The afternoon sun was still baking central Havana when Mabel Fernandez and her 14-year daughter took their spot facing the Prado, a grand colonial boulevard hung with lights and loudspeakers for a fashion show by French luxury label Chanel.
“This is something that we’ve never seen in Cuba,” Fernandez said, delighted to be exposing her fashion-crazy daughter to a world of supermodels and Hollywood actors that the girl had only seen in TV and movies.
But as evening fell on Tuesday, hundreds of state security officers swarmed the area, pushing Fernandez and other Havana residents behind police lines blocks away.
“We couldn’t see anything,” Fernandez lamented Wednesday morning. “It wasn’t right. My daughter was dying to see it.”
With the people of the city held at a distance, actors Tilda Swinton and Vin Diesel, supermodel Gisele Bundchen and Cuban music stars Gente de Zona and Omara Portuondo watched top models sashay down the Prado in casual summer clothes seemingly inspired by the art deco elegance of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
Afterward, attendees were taxied in antique American cars to Havana’s Cathedral Plaza, an 18th-century Baroque gem transformed into a beach-themed party backdrop by the erection of a giant tiki-style lounge over its colonial cobblestones.
Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld, 82, arrived in a blue-and-cream 1957 Ford Fairlane, picking his way gingerly toward the VIP section of the tiki hut as his gold-sequined jacket glinted in the lights of the dance floor.
Models gyrated to a brief private concert by French-Cuban duo Ibeyi as waitresses handed out hors d'oeuvres and cocktails to the gathered crowd.
It was a startling sight in a country officially dedicated to social equality and the rejection of material wealth – the temporary privatization of two of the capital’s most iconic sites by an international corporation dedicated to selling exclusivity and luxury.
The show was the most extreme manifestation to date of the hot new status Cuba has assumed in the international art and cultural scene since the December 2014 declaration of detente with the United States.
President Barack Obama visited in March, the Rolling Stones performed in Havana the same week, the first U.S. cruise in nearly four decades docked Monday and the latest installment of the multibillion-dollar “Fast and Furious” action movie franchise is filming here now.
Chanel welcomed the chance to show its creations in an unusual spot.
“To explore new horizons is a way to fire imaginations and renew the vision of our brand while sharing the culture and heritage of the locations chosen for our fashion shows,” the label said.
Many Cubans say they are delighted their country is opening itself to the world, offering ordinary people a firsthand look at celebrities and extravagant productions. But for others, the conversion of Cuba into a stage set and playground for some of the world’s wealthiest people fuels disenchantment with what they call Cuba’s failure to deliver on promises of sustainable socialist equality.
Among those disappointed was Reinaldo Fonseca, a local model, who stood outside the show Tuesday night with a group of friends similarly trying to make their careers in fashion.
“It’s a shame they don’t let us pass,” he said.