Havana Puts on Chanel

By Frank Simon

Chanel arrives in Cuba.
Chanel arriving in Cuba. Photo: notiminuto.com

HAVANA TIMES — It happened during an afternoon/evening in spring, down Havana’s once-glamorous Prado promenade. This time, the thoroughfare’s bronze lions were joined by the new lions of the jungle, the human lions, the men and women of lion-like mentalities, laws and secrets.

The cattle was kept hundreds of meters away. One could describe this cattle as “lost,” as people who have all but accepted their inhuman condition, being wandering non-entities, citizens who will never smell of Chanel.

No one in Cuba saw the fashion show, no one read any articles about it. Only a brief comment on it appeared on a Cuban webpage. However, the colors and lights of the breathtaking commercial brand paralyzed the lives, the gray walls, the rusted beams, the broken windows and the showy balconies of the city. Havana had been pierced at the jugular, there where lion-like minds and breaths challenged the reign of the metal lions.

Poor Havana, which never got so close – and was never so far – from Chanel, poor Havana, so close to Chanel and so distant from god.

The city smells nothing like Chanel. It could never afford such luxury. First, it needs to find a pair of crutches and pray to Saint Lazarus to not let it collapse. Havana has places more sacred than Prado. It has its sanctuary at El Rincon, far from the city center, where Cubans go with their vows and their wishes, a place that smells of incense and poverty, of Santeria rites, of Africa, of affection. But Havana’s sacred sites do not quite make up for the way others are profaned, as Prado is with its negotiations over houses and baseball arguments, or the Malecon ocean drive is by the whores and the romantics, by debauchery and drunkards.

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, left, poses with the Chanel models who paraded down Paseo del Prado street in Havana on Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP/cubadebate.cu

This time around, Chanel kept us out, set up barriers, polished Prado’s marble floor, effaced our footprints, our spit, the vomit we left behind after a night of drinking on New Year’s. Chanel swept away all of that petty, bad-neighborhood, vulgar and intimate humanity, that all-encompassing reality that was left for no one, the ruin of ourselves that no one but ourselves will bury. Chanel destroyed us in a matter of minutes. It wanted to show us we are nobodies, provincial, credulous and dull.

From its point of view, Chanel is everything and you and I are nothing. Chanel will not allow its fashion shows to be described as “rad,” “bitching,” or anything of the sort. Chanel has its own lingo and it has already paid for its admittance into the chic dictionaries of the world, those academies, governments and ideologies that appear ineradicable.

Chanel is Chanel, a defender of the indefensible might say. But what are we? Does Chanel even recognize an “us,” in that absurd logic that only acknowledges an egotistical and hermetic I? Chanel took the country by storm without even knowing what Cuba is, what it was or what it will be (something nobody knows). Chanel doesn’t smell of a countryside boarding school, the military, a potato harvest, a cheap wooden suitcase, having to hitch rides with the help of State officials, a cheese and cassava dish with neither cheese nor cassava. Chanel will likely sell this moment for more than my or your life is worth.

Lion on the Prado promenade. Photo: Caridad
Lion on the Prado promenade. Photo: Caridad

Chanel knows nothing of Cuban culture and takes advantage of it, dishes out a Cuban cliché and sells it as Cuban identity. In 2016, Chanel sets up an igloo of the 1950s, where there’s no room for you or I, a small igloo that smells of Chanel and of hierarchies, a tiny Buckingham Palace that tears apart the polished floor of the Prado promenade, a French commune based not on egalité but on the white Bourbon, on lilies and heraldic lions. Like Albermarle, Chanel drives the dagger of empire into the face of popular longings, mocking, booing, defying the irreverent gesture of the Rolling Stones some days back, reminding us this vast world is governed by small minds, of the world that shrinks and tightens my shoe and your shoe.

Chanel does not converse with you, it dictates a price, a life and a death. It is constantly dictating. It is one of the lions down Prado, a British lion, resting on a foreign shield, a lion that spews its Chanel breath over the deserts of the Third World.

When Jose Marti stressed the need to become dignified, he meant a daily and constant effort, for Cuba has been that, a delicate balance between sacrifice and the path of least resistance, between the aroma of Versailles and the smells of pain. Chanel sauntered down the tightrope of our days. It wants to create a fragrance that will capture Havana’s Prado, where one can smell neither the Prado nor Havana. Chanel wants a Chanel Cuba that is impossible, where we are impossible, where we were never possible. Chanel is a movie, a store window. It wants everything beautiful and clean, and we are the stains.

4 thoughts on “Havana Puts on Chanel

  • I agree. I find it disturbing that Chanel ever set foot in Cuba. But the fact that the residents were fenced out is nothing less than disgusting. Who ever made this decision should be fired from their post, or go cut cane for a year to repent. I hope it’s not a sign of things to come.

  • An interesting commentary, but somewhat confused. Chanel is very much a French company and one cannot help but suspect that the event attended by Cubans in the form of members of the Castro family was a consequence of Raul Castro’s visit to the Elysee Palace by invitation of President Hollande in late January early February. The Elysee would have been a more appropriate comparison than London’s Buckingham Palace. The lions referred to have little similarity to that of the three lions dormant of England or the lion rampant of Scotland – they are perhaps more similar to those seen in France? The name Simon could be English if pronounced to rhyme with Pieman, but it could also be French if pronounced as Seemon. However there is a confusion.

  • This commentary is brilliant poetry but did I miss it? The irony? The presence of the Castros? Were they not there as I had read?

  • In the world of Chanel the people may be the stains, I only met curtious friendly and beautiful people when I visited your country

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