James Gardner Wants You to Get Glam for Gitano, Darling
This past February, fashion industry savant-turned-international restaurateur James Gardner hosted a group of VIPs, journalists, and celebrity drag queens at a pop-up hotel in Tulum. The occasion? To celebrate the success of Gitano, Gardner’s celebrity-fueled restaurant group that, in Tulum alone, includes a beach club, jungle bar, and Mediterranean-themed Mexican restaurant. The weekend’s activities included meditation sessions, tarot card readings, tequila shots, and dinners-turned-dance parties that lasted well into the night. Days after the raucous weekend, we called up the British-American vibe savant to learn more about the method behind his magical Mexican oasis.
INTERVIEW: Hi, James. Where are you?
JAMES GARDNER: I am in Tulum still. I’m heading to Mexico City tomorrow. And then Port Escondido for a few days for much needed few days off.
INTERVIEW: Have you recovered from that crazy weekend?
GARDNER: Barely. I set it up so it would have the right mix of fun and relaxation, but it was exhausting. We also had a crazy two weeks getting ready for it.
INTERVIEW: What was the premise behind the trip?
GARDNER: I was looking back at the days when we first used to come to Tulum as tourists, like ’97. I wanted to see if there was a way to recreate some of that first love I had for the place with a really fun group of people. It was about connecting the raw simplicity of Tulum with the adornment and decoration of Gitano and our various venues and experiences. I wanted the group to see that it’s still a love, it’s still a passion.
INTERVIEW: I’m wondering how you would epitomize your contribution to the Tulum scene. Obviously music is a big part of it.
GARDNER: Music was secondary in part. We just wanted a place to get dressed up and go for dinner. When you’re on holiday, you want to show off the tan, show off some looks, and you want to see who else is around. I grew up in London, popping over to Ibiza for the weekend or Mykonos—
INTERVIEW: They have lots of places to show off your looks.
GARDNER: Yes, and Tulum had nowhere. The space we created started as a little mezcal bar with a kitchen. Our official opening event was December 20th, 2013. And I knew all the fashion crowd that was coming down from New York. I personally designed the invite to look like a chic fashion dinner invitation. It was all type on organic paper, and we had hand-drawn the logo already. We rolled it up, we put an organic string around it, and hired a few cute girls and boys from the town, put them in looks, and had them walk up and down the beach inviting people.
INTERVIEW: Traditional party promotion.
GARDNER: Which I’d never done. That wasn’t my background at all. And we had 600 people come [including Orlando Bloom]. We brought a huge disco ball and a neon sign on the plane from New York. We didn’t want to change Tulum, but we wanted to bring a bit of New York and London glamour, my background.
GARNER: During the opening Arman Naféei came down and he played music and was more fashion—very eclectic. He played Madonna “Vogue” at one point and all the Tulum people were like, no, no, no. I’d been in the city for many years doing one chapter on Wall Street, one chapter in fashion tech, but this was my first foray into hospitality.
INTERVIEW: Speaking of fashion, you did have a very strict “glam” dress code throughout the weekend.
GARDNER: Absolutely. At Gitano we try to look at hospitality through a bit of a fashion lens and we always want to present it as a place to get dressed up. In the very first New York Times interview I did in 2014, I said, “To see, be seen, and get laid,” but we don’t say that anymore. This weekend was for a fairly eclectic group, so I was like, “Everyone loves a bit of fashion.” I think every event had the word glam in there somewhere. The dress code wasn’t strict, but I did put in capitals.
GARDNER: I have the itinerary here. Okay. So the first night was dinner at Meze Magica. It’s a white hacienda that feels sort of like the Aegean Islands and at our very opening party for it we had a white Christmas party. So we were like, “Why not do Tulum ‘White Glam?'” Our Friday night event at Gitano Jungle is what we call “Gypsy Disco Glam.” Everyone is sparkling, everyone is dressed up. When I talk about disco, I’m talking about the feeling, the happiness, the joy that it brings. Whether it’s new disco, old disco, new classic house, pop, or anything else that makes you happy. That’s the vibe of Gitano. We never go to the dark side.
INTERVIEW: I want to ask you about the meaning of “Gitano” and what your interpretation of that word is.
GARDNER: Gitano is Spanish for gypsy, so we use the word gypsy quite a bit, but we’re being careful with that. The name has always defined our spirit as wanderers and open-minded and conscious and creative people. I mean, the whole concept of Gitano is very bohemian and free thinking, so that’s how it resonates for us.
INTERVIEW: Tulum was historically being more of an “eco-chic” destination with small bungalows on the beach to whereas now it’s an it-spot full of hotels and bars and clubs. I sense there’s a bit of push and pull between those two dichotomies, even within the Gitano scene.
GARDNER I think that’s part of what makes Tulum so special. If you look back to the Mayans, there’s a very, very dark part of Tulum’s history. But there’s also this incredible light here. And that intersection truly is what makes the energy so powerful, beyond the natural beauty of the Caribbean and the white sand. So what we strive to do is really strike this balance between fun and health. I wake up every morning and meditate for 10 minutes and then I work out. Starting the day like that and being able to end with a fun dinner that doesn’t go too late into the night—that’s what I find interesting about Tulum and what we’re doing.
INTERVIEW: Since you’ve started your business there’s been a lot of development in Tulum and the ecosystem is getting a little bit overwhelmed. I’m wondering how you approach that issue.
GARDNER: That’s something we take very seriously. Our development and concept is very minimal structurally. We only have small buildings, and we try to make everything fit seamlessly into the jungle. All of the infrastructure is created in partnership with marine biologists and the environmental protection agencies to make sure we are doing nothing to pollute or destroy the very sensitive and precious jungle of mangrove.
INTERVIEW: Can you tell me a bit about your food program?
GARDNER: Absolutely. I’d spent years going to all the best restaurants in New York and London and around the world. But doing it yourself is a very different thing. The thing we became famous for quickly were our mezcal cocktails, like the Jungle Fever. What I learned quickly was that chic people with taste and style and who want to spend money, they really, really care about good food. After Noma did that pop-up in Tulum, we hired noma alumni Mads Refslund to come in and work with me on the core concept of the menu.
GARDNER: Fast forward to when we opened in Miami. We hired an incredible chef from Puebla in Mexico City, Antonio Maldonado, and he came and he really took the concept that we’d worked on with a Danish chef to bring the Mexican flavor. We positioned the menu of Gitano Beach and Gitano Jungle as modern Mexican. I think of people coming to Gitano Beach with two possible heads on them. Either they’ve been out late the night before and they’re like, “I want the burger, I want the crispy fish tacos,” or they’re up early, they’ve just done yoga and they want the lamb and they want the tabouleh salad. With Mezze we were like, “Let’s bring the same concept from the Mediterranean to Mexico. We talk about tradition over trend, it’s like grandma’s cooking updated.
INTERVIEW: And then after dinner it’s always a show. You had fire dancers, there was a magician one night, there was a tarot reader, and some really amazing performers. The guests included drag race winners, there were VIPs and influencers from all over the world. On the last night of the trip, some women showed up on a private jet. No one knew who they were but they were so excited to see you. I think that epitomized what Gitano is giving, it’s a really mixy crowd.
GARDNER: We’re so grateful for the support and love we do have with a really broad range of people both in age and every kind of category. And when that group arrived, what an entry. I think 20,000 people watched that funny little video I made with them.
GARDNER: We have open hearts. Our mission is sharing love and sharing happiness with everybody. We’re so grateful for the love and support we have.
INTERVIEW: So what’s next for Gitano?
GARDNER: Are you ready? The big unveiling is going to Gitano Islands 2023 on Governors Island.
INTERVIEW: We can’t wait.