The French-Cuban musical duo Ibeyi have been serenading the crowd with their soaring voices for several minutes before I catch a glimpse of the approaching silhouettes. My seat is far from where the models are making their entrance, the interminable runway on which they strut stretching over 160 metres in the heart of the Cuban capital. But at least I have a spectacular view of Paseo del Prado, the Old Havana artery where Chanel is unveiling its 2017 Cruise collection, out in a few weeks. (Imagine casual ready-to-wear adapted to 35-degree weather that’s so humid my neighbour’s updo wilts.) For Tilda Swinton, Gisele Bündchen and some 700 other guests, the night’s presentation is the grand culmination of our stay in Cuba. Add to that a marathon of banquets and guided tours, and the whole affair feels more like an all-inclusive holiday worthy of the gossip pages in a magazine than just a fashion show.
Sure, the first such event held by an international fashion house on Cuban soil is an opportunity to celebrate, but it’s also a sign that the island is back in the spotlight, at least with its neighbour to the north. Long popular with Canadian and European vacationers, Cuba is slowly starting to host American visitors for the first time in more than 30 years, following the relaxation of the U.S. embargo against the country. And to welcome them, Havana is changing more quickly than a model backstage at a runway show.
Fortunately, the ambience remains resolutely local. I would happily join the hundred or so Havana residents massed on the balconies of the time-worn yet elegant colonial buildings that flank both sides of Paseo del Prado. Occupying the best seats of all, the onlookers sing and party boisterously throughout the whole show, like enthusiastic spectators at a baseball match. Stella Tennant, the British top model who nonchalantly kicks off the evening dressed in an androgynous vest, flared pinstripe pants and a cream-coloured panama hat that calls Hemingway to mind, can’t resist sneaking a curious glance their way instead of fixing her eyes on the cameras at the end of the catwalk.
I don’t blame her. Looking straight ahead proves to be a challenge when I follow Ayleen Santana Durán, the guide who walks me around the crush of motorcycles and cars spewing suffocating diesel fumes one hot morning. It’s my first time in Havana, but it could just as well be her first too, given the maze of closed streets that force us to make unexpected detours. The excitement in the air is palpable – as is Santana Durán’s visible astonishment with the speed at which her city is changing. Near the Plaza de la Catedral, posters announce the upcoming opening of a five-star boutique hotel. A few intersections later, scaffolding masks the facade of the Palacio Velasco. Housing the Spanish embassy, the art nouveau building will soon reclaim its proud elegance, like a freshly iced wedding cake.
“Two weeks ago, everything was blocked off here,” Santana Durán tells me as we approach the brand new section of Paseo de Martí, where the majestic Gran Teatro de La Habana is located. In front of us, the tall neo-baroque facades, decorated with arches and statues, contrast with new street lamps and the recently tarred street. Just a few days ago, the Hollywood cast of Fast & Furious 8 used it to film a testosterone-fuelled car chase. (Before the fashion show, I spy Vin Diesel dressed head-to-toe in white, flexing his muscles and snapping selfies.) But today, the only people causing a commotion are the old men sitting on a bench in Parque Central. Their rowdy conversation seems to be peppered with insults. “No, they’re just arguing about baseball,” Santana Durán reassures me. “It’s like that every day and always has been.”
A far less common sight is Karl Lagerfeld giving a stoic salute, as he does to the audience to mark the end of the Chanel show in Old Havana. The models, some of whom sport faded yellow and tangerine “Coco Cuba” T-shirts, start streaming down the runway, dancing alongside energetic percussionists. Several spectators join in, doing away with the stiff decorum usually seen at fashion shows. The vibe is chaotic and carnivalesque. We climb aboard a convoy of vintage convertibles (old cars like these also make an appearance in the Chanel collection as illustrations emblazoned on long skirts and masculine tunics) that takes us, horns honking, toward Plaza de la Catedral, where the party continues.
Sipping a mojito under a sky torn apart by lightning – even unintentionally, Lagerfeld has a flair for drama – I think about the MV Adonia, moored at the Sierra Maestra terminal in front of Plaza de San Francisco since the day before. It’s the first American cruise ship authorized by the U.S. government to make a stopover on the island in almost 50 years. “We all have a romantic idea of Cuba, whether it’s from movies or music,” Amanda Harlech, Karl Lagerfeld’s muse, tells me. “The fashion show is only one interpretation among many.” She then points to a lanky model rushing toward the dance floor, her head topped with a beret à la Che Guevara. Pulled from the collection, the ironically iconoclastic accessory looks perfectly chic on the young woman. She dances to the beat of a frenetic conga, joyfully shaking off several symbols without even realizing it.