As Cuba Opens Up, Fashion Reacts

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2015 New York Times News Service


When people talk about the resumption of relations between the United States and Cuba, as they did over the weekend as President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro sat down for the first meeting between leaders of their two countries in more than 50 years, they talk mostly about history and diplomacy and influence, and what it could mean for the future in terms of trade and travel, not to mention human rights.

What they do not generally talk about, however, is fashion.

Yet odds are, fashion is about to talk a lot about Cuba — and not just because the current diplomatic situation has given it a timely edge, and fashion is tasked with channeling the zeitgeist. Nor because more-relaxed State Department import regulations may affect the apparel flow from south to north, or even because the just-declared Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is Cuban-American.

But because, for an island of approximately 11.2 million people, Cuba has always occupied an outsize space in the designer imagination.

I am not talking, you understand, about guayabera or Cuban-collared shirts, though they have become a menswear perennial; I am talking about something both more abstract and more visual: a sense of color and climate and mood that feeds a fantasy of the “forbidden island” and has been a source of endless inspiration for designers with actual ties to the country (Cuban-Americans like Adolfo, Narciso Rodriguez, Isabel Toledo and Alejandro Ingelmo), and without.

It spurred Donatella Versace’s spring/summer 2015 men’s collection, for example, with white jeans embroidered in gold palm leaves, sorbet shades of pink and sand and ocean blue, and lacelike inserts that made references to Havana architecture.

It gave shape to Tracy Reese’s spring/summer 2014 womenswear collection of full-skirted, tropical-toned hibiscus-print styles.

It was, Matthew Williamson told British Vogue, the inspiration for the saturated tones and intarsia foliage of his debut 2010 menswear collection.

It even lured Harper’s Bazaar south for an 18-page photo feature by Patrick Demarchelier with Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss in 1998, which resulted in the magazine being fined $31,000 by the U.S. Treasury Department for violations of the travel embargo then in effect.

To give you an idea of its influence.

As to why, well, in part this has to do with Cuba’s political history, and the romanticism of the taboo; in part it has to do with cultural references from Ernest Hemingway to Carmen Miranda’s “Weekend in Havana.”

Mostly, though, it has to do with the fact that — as Ingelmo, founder of a namesake footwear line, whose grandfather had one of the most famous shoe factories in Cuba but fled when Fidel Castro came to power, said during a phone call — it was so unconnected.

“There are almost no Game Boys or Internet or TV,” he said, and so Cuba was never part of the globalization wave that has created a level of cultural sameness from Tokyo to St.-Tropez.

Meanwhile, its image is “frozen in time around the 1950s,” Ingelmo said. “The images, the stories we all have in our mind: Everything is from that time.” And few things get fashion excited like decade-hopping to the past.

But that was pre-policy shift, when Cuba was as much an abstraction as an actual place for many (thanks to the U.S. embargo, Cuba’s global isolation served to set it apart even for those who could visit with impunity). Now that the situation has changed, will the clothes?

Will we see a flowering of Cuban influence even beyond what has hit runways and stores before, or will fantasy be trumped by reality?

As Ingelmo points out, Cuba is a country of real deprivation. The fact that “life is lived outside,” a part of its visual allure, is often a result of there being no other option because of overcrowding inside. It’s one thing to dream about a land isolated by law and practice; another to actually confront its reality.

Nevertheless, said Paul van Zyl, the chief executive of the socially conscious luxury brand Maiyet, “I think it will definitely have a disproportionate influence on fashion.” What that influence looks like is a different question.

Pointedly, the least obvious connections come courtesy of designers whose understanding of Cuba is less idea than reality: Ingelmo, Rodriguez and Toledo (the latter two are also favorite designers of Michelle Obama — make of that what you will, oh conspiracy theorists), and perhaps therein lies a clue.

Rodriguez, for example, traces his love of a form-fitting dress and his color palette to his heritage as the child of Cuban immigrants; Toledo, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States as a teenager, emailed: “I learned to see color and atmosphere in Cuba.”

“My hometown was high in a mountain valley, in the middle of the country,” she wrote. “The light was particular there; it has absolutely influenced how I see color and texture. I feel that the romance and mystery in my work is related to Cuba, but the logic of my patterns are totally influenced by my American experience.”

As for Ingelmo, he said he believes the combination of “sexiness and elegance” in his shoes is something that is specifically Cuban, and sets it apart from other tropical styles. And he also agrees with Van Zyl that Cuba is about to have its fashion moment.

“In this industry,” he said, “everything comes around.”

Rodriguez being a case in point. In the past, he said, “I never talked about Cuba.” It was too politically sensitive a subject. “Now, though, I think maybe it’s time.”