On Saturday, Cuba's Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel bid farewell to the country's Olympic delegation — 120 athletes are heading to Rio de Janeiro, and with more than their typical flag-emblazoned uniforms. French luxury footwear designer Christian Louboutin and Henry Tai, a former professional handball player and founder of French online retail shop SportHenri.com, joined forces to design formal looks for the athletes to wear at the Closing Ceremony — an event that in many ways doubles as a global fashion runway. The pieces were designed and fitted in consultation with current and former Cuban Olympic athletes — one of several reasons why this Cuban-inspired collection stands apart from the many others that have popped up in the last year.
Even before President Obama announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba last July, the fashion industry has pounced on the country in 2015 and 2016 as a source of inspiration and marketing magic, hoping to capitalize on Americans' and Europeans' curiosity about the country and how it might change after over 50 years of isolation from the U.S. But most designers aren't interested in Cuba's future, choosing to glorify a prerevolutionary, sugar-coated Cuba instead of making a significant effort to engage with the country's culture in a realistic or modern way.
Take Stella McCartney's resort 2016 presentation for example: at an event in New York, the British designer staged her idea of a Cuban fiesta to promote the collection's bright florals and colorful, voluminous dresses. The brand even went so far as to hire Che Guevara and Fidel Castro look-alikes to sit at a picnic table, smoke cigars and play dominos. Since then, almost every major magazine has used the country as a setting for editorials while designers take Instagram-ready inspiration trips — never without a colorful vintage car in the background, evidence of Americans' tendency to confuse poverty with quaint preservation.
But Chanel's resort 2017 runway show takes the cake. The brand flew in 700 people for a touristic few days that culminated with a presentation along Havana's Paseo del Prado, where models wore shirts that read "Viva Coco Libre!" and Guevara-style berets. "This is all about my vision of Cuba," Lagerfeld told The Cut. "But of course, what do I know about Cuba? It is very childish, my idea." While other destination resort shows serve to cultivate a customer base in various markets, Chanel is not sold in Cuba. The brand's president Bruno Pavlovsky explained that the point was to provide "content for the rest of the year." And then, they were gone without a trace.
Perhaps the only exception to fashion's superficial and reductive approach to Cuba is Proenza Schouler's resort and spring 2016 collections. Designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez visited the country and met the latter's estranged family members. It inspired vibrant and textured collections that didn't riff on prerevolutionary motifs.
Louboutin and Tai explain in a video about the Olympic project (see below) that they both were struck with the idea to design looks for the Cuban team while in the country doing a photo shoot two years ago. (Louboutin said in an interview that he's been visiting the country for 15 years.) The fashion worn by athletes in the opening and closing ceremonies are points of great pride for many countries — and an opportunity to showcase domestic design talent — so it's interesting that the Cuban government would authorize the French men's proposal. (The French ambassador to Cuba also reportedly helped make this happen.) Any information about the team's uniform design has not been heavily publicized in the past. Similarly, another communist country, China, enlisted a well-known designer for the first time to create its team's ceremonial looks this year.
Louboutin and Tai, however, appear to have made efforts to both incorporate feedback from current and former Cuban athletes and inject the looks with distinctly Cuban elements — including bold graphic sneakers and kitten heels, Guayabera-inspired jackets and prominently placed flag patches. (A "Sports Henri" patch is also prominent.) The distinctive and sharp looks are a stark upgrade from the yellow jackets worn by both men and women at the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony.
Certainly, this design project is a fantastic marketing opportunity for both Louboutin and Tai, as the corresponding photo shoot and video released this week demonstrate. And the Cuban government, perhaps aware that more eyes than ever will be on their team in Rio this year as the world contemplates its future, ensures its athletes looks strong and modern in front of the cameras. And while, in an ideal world, that design talent would come from within the country, fashion that helps the athletes look and feel their best on the world stage is more important than it may initially seem. As poverty and injustice still hold Cuba back from its greatest potential, something as simple as joyful, quality uniforms can be a powerful symbol of the future.