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arbel kynan

Gold and coconuts in Cuba – The Diplomats

Text Carlo Mazzoni


The driver behind the wheel says the vast majority of Cubans today didn’t experience the revolution; they have only heard stories about it. Cubans are happy with the current politic situation. They don’t have to pay for food – although there is never enough of it – they don’t have to pay for their houses, they don’t have to pay to go into hospital. There is propaganda at every street corner, all around the island – Castro will always be with us, our best friend. The American embargo has blocked trade with the island – but you can see the most beautiful American cars in Cuba, lacquered Cadillacs, chromed Chevrolets, varnished leather, oiled gearboxes. As we drive down Havana’s Fifth Avenue, where there are all the embassies – he points out the Italian Embassy, in one of the most beautiful buildings. The cemetery is just a short distance from city center and it’s the largest in the Caribbean – maybe in all of Latin America, he says. The statues, many carved out of Carrara marble, are worth five million dollars. Cuba is an ice-cube intent on staying intact despite being in a frying pan at forty degrees Celsius. It is a performance of the struggle against the impossible – a match with Agassi at the end of his career playing against an up –and-coming Federer. We humans find strength in applauding those who fight against what can’t be beaten – and not just the fight against time.

Internet works terribly, credit cards are even worse. You can’t change Cuban currency anywhere else but Cuba and some remote corners of Mexico. You can’t get Coca Cola, just a drink made in Cuba that tastes the same but is called Tu Kola. The embargo has crystallized the meaning of the socialist dream, but it has nullified the meaning of trade – the clerk has a duty to perform, but the existence of a customer is not acknowledged. You work; you labor for the sake of labor – certainly not for someone paying for the service your labor produces. The airport is a nightmare – you never get your luggage in anything under an hour after landing, the barmaid can’t serve you a coffee because she is too busy chatting with her workmates and tells you to go to another café. The airline offices are closed; the people who work there hate you.

The car breaks down. It was to be expected; the car looked like something out of a French comedy film, but in a scene that was cut because it has already been seen before. Forty minutes in the midday sun, sweltering on the tarmac of a six-lane motorway, with no shade. Only a few cars go by, all the drivers seem to know one another. An iron cable is produced and we get towed for about twenty minutes. We get into another car that is even dirtier and smellier than the first. We are an hour and a half into the six hour drive we still have to complete. The driver says he needs to fill up with petrol – he leaves the main road and drives into a suburb, then pulls up at the back of a building in the middle of some fields – he goes into a shack and comes out with a jerry can. When he turns the ignition key, the spark plug won‘t fire the engine. We get out of the car and start pushing it up an incline and then down the other side, and the engine starts up. Half an hour later and our makeshift driver needs the toilet – he stops the car again in the middle of another suburb – we wait fifteen minutes for the man to come back out of the flat of someone we can only assume is his friend. Any notion of fatigue vanishes when we finally reach the most stunning beach we have ever seen (and we are not easy to please): protected by a natural rock wall surrounding it, the tide floods in bringing thousands of large and small tropical fish that flash all around me as I read a novel by Donna Tartt set in a Vermont winter. The seagulls are going crazy at the sight of such a fabulous feast, becoming impromptu hawks that swoop down clumsily without catching anything.

For Gio Ponti Caracas was the Paris of Latin America, Havana is the Paris of the Caribbean – every city becomes Paris not because of its architectural legacy or artistic heritage, but simply because Paris is one big celebration: Hemingway also lived at Havana, the tourist guides are full of details of his favorite spots. From Barocco to Liberty, I think Havana is the city of majolica tiles, even more so than Lisbon. The city is not decadent. The city is a ruin – and if we wonder at its decadence, its magnificence is all down to one ruin – forget Hemingway, it’s now all about Malaparte. It feels like the war ended yesterday, the dust still settling after a bomb exploding. Facades of buildings still stand intact, slender, fragile and two-dimensional – they could topple with the toll of a bell – behind are the building sites for new buildings. Some say that soon it will all be lost – this feeling of immobility, of social utopia – be it glorious or miserly, it has the mark of the usual debate between idealist and economist.

The ladies of high society fled during the Revolution: the Countess of Revilla abandoned her neoclassical villa designed by her Parisian architects, located in what is today the center of middle class Habana, close to the National and a long way from the old town center. Today, it is a museum of decorative arts, beautiful objects from the era of our Grandmas, with a micro collection of Coromandel screens that would have got Chanel’s heart racing, a display of fans to conceal a yawn, and a luncheon table summing up the colonial dimension: an entire aristocratic world, from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to England, left the old continent to join high society in a more exotic setting. It happened in India; it happened here in the Caribbean, in Africa and in South America – in all countries near or beyond the Equator, new inextinguishable sources of wealth for late 19th century colonialism. Families of admirals, men decorated with medals for their part in the war, or simply for holding political office, went on to create a diplomatic community that was even more emblematic of a society that was multilingual and multifaceted, intellectual and semi liberated of the symptoms of provincialism.

The cruise style of fashion houses is the resulting encounter of equatorial meteorology and the social customs of an old European aristocracy, which soon changed into a rigid and formal bourgeoisie for Thomas Mann, on a total collision course with the semi tribal exotic. Combinations and reagents invented a style that is now sought after. Damask meets wicker – gold and coconut, silver becomes dim alongside ivory, velvet fades close to ebony. All of the most important fabrics would have withered in the heat, so they looked for new veils, new colors – whites and pale blues. The empire line dress was known to be comfortable with its short sleeves and its high waist that did not hug onto the body, and was turned into an embryonic sailor style dress for Susanna Agnelli. The mega-yachts were the first buildings in town, to go looking for new horizons and new materials: bamboo, wood. The windows lost their glass panes and adopted wooden shutters – like dresses abandoned corsets and discovered laces. Behind the baroque cathedral dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, the home of the Marquis of Aguas Clara is undergoing a never-ending renovation – it was home to a literary circle, poets, actors – a cultural hub with only a few books to read, and even fewer on the shelves. The Revolution was around the corner. Everybody was already humming Despacito fifty years ago, at every street corner, in every bar, singing along to the car radio.

A trip in a Coco – the three-wheeler taxis that look like enormous billiard balls. Every trip went along the Malecon, that manages to be nostalgic even during Carnival. I wanted to buy one of those T-shirts with the picture of Che, I could remember everybody had one when I was in high school – but I was overcome with a sense of respect here in Cuba. Rum – a mango daiquiri – at O’Reilly, at number 304, is served in an old tomato sauce jar, with lemon peel carved into a microscopic sculpture for decoration. It wasn’t so long ago that Chanel turned the Paseo into a runway to show off her winter cruise collection, which you will know should be a Caribbean cruise if you are familiar with Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. We stayed at the Saratoga – and were first shown the various rooms at the hotel so we could choose the one we liked best. We had a look at the suite where Karl Lagerfled stayed that May. A huge corner suite overlooking El Capitolio, with high ceilings and dark – actually very dark – wood shutters and arched windows. All the furniture was in colonial wood, the floors covered in majolica tiles with marble inserts. Red combined with cobalt blue.

Colonial style, this is what I wanted to talk about. Havana is the true code and extension of it. The combination of bourgeoisie and the exotic, classic with tribal, formal and fluvial– English lord and a girl by Gauguin. There is always a sense of rigueur and measure, of course – but the history of Havana provides the code for understanding it all – as we were saying, baroque and liberty, Paris and Lisbon. At Havana there are 17th century buildings and houses on stilts, Mexican fortresses and gardens of mango and frangipani trees. There is the heat – the magnificent sunshine of the Equator. The Caribbean is every latitude where the sun at the Equator faces west (excuse the sunset rhetoric). I just want to say: Havana is the capital of the Caribbean and so it is its aesthetic synthesis. Its architecture in ruins, the inertia of its politic revolution, its lazy economy, have made it the absolute epitome of what western culture has become today – nostalgic and dirty, yet stunningly lovely – and with an indecent, yes magnificent, possibility of a future (if you ever decide to read this article of mine again, try replacing the word Havana with Italy).

From The Fashionable Lampoon Issue 11 – Magnifico

Alex John Beck


Ellen Mirck

Editing and Coordination on Set
Costanza Maglio

Mauro Zorba @facetoface

Lorenzo Zavatta @facetoface

Miriam Dotti
estetica Lazzate / Monza

Hair assistant
Chiara Fedi

Make up assistant
Ginevra Perin

Arbel Kynan @whynot
Maria Frick @fashion
Samanta Goldberg @elite

Photography assistant
Matteo Di Pippo

Digital tech
Andrea Veronesi

Light assistant
Gianluca Crivellin

Fashion assistant
Chiara Guagliumi
Edvige Valdameri

Post production La Habana Vieja
Luca Trevisani

Special thanks to
Villa Litta

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