[dropcap size=small]C[/dropcap]uba. The name itself has acquired somewhat of a mythical aura, conjuring images of vintage American cars against a backdrop of Spanish colonial buildings, patinated but striking in their faded glory; bronzed locals puffing away on Cubanos, swilling rum or quaffing chilled daiquiris a la Ernest Hemingway, perhaps at a social club where the infectious rhythms of salsa, rumba, son and timba play out all day long.

In recent months, the world has turned its attention to this island nation, thanks in part to the latter’s thawing relations with its giant neighbour just 150km away, the United States. Embassies in Havana and Washington reopened last July after 54 years of frosty relations.

This comes on the back of economic reforms promoted by Cuban President Raul Castro in 2011. Away from the political arena, no less than The Rolling Stones performed in Havana in March, while in May, Chanel and Zenith both held major global events in the capital, just as Vin Diesel began filming the next instalment of the Fast & Furious franchise.

17_Cruise 2016-17 collection - Finale pictures by Olivier Sa
The Chanel Cruise 2017 show took place along the Paseo del Prado in Havana. This is a scene out of the finale.

It is not hard to see why the entertainment industry has set its sights on the country – there is a definitive filmic quality to the technicolour, occasionally crumbling facades of Havana’s historic buildings and the gentle, sweeping arc of the seafront promenade, the Malecon.

But luxury brands like Chanel and Zenith – the very epitome of capitalism – muscling in on one of the world’s last bastions of communism? That raised a few eyebrows. Chanel, which turned a major thoroughfare, the Paseo del Prado, into a runway to showcase its Cruise 2017 line, copped the most flack.

As Joseph Anthony, CEO of marketing agency Hero Group, lamented in The Huffington Post: “A fashion show with models wearing military fatigues and Che Guevara berets is pretty offensive to Cubans, Cuban- American refugees, and anyone with an understanding of 20th-century history.”

Noted fashion critic Tim Blanks commented on industry website The Business of Fashion: “How material that would be for people whose annual salary would scarcely cover one of the collection’s Coco Cuba T-shirts, let alone a cute cigarbox bag, is moot. It felt more logical to see the show as entertainment, with the best of Cuba’s musicians providing a live soundtrack.”

In a press statement, the luxury house explained its rationale for choosing Cuba: “It may seem surprising, but this is an artistic choice made by Karl Lagerfeld. To explore new horizons is a way to fire imaginations and renew the vision of our brand, while sharing the culture and heritage of the locations chosen for our fashion shows.” Chanel has, in recent years, acknowledged the global nature of its clientele by staging its Cruise collections beyond wealthy playgrounds in Europe, in places like Singapore, Dubai and Seoul.

SUGGEST DOMINANT VISUAL 14_Cruise 2016-17 collection - Final

As if to further justify the house’s motivations, the statement also highlighted the location’s French connection: “The Paseo del Prado was redesigned in 1928… by a French landscape architect, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, and it has eight spectacular bronze statues of lions, standing sentinel at each intersection. These eight lions are the work of the French sculptor Jean Puiforcat. So the Paseo del Prado illustrates the ties between Cuba and France; you couldn’t find a more symbolic place in Havana for a Chanel fashion show.”


If Chanel’s show was a public spectacle, then Zenith’s event was subdued, by comparison. Held at El Laguito, a cigar factory in the upscale district of Miramar, the shindig celebrated the new partnership between Zenith and Cohiba, one of the world’s top producers of Cuban cigars.

The Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Cohiba Edition (shown here in rose gold) marks the 50th anniversary of Cuban cigar brand Cohiba.

While the event was planned only a few months earlier (the deal between the two companies was inked in September last year), Zenith CEO Aldo Magada points out that being among the first on this previously shuttered scene was a motivation. “If we had been the 25th brand to do something with Cuba, rum or cigars, you would not be as interested. The curiosity factor was important. Five years ago, who would have thought that major luxury brands would stage something here?”

Cuba, Magada agrees, is a mythical place, a party town of Afro-Latin jazz clubs and rum bars, a Las Vegas with palm trees and white sand beaches. It is an idealised image the island has had since the 1930s, when tourism first kicked off in a big way. And now that the country is opening up, tourists are again coming in droves to try and recapture that spirit.

According to Cuba’s National Statistics and Information Office (Onei), the island welcomed more than 3.1 million international visitors from January to November 2015, a 17.6 per cent increase from the same period in 2014. Of these, Americans registered a 42 per cent jump. This, despite the fact that American passport holders can’t board a direct flight into Cuba from an American city. Clearly, there is tremendous interest in the country – and not just from Americans.

“New airline connections have been established, such as those that will begin (this month) between several Cuban cities and US airports,” says Jorge Duany, director of the Miami-based Cuban Research Institute. “Air China recently started a flight from Beijing to Havana, via Montreal. The German airline Condor has expanded its routes to Cuba. Iberia, Air Berlin, and Air France have also added new flights to Havana.”


Duany offers a reason why international luxury brands are streaming into a country with a planned economy, where the average monthly wage is 26 CUC (about S$35), according to the Onei. “Cuba is one of the last frontiers for lucrative investment by transnational corporations. At this point, the purchasing power of Cuba’s population is extremely low, so it appears that luxury brands won’t find a profitable market on the island.”

However, “the tourist industry is booming and drawing many wealthy visitors to Cuba. Another potential market is the growing number of Cuban Americans who travel to Cuba and may be able to buy some of the expensive goods and services now available on the island”, explains Duany, himself a Cuban emigre.

Most Cubans work in state-run enterprises, while more than half a million (about 4 per cent of the total population) have permits to run small businesses, such as restaurants and hair salons. Some locals have taken on second or even third jobs to supplement their wages, says tour guide Milena Arbolaez Martinez.

“The average basic salary is 30 to 40 CUC per month. But no one lives on that alone. We do other things. We might sell things, or we might teach English at night. Most of us have relatives outside Cuba, so we receive (more money). The real average takings might be around 500 CUC.”

Despite the potential from well-heeled tourists, brands like Zenith have no plans to retail its watches on the island as yet. Says Magada: “Tourists are coming to discover Cuba, they do not care about buying watches.” But he believes that as the market matures, the segmentation of tourists will also change, at which point the brand will reconsider its decision. “We’ll be more than happy to do the job!”

Still, it will be some time before the Paseo del Prado becomes another Champs-Elysees. The more important point is that Chanel and Zenith – and any other luxury brand that hosts an event in Cuba in future – are helping to raise awareness of the country and its inherent charms, not to mention its contradictions.

In any market that is opening up for the first time, tourism is often the main economic growth driver. The hope is that infrastructure development will follow suit – the island’s roads, buildings, telecommunications, and water and sanitation systems are in varying states of disrepair, following decades of disinvestment, negligence and lack of maintenance.


The development of the hospitality industry has been Cuba’s top priority since the early 1990s. A stroll around Havana will reveal just how much efforts have been ramped up in the last few years to cater to the surge in tourists. Construction cranes pepper the skyline, as historic buildings in Old Havana undergo redevelopment to become modern hotels. Along the Malecon, the Hotel Prado y Malecon is taking shape; near the El Floridita bar – Hemingway’s favourite haunt – the Hotel Manzana; round the corner from the Cathedral of Saint Christopher, the Hotel Catedral; and along the Paseo del Prado, the Hotel Packard.

In posh Miramar, Singaporean architect Calvin Sim of eco.id is working on transforming a modernist building circa 1960s/1970s into a boutique hotel. His client is Dubai-based developer Sagheer Mohammed, with whom he worked on 12 Blues Resort & Spa in the Maldives.

“The idea is to turn it into a 12-room hotel with a restaurant and chill-out bar,” he says. “It’s currently under renovation, and should be finished by October.”

STATE OF FLUX Old and new worlds meet on the Malecon, a popular seafront boulevard in Havana.

Sim has travelled to the island four times over the past two years. On the rapid pace of change, he says he felt that “there was a part of the government that wanted to open up, and another part that was conservative, because they don’t want things to change. Change can be uncontrollable once you open the gates”.

But how do locals feel about the new world order? Duany says: “It’s hard to tell whether ordinary Cuban citizens are more excited than concerned about the possible penetration of foreign capitalist corporations into Cuba. But it seems that most welcome the opportunity to work for higher salaries than they can receive in the state-controlled sector of the economy.

“Right now, the coexistence of two official currencies — the regular Cuban peso and the convertible currency (CUC) — makes any job in the private sector very attractive for most Cuban workers. With the possible downturn of economic activities as a result of the loss of Venezuelan subsidies, particularly in oil supplies, the Cuban population has few other options to improve living conditions than to work for foreign corporations or for themselves in small independent businesses.”

Tour guide Martinez, for one, feels hopeful about the changes taking place. “As a local and a tour guide, it’s positive. There’s more money coming to Cuba, which means more money to restore the streets, redo buildings. In the future, it could be too crowded. The commercial airlines from the US, they want to have 30 flights a day! We don’t have airports big enough for that! But right now, we see it as a good thing. As long as it’s controlled.”