Behind the Scenes at Chanel’s First Cuba Show

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

“C’est choupette, non?”

Right in the center of Old Havana, amid the beautiful and decrepit colonial buildings that resemble some sweet pastel fruit gone terribly overripe, Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld is working hard. He is on the stage of the Teatro Martí, a national theater built in 1884, sitting behind a card table spread with baubles and a set of Cray-Pas and an enormous bottle of Chanel Boy perfume, and speaking about a dress he plans to show 24 hours later as part of his Chanel Cruise collection. The dress, naturally, reminds him of his beloved cat Choupette (lots of things remind him of Choupette), whom Lagerfeld left at home in Paris in the care of her personal maid.

Choupette and her maid are just about the only ones not here, it seems. “We brought 700 people to Havana,” Lagerfeld says, raising his eyebrows at the sheer chutzpah of bringing a mammoth fashion show — a cruise collection — here, to Havana.

It’s hardly Lagerfeld’s first time on the road. Since 2004*, he has shown biannual collections all over the world. These collections are not part of the traditional ready-to-wear or couture calendars (these he still shows at the Grand Palais in Paris, with all sorts of insane set design and hoopla), but rather fall into the resort and preseason calendars. He’s been to Edinburgh, Salzburg, Dallas, and most recently to Rome for the annual Métiers d'art collection highlighting historic Parisian craft techniques. There was a show in a Singaporean nutmeg factory, and another in Seoul, where the front row consisted mainly of heavily stylized K-pop stars. For a show two years ago in Dubai, an elaborate set was built on an island off the coast; the fretwork that wrapped the space was revealed, on closer inspection, to be made of interlocking c’s. Most recently was a Métiers d'art show in an elaborately detailed Parisian street scene entirely contained within the Cinecitta film studio in Rome.

But Havana is different. This is a socialist country, where Cubans have only been allowed to own property since 2011. The American embassy just reopened nine months ago. There are no logos anywhere in the city, no chain stores anywhere on this island.

It’s all a bit of a crazy fever dream: high capitalism in Havana? Giddy consumption and luxury lust? Havana is changing, and fast. In March, President Obama came to town, goading Raúl Castro into answering questions from the assembled members of the press. Rihanna was photographed for the cover of Vanity Fair in a Havana restaurant. (Other celebrities on the wall include Jay and Bey.) Havana is one of the most exciting places on Earth at the moment, everyone waiting, watching, wondering. How fast will it go? What will it be like, and when? Which American hotel chain will monopolize the beach, how on Earth is UNESCO going to protect so much?

And so, of course, Lagerfeld, with his truffle-pig nose for the zeitgeist, is here, bearing rack upon rack of glistening ropes of pearls. How did this happen? Lagerfeld is cryptic. He had an idea, and when you are Karl Lagerfeld and you have an idea you can make it happen. “It’s a complete accident!” he says, “Like everything I do!” But it was the good kind of accident. He is finding that while there is little “fashion” in Cuba, he is pleased with what he sees in terms of style. “Here,” he says, “you can really wear jewelry. Here, you can smile whenever you want. It is adorable.”

Right now, though, everything is business as usual as Lagerfield works on “accessorization,” the process by which he decides which scarves, belts, shoes, and bags will go with which dresses, jeans, and tweedy suits. Many members of Chanel’s Paris atelier have been flown in, and they are busy at work, adding more, more, more: extra corsages, belts on top of belts on the 45 models flown in for the show (the show will actually feature 47 models; 2 are Cuban).

“This is all about my vision of Cuba,” Lagerfeld says, and then he smiles and shrugs. “But of course, what do I know about Cuba? It is very childish, my idea.”

A model twirls in a pleated silk skirt printed with images of the candy-colored 1950s cars that troll the city. A stylist sifts through clutch bags that look like cigar boxes. “It’s a stupid idea,” Lagerfeld says, smiling, “but it’s an idea.” The Parisian editors who surround him giggle. “C’est cute!” says one. “Naughty Karlito!” says another. On a balcony, a musical trio — upright bass, maraca, singer — is playing quietly. A slight model with blonde hair and a fair complexion has sunburned the tops of her pale feet during a morning outing to the beach. She presents herself and her feet in a long-sleeved, mixed-material dress and a version of Che Guevara’s famous starred beret, hers covered in shiny black paillettes. She does a twirl, and then is off to have makeup applied to the tops of her feet.

“She is fun,” Lagerfeld says, “She is so ugly that she is fun.”

“Yes,” says one of the editors. “She has too many teeth. That’s what it is.”

“It’s fun to be so ugly,” Lagerfeld agrees. “These collections, they are not so serious like on the runway in Paris, they are light.”

“Mmm,” someone says. “The unbearable lightness of being.”

At the Hotel Nacional, the mark of Chanel is everywhere. Women mill about in head-to-toe Chanel (Chanel sneakers, Chanel jeans, Chanel watches and rings, Chanel roller bags being loaded onto brass luggage carts everywhere you look). The fashion press is here, too, a collection from each country shepherded by their local PR team. The PR team wears Chanel, but casually, all flat sandals and ease. Everyone’s been given a special-edition Chanel fedora, and everyone smells vaguely of Chanel Chance, the shower gel left in each guest’s room. Most people are carrying Chanel handbags of various shapes and sizes. The French team returns from the beach with pink cheeks and wavy hair, entirely unfussed about the possibility of sand on their 2.55s. The Latin American contingent wears full-coverage foundation, which slides a bit in the heat. Their clothes fit more tightly than everyone else’s — certainly tighter than the Japanese crew, who take a deconstructivist approach to dressing for the heat.

There are endless cars and vans coming and going, shuttling everyone around on rotating tours of the Museo de Revolución, the streets of the old city, Ernest Hemingway’s house on the outskirts of town, and a warehouse funded by the Cuban government and full of the country’s promising contemporary art. There’s an evening trip to the Tropicana cabaret, where an elaborate dance number is cast like a Yeezy show. There is a complicated dance about slaves battling their master for the heart of a woman, the only blonde to appear onstage all night. There are dozens of women wearing enormous headdresses, men crooning and belting in their guayaberas. It’s all a mad blur of activity and heat and cultural overload.

Early Tuesday evening it all comes to a head: Everyone is in the lobby at once, ready for the show. Stretching down the driveway is a candy necklace of cars: 170 convertibles, all tops down, and the guests start piling in. The horns all play different songs: “Fur Elise,” “Here Comes the Bride,” “La Cucaracha.” The cars are loaded and met by a police escort on a motorbike, and they begin to drive along the Malecón; in the harbor is a big cruise ship: the Adonia. It arrived a day earlier, with 700 passengers onboard. It is the first American cruise allowed to dock here in almost 40 years. The show location is at the Paseo del Prado, a pedestrian walkway in the center of the city originally built in 1772 and redesigned in the 1920s by a French landscape architect. It was built to mimic European cities, with glamorous hotels and cinemas shading its marble benches. It’s a natural runway, originally imagined as a place for the people of Havana to do their evening peacocking.

Tonight, the buildings that line the Paseo are filled with spectators, fanning themselves on balconies, climbing onto roofs, leaning out of windows. Very few people have phones; they are all just watching, while the foreign guests point and click and shoot themselves and each other. One guy, probably in his 20s, is wearing a striped top with blue plastic discs on the shoulders and big sunglasses — “Is that Junya?” one editor wants to know. “Junya? In Cuba?” It’s all too much. Vin Diesel arrives to great cheering: He shapes his hands into a heart over his guayabera and points into the crowd. Tilda Swinton gathers far less attention in a starched white blouse, her platinum hair slicked back off her face.

Stella Tennant opens the show in a fedora and wide-legged pants, and the crowd goes quiet. Music by three live Cuban groups fills the square. Everything is undoubtedly Chanel: tweeds and suits and a beautiful ivory dress that is a dream version of the dresses that hang in the tourist shops and markets. There are a lot of jeans, and there’s a lot of color, and there’s a lot of fantasy ideas about this country: the swagger, the danger, the mystery, but also high-end versions of what you might see on the streets — lurex biker shorts with a contrasting blouse. One particularly sparkly gown gets a cheer from the balconies — could it make it to the Tropicana? Lagerfeld’s 7-year-old godson, Hudson, walks with his father, who is smoking a cigar (all the male models are smoking cigars).

For the finale, the models all emerge together and the band follows them down the runway. They are awkward at first, but then the audience is dancing and cheering, and the models loosen up. A French actress dressed very convincingly as Coco Chanel is dancing the rumba with a singer from Rumberos de Cuba while Carine Roitfeld cheers her on. Gisele appears all loose-limbed in a red knit Chanel dress and a navy beret. And then it’s back into the convertibles and back down the Malecón to the cobblestoned Plaza de la Catedral, past the placards for a new luxury boutique hotel (sleek bathrooms in the pictures, a lobby that calls South Beach to mind). A beach house has been constructed in the square, and everyone is dancing and glugging mojitos and sweating. No one’s hair looks okay, and no one cares.

Lagerfeld appears and dances a salsalike thing with French actress Cécile Cassel. The Chanel clients are delighted to be with one another, delighted to have a place to wear their carefully selected purchases before an audience of admiring friends. “Cruise Cuba!” they say to each other knowingly, and smack their palms together. It’s all sweaty and delighted and electric.

Ana de Armas is a 29-year-old Cuban actress who lives in Los Angeles; she left Havana on the Spanish passport she inherited from her grandparents when she was 18 years old. “I never thought this was going to happen,” she says at the party that night. She is jittery, emotional. Her eyes keep filling up and her hands shake a little. “Look, my family, my friends, they don’t even know what Chanel is. They don’t know what it looks like. There is no internet here. The only way of acquiring knowledge in Cuba is by conversation, and this is like a great, big conversation. We are celebrating something that should have happened a very long time ago.”

Tilda Swinton is beaming too. She’s been on the island just 24 hours and has already committed to a six-month teaching gig at the film school. “I really thought the collection honored Cuban styles, shapes, and attitudes,” she says. “There’s a thing here in terms of style that reminds me of clubbing in the ’80s. There’s no internet, no one’s photographing themselves, it’s just that general coolness and relaxedness of being well put-together. There’s standardization of style here.”

And will a big fashion show change that?

“Look,” she says, “capitalism is visiting and the Cubans are doffing their caps, but my sense is that this is a very healthy country and any notion that they need saving by a moribund capitalist country from across the sea is just absurd.”

The next morning, as the fedoras and the tweeds are being packed to be shipped back to where they came from, as the guests of Chanel prepare to return to their countries, still buzzy and high on everything that has happened, still quite curious about what it all might mean, the Kardashian family arrives en masse to film an episode of their show. They feel, reports say, a certain amount of frustration. They can’t get Snapchat to work.

*This article has been corrected to show that Lagerfeld has shown biannual collections all over the world since 2004, not 2013.

Photographs: Magnum Photos