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How Chanel Pulled Off a Fashion Show in Cuba

Local caterers and event planners added authentic touches to the house's Cruise 2017 show.

By Jim Shi May 31, 2016, 7:00 AM EDT

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

Famed fashion house Chanel turned a colonial boulevard in Havana into a brightly lit runway on May 3 for its Cruise 2017 “Coco Cuba” show, throwing one of the fanciest and most star-studded parties the island has seen since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

The audience took in the open-air show seated on park benches as Latin beats ricocheted off the surrounding buildings, capturing the essence of a lively Havana. As a wink to the 1920s and 1930s, when Cuba first emerged as a popular cruise destination in the Caribbean, the show climaxed with a drum corps that, in lieu of a traditional finale, ended with a lively conga line of dancing models and musicians.

In a unique twist, an organic link between Chanel and Cuba was made known. Not only is Karl Lagerfeld a massive fan of Latin music, but he was once a cha-cha and tango champion. As for the show itself, it took on the Paseo del Prado, Havana’s main thoroughfare, which serves as a symbol of the links uniting Cuba and France thanks to a redesign in 1928 by a French landscape architect who placed eight bronze statues of lions—one of Coco Chanel’s beloved emblems of strength—at each of the crossroads. Call it predestined decor.

Some 700 people were flown in courtesy of Chanel for the show, with editors, clients, and V.I.P.s treated to dinners, a “Cuba Revolution” tour, cigar factory visits, a trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house, and a night at the famous Tropicana cabaret. An event was also held at La Factoria, which hosted an exhibition of Lagerfeld photos as part of a month-long program of French culture in Cuba.

Guests were chauffeured to the show in over 100 multi-colored 1950s-era American convertibles rented for the evening. The vintage cars of Cuba appeared as a print on several gowns, including a flowing dance dress that featured candy-colored prints of Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac cars. Chanel made it a point to hire local drivers, as well as Cuban models, caterers, and event planners.

A heavy security presence prevented anyone without an invitation from getting too close, but local residents packed balconies along the street to catch a glimpse.

According to Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, the house only obtained the final green light from Cuban authorities to stage the show in March. The brand had contingency plans to mount a Cuban-style event in Paris, as it has done for past Métiers d’Art collections that referenced Russia, India, and Turkey. Pavlovsky added that it was with pure coincidence that the Havana locale, initially selected in 2015, would also play host to a visit by President Barack Obama and a free concert by the Rolling Stones; he acknowledged that the event could raise the profile of Cuba and advance its progress.

Following the show, an after-party took place at the Plaza de la Cathedral in Old Havana, the ornate heart of the city, in front of the 18th-century church San Cristobal. Bold-faced fans including Vanessa Paradis, Gisele Bündchen, Alice Dellal, Tilda Swinton, and even members of the Castro family reveled in a tropical setting where every item of furniture and every decorative object was handmade by Cuban artisans.

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