HAVANA - French fashion house Chanel brought glamour back to Communist-ruled Cuba on Tuesday in a catwalk show on one of Havana's main boulevards, featuring glittering gowns, tulle cocktail dresses and models in Panama hats smoking cigars.
Chanel is the first major fashion house to hold a show in Cuba, highlighting both warming relations with the West and new inequalities on the island.
Former Cold War foes the United States and Cuba formally agreed to restore diplomatic relations last July.
Celebrities, including actress Tilda Swinton and supermodel Gisele Bundchen, jetted to the Caribbean island for the show that evoked the elegance of pre-revolutionary Cuba, and they arrived at the venue in vintage convertibles.
The Cuban contingent included former president Fidel Castro's grandson Tony, an aspiring model, which raised some eyebrows, given the leader's railings against capitalism. "It is an honour for all Cubans for this big event to take place here," said Tony Castro, 17, whose grandfather was also known for his good looks as a young revolutionary.
Karl Lagerfeld, who has been at Chanel's creative helm since 1983, has said that his latest inter-seasonal Cruise collection was inspired by the "cultural richness and opening up of Cuba". Cuban motifs in the new Cruise line were exemplified in a fabric depicting turquoise and pink vintage cars used for leisurewear such as jackets, a bathrobe and skirts.
Sequinned black berets also recalled the non-glitzy one sported by the late revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a national hero in Cuba.
By showcasing its Cruise collection in Cuba, Chanel has said it is harking back to the roots of the line, originally designed for wealthy Americans holidaying on yachts and cruises in the Caribbean to escape the winter grey.
US cruises to Cuba were forbidden during the country's standoff with the US. On Monday, the first US cruise ship to sail to the island since Castro's 1959 revolution docked in the capital.
Lagerfeld, 82, is known for his lavish settings and has created a casino, supermarket and brasserie for past shows. This time, he let the faded glamour of Havana, once a wealthy port, speak for itself.
During a 25-minute show set to live Cuban music, his models strutted down a 160m section of the leafy Paseo del Prado, lined with ornate street lamps and bronze lions.
Local designer Idania del Rio said: "It was very interesting and maybe too nostalgic. A lot of Cuban cigars, colours 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."
Some Cubans criticised Chanel, the second-biggest luxury brand behind LVMH's Louis Vuitton, for choosing to showcase its new line in a country starved of material opulence.
Chanel goods, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, are not sold in Cuba and most citizens could not even dream of affording them. About 70 per cent of Cuban workers work for the state, on an average salary of US$25 (S$33.80) every month.
Others said the show gave their dreams wings to fly. "Just because I can't afford it doesn't mean I want to deny others that luxury," said
accountant Marilia Veliz, 44. "And who knows, maybe one day. It's important to dream."
The future of Cuban fashion will depend on whether US lawmakers end a 54-year-old embargo that is 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.