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The Tricky Business About Fashion's Infatuation With Cuba

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It's no surprise that since the December news that the United States would be lifting certain sanctions against Cuba, fashion designers have paid special attention to the island nation and its rich aesthetic history. Says writer Collier Meyerson, who reports on race and politics for Fusion, “To [Westerners], Cuba is a time capsule and it’s exciting to think about getting to experience a bygone era; the old cars, cigars, and hot sticky nights are romantic. But beneath the sexiness of young men cruising around in guayabera shirts is a country that is decades older with much to show for it.” That was explored in two resort collections presented this week, which showed two distinct perspectives: one of Westerners beginning to experience Cuba as a cultural commodity, and one of Cuban-Americans reconnecting with their roots.
On Monday, Stella McCartney threw a garden party to present a beautiful resort collection, in which she paired her billowing chiffon gowns, knotted-up separates, and sultry spring looks with her signature floral-sprayed, cruelty-free accessories. The theme of the party was Cuba, and the collection was fêted with chocolate cigars, rum drinks, a Son Cubano band, and two costumed men dressed up like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. (When asked about the intention here, the Stella team responded that the theme was nothing more than just for fun.)
The presentation — especially the two human caricatures — didn’t sit well with many who recognized the complicated state that Cuba finds itself in. “It’s all fun and games to use the ‘Cubanese’ lifestyle to sell more clothes," says Natalia Linares, an artist advocate with a Cuban mother. "But we must ask, at the expense of who? Will the daily life of Cubans on the island change as a result? Or is it just about commodifying something that’s been untouchable to everyone until now?”

If anything, using two of the most recognizable faces of communism to support what’s inherently a capitalist industry feels like an exercise in mixed messages. Says Meyerson, “Cuba is one of the last surviving socialist nations in the world, and up until very recently, its all but non-existent relationship with the United States is proof of that. To commodify the iconic faces of their isolating struggle is tone deaf at best and downright disrespectful at worst. It’s an odd choice, frankly.”
Proenza Schouler’s resort collection, on the other hand, was born out of a recent intimate experience with the country. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, who is Cuban-American, recently visited Hernandez' extended family in Cuba for the first time. The trip was a profound one for Hernandez, and he took the homecoming, his heritage, and its visual cues to influence his collection. Many of the easy striped dresses, wilted ruffles, and subtle tropical prints were definitely au courant, but with the benefit of understanding their Cuban context. Design elements were also reminiscent of the Little Havana look popular in the late 1950s, the last time Cuban culture was imported abroad, and right before the United States embargo was put in place. The dilapidated, relaxed, old-world elegance was there — if you looked — but not obvious. If the Cuban connection wasn’t mentioned during the presentation, it might have never come up.

Inspiration is a personal thing, and there is no definitely right or wrong way for designers to translate their feelings and experiences onto the products they create. If there is a tipping point, though, it might lie in the depth of the connection. Things seem to resonate so much more strongly if they speak to the human experience, which is a tool that all of us would do well to remember.
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