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Cuba, Communism & Fashion Culture

With each dive into the unknown, with every encounter with the yet undiscovered land I am in awe. Cuba. As I explore different corners of the planet I grow. Vastness of this world is my fountain of youth, an inexhaustible source of happiness, thus I travel. And while, ‘numberless are the world’s wonders’ I remain the biggest fan of you, Latin America! You have been the shiniest blip on my global travel radar, as you always give me all: culture, history, climate. I have not yet explored all of your magical land, but the moment I step on Cuban soil, we connect and I am in love.

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I do not intend to bore you with the ‘travel guide’ description of this jewel. Cuba needs to be experienced. I can only tell you of the portion of my date with Havana, the date that lasted for couple of days but created a lifetime of memories.

As we meet, the Cuban capital dazzles me; the colours, the music, the men. Havana is an eclectic mosaic. Its historical background makes this beauty a unique specimen, a multidimensional cultural hybrid, particularly distinct, as communism permeates every pore of its identity. Its archaic elegance is enveloped in the colours of a rainbow, with Latin and African sensibilities adding to its timeless charm.

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I am fascinated by the finest assemblage of the colonial architectural structures. I am drawn to its exuberant vibrancy and to its antique edge. I appreciate its aesthetical and emotional charge, its warmth, the heaviness of its contemporary plight. Time stands still for Cuba and it is this timeless flare that gives it a unique aesthetical appeal that enchants us all. I am inspired. My sister is inspired and we did what we do best. Fashion.

As I am absorbed by everything Havana has to offer, I cannot help but notice the familiar vibe. I grew up in communist Serbia; I recognize the same scent on the streets of the Cuban capital. I am overwhelmed by the nostalgic appreciation and disgust of the red communist legacy evident on the decrepit Cuban facade of otherwise innate beauty and elegance.

From architecture to street style, Cuban aestheticism does not only reflect its eclectic culture, but it also reflects its socio-political history. Cuban aesthetical freeze isn’t so much of a choice, but inescapable reality. It is a symbol of global isolation and stagnation, a product of crippling trade embargo that has kept the country in relative poverty and underdevelopment.

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In fashion, socioeconomic status can be a limiting factor that impacts one’s scope of stylistic self-expression. Similarly, the overall economic health of a country determines the scope of fashion as avenue for expressing individuality, as opposed to fashion as a product of the circumstantial reality. In Cuba, the circumstantial reality of fashion is that of overt sexuality and kitsch. Fashion is practical and improvised, as it comes from the communist kitchen of oppression and poverty. It is essentially contingent on what is available, what can be smuggled and self-produced, with sex appeal as the guiding stylistic principle. The same reality I witnessed in Serbia. In the midst of sever economic conditions women sexualize their image, breaking away from the ideological oppressiveness and socialist insistence on simplicity and moderation. This form of self-expression or lack thereof is a result of scarcity and also represents rebellion against drabness. Women are wrapped in nylon pantsuits, tight shiny skirts; pointy bras, the overall objective-considerable exposure of skin. Men are also ‘shining’, guilty of garish tight shirts, synthetic blouses, gold accessories — all the very common stylization of the communist gentlemen.

But things are slowly changing for Cubans on every front, fashion industry including. The move isn’t of tectonic scale but it is headed toward a more prosperous, less tacky future in its own pace. Raul Castro and his commitment to rejuvenated socialism have opened a new era for Cuban business. With relaxed economic restrictions, local entrepreneurs are getting greater opportunities, greater exposure and greater space to further evolve. International brands are also given an opportunity to penetrate the market, Chanel being the predecessor to the trend. And while many see Lagerfeld’s show a spectacle for the elite that realistically excludes Cuba and its market; I see it as a marker of the grand change to come. I am excited to see that change, to watch Cuba grow and actualize its potential beyond showcasing the zeitgeist of the 1950’s the world is so reluctant to lose.

 

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