As she packs her bags full of feminine skirts, sexy suits, and sleek separates perfect for soaking up the local flavor, Naomi rang Kate. ‘Just get to Cuba,’ she said. ‘I’ll bring the clothes.'”
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So reads a Harper’s Bazaar editorial from 1998. Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss are in their prime — household names at home in the UK and stateside. The two have reached supermodel stardom, muses for design doyens like Gianni Versace and the stars of breakthrough ad campaigns for Calvin Klein. And now, Bazaar is photographing them in Cuba for a feature titled “Meet Me in Havana” with famed photographer Patrick Demarchelier. The 18-page spread hits stands that May. A year later, Bazaar is slapped with a $31,000 fine from the United States Treasury Department.
The problem here doesn’t lie with the two British supermodels or the renowned French fashion photographer, but with the American magazine that sent them to Cuba — a communist country rife with human rights issues, economic problems, and political adversaries, the United States being one of them.
When President Obama sat down with Cuban President Raúl Castro this April — the first meeting between US and Cuban leaders in over 50 years — New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman predicted that as strained relations between the two countries improve, the fashion industry would be one of the first to take advantage of loosened restrictions on travel and trade. Fast forward five months and Cuba has become the go-to destination for fashion magazine editorials, from Marie Claire to Net-a-Porter’s Porter Magazine.
Since the ’60s, the US and Cuba have had little to no political relationship save for brief interactions here and there, using Switzerland as a mediator. One of their biggest disputes? Trade. Well, trade, rumors of spies, and political back and forth that eventually culminated in several caustic situations, including an international scare known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Trade still seems to play a major role in this bitter relationship. When former Cuban President Fidel Castro implemented extensive taxes on American products and increased trade with the Soviets, the US pushed back, establishing trade restrictions with Cuba on everything except food and medical supplies — perhaps the reason why the island appears as if it is frozen in time, perennially stuck in the ’50s in terms of architecture, automobiles, and yes, even fashion.
As it turns out, this is exactly what makes Cuba a prime location for American fashion magazines. That and its proximity: The island lies just 330 miles from American soil, yet the two countries couldn’t be farther apart in terms of economic development. One can almost hear an editorial director saying: “Those antiquated 1950s Chevys and Fords would look great next to this Balmain.”
According to Friedman, “fashion is tasked with channeling the zeitgeist.” In other words, even though Obama has cleared businesses for travel to Cuba, American fashion magazines aren’t heading there just because they can. They’re flocking to the country because they have to in order to remain relevant. In doing so, they run the risk of exoticizing Cuban people and culture — something fashion has gotten heat for in the past.
Can fashion magazines capture Cuba’s allure without glossing over the years of hardship, without simply trading in on all that Cuba is for their own temporary gain? The task seems nearly impossible, but despite the issues that arise, magazines continue to travel to Cuba to shoot.
In Marie Claire’s September 2015 editorial titled “Havana Days,” Lithuanian model Giedre Dukauskaite poses in a $4,900 Gucci dress next to a plantain cart. In another image, she stands in stark contrast to Cuban natives, her evening gown and the lighting making the difference even more apparent.
W Magazine’s August 2015 editorial, “Viva Cuba,” features two of fashion’s leading models of Latin descent, Joan Smalls and Adriana Lima. They pose with Cubans and without, the focus mainly on the vibrant colors of their Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs ensembles. Net-a-Porter’s Porter Magazine also took a trip to Cuba for its August 2015 issue. The resulting editorial, titled simply “Cuba,” attempts to link fashion with Cuba and its inhabitants in a photo essay involving a “charismatic cast list of compelling locals and passionate creatives.”
The luxury clothing highlighted in these fashion editorials is jarring when viewed in the context of Cuba’s current economic troubles. We don’t know for certain if restored diplomatic ties will improve the island’s economy, but what we do know is that the fashion industry tends to stay relatively silent on issues like this, focusing instead on this season’s Cuban-inspired must-buys or travel guides with “insider” tips on hotels and art galleries. There’s also no telling how long Cuba will remain a cutting-edge backdrop for fashion magazines. Chances are it will fade from the fashion spotlight as soon as domestic travel to the island is available to everyone.