A time capsule from decades of isolation, it is no surprise that Cuba has become the ultimate inspiration for designers.
Dubbed a “trend” for Resort 2016, Cuba was the theme of two very different collections: Proenza Schouler and Stella McCartney.
Proenza Schouler’s Lazaro Hernandez, who is Cuban-American, and Jack McCollough recently traveled to the island nation to visit Hernandez’ family. The collection was reminiscent of the personal experience, with subtle references to the native costumes with ruffles and floral prints and to the current conditions of the island with the unfinished edges and the continued use of industrial grommets from their fall collection.
“There was no way not to get inspired by that experience really,” Hernandez told WWD. Of the ultimate takeaway from his collection he continued, “those native costumes and ruffles, and that sense of deterioration. Things that felt like they were falling apart.”
Proenza Schouler was able to capture Cuba perfectly: a vibrant and tropical oasis with a crumbling facade. It was an ode to Hernandez’ heritage, and honestly, it was so subtle had he not brought it up, the inspiration would have been completely lost.
On the other hand, Stella McCartney turned Cuba from an inspiration to a gimmick at her resort presentation.
While Hernandez and McCollugh used a personal and direct connection to create their collection, judging from McCartney’s garden party, her collection was from the viewpoint of a foreigner looking in.
Complete with chocolate cigars, Alicia Keys on maracas, Cuban dancers on stilts, rum drinks and dominoes, her garden party was an exaggerated version of a typical Cuban soiree. Her designs reflected her Western approach to Cuba, or as Vogue put, her “sugarcane-coated version of Cuba,” with shirt dresses tied in the front like a traditional head wrap, bright floral patterns and even a modern take on a Bata Cubana, commonly known as rumba dresses.
“I’m just too global for my own good,” McCartney said at the party.
However, McCartney was not “global” enough to understand the complex and sensitive nature of the Cuban story, especially given that she had men dressed up as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro mingling and playing dominoes with the guests and models.
As a Cuban-American, I find it hard to process how a designer I have long admired, and one who prides herself on being ethical when it comes to her cruelty-free designs, could feature a garden party with walking caricatures of Castro and Che Guevara, two figures that many, if not all, in the Cuban-American community would consider to be the epitome of cruelty.
Not only that but it is comical to see two men, who completely abhorred materialism and capitalism, playing games at a fashion designer’s showcase, one that could never take place in Cuba today.
While her approach might have been in “fun,” it was distasteful and insensitive, and surprisingly naïve for the designer. Cuba might be the newest vacation hot spot, but the Cuban people are still without basic human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and private enterprise, rights which made McCartney’s Cuban fiesta possible.
“It’s all fun and games to use the ‘Cubanese’ lifestyle to sell more clothes,” Natalie Linares, a Cuban artist advocate told Refinery29. “But we must ask, at the expense of who? Will the daily life of Cubans on the island changes as a result? Or is it just about commodifying something that’s been untouchable to everyone until now?”
McCartney’s approach to Cuba was a reminder that many don’t understand the intricacies behind the palm trees and Cuba Libres. There is my Cuban grandmother who had to cut sugarcane for two years to be able to leave the country with her daughter because of McCartney’s two garden party guests. There is my Cuban grandfather who went from being an engineer and academic to working for minimum wage in a new country. There are the long distance phone calls between my mother and her uncle, with a connection that is barely audible.
It is important to look at Cuba as Hernandez did at Proenza Schouler, admiring the beauty but also emphasizing, and not masking, the flaws.
But hey Stella, chocolate cigars are sweet too.