred to their trips to the official shops as "rag-shopping."

With its cabarets and casinos frequented by US film stars and gangsters, pre-revolutionary Cuba had a thriving fashion scene.

The end of the Soviet era encouraged a rebirth.

The future of fashion will depend on if and when US lawmakers end the 54-year-old embargo -- still in place despite the diplomatic thaw.

"When we become a normal country, without the embargo, we will be leaders of fashion," said Cuba's best-known living designer, Raul Castillo.

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