Wealthy fashionistas and celebrities from around the world flocked beneath klieg lights Wednesday night on a grand Havana colonial avenue transformed into a private runway for French fashion house Chanel.
With hundreds of security agents holding ordinary Cubans behind police lines blocks away, actors Tilda Swinton and Vin Diesel, supermodel Gisele Bundchen and Cuban music stars Gente de Zona and Omara Portuondo watched slender models sashay down Prado boulevard in casual summer clothes that seemed inspired by the Art Deco elegance of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
With the heart of the Cuban capital effectively privatized by an international corporation under the watchful eye of the Cuban state, the premiere of Chanel 2016/2017 "cruise" line offered a startling sight in a country officially dedicated to social equality and the rejection of material wealth.
Chanel welcomed the chance to show its creations in an unusual spot. "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," it said in a statement.
The show was the most extreme manifestation to date of the hot new status Cuba has assumed in the international art and cultural scene since the December 2014 declaration of detente with the United States.
President Barack Obama visited in March, the Rolling Stones performed in Havana the same week, the first U.S. cruise in nearly four decades docked Monday and the latest installment of the multibillion-dollar "Fast and Furious" action movie franchise is filming here now.
Many Cubans say they are delighted their country is opening itself to the world, offering ordinary people a firsthand look at celebrities and extravagant productions. But the rampant display of wealth on the streets of Havana is providing fodder for many already disenchanted by Cuba's failure to deliver on promises of socialist equality.
Mabel Fernandez, a radio announcer, arrived four hours before the start of the show eager to give her 14-year-old daughter a taste of a world of international fashion that the girl had only seen on television and in movies.
"We need this type of novel event so people can know more of culture," she said.
But as police swarmed the area in the hours before the show, virtually all residents of the capital were swept behind yellow barricades and unbroken lines of uniformed and plainclothes police at least a block away.
Reinaldo Fonseca, a local model, stood with a group of friends similarly trying to make their careers in fashion and watched as rich foreigners with invitations arrived at the event in specially rented antique American sedans.
"It's a shame they don't let us pass," he said.