Founder James Gardner joins Document to break down the magnetism of the Yucatán town, and how he hopes to carry it beyond its geographical bounds
In Mike White’s Notes app, there is probably a list of prospective settings for future seasons of The White Lotus, and Tulum is at the top of it, its storied spiritual history overlapping with a culture that was described as “Burning Man on the beach” in the Washington Post. It’s not hard to imagine Tanya clumsily strutting in stilettos through its lush jungle, tripping toward the neon lights.
But at GITANO, the gays aren’t deadly, they’re drunk. And I’m drunk, too—drunk from artfully garnished mezcal margaritas, from the delicate humidity that gives everyone’s skin a constant, damp glow, from the pillowy sand and the warm, cerulean water, and the salty breeze, and the concrete floors that are always cool to the touch. Drunk from more of those margaritas.
GITANO is a name well-known around the coastal town. In part, for GITANO Beach, its club nestled in a perfect, arched cove where the dance floor is backdropped by the ocean and dotted with tassel-titted influencers, who roll their bodies in rhythm with the nearby waves, lapping toward the bar like water on the shore; and for Jungle Room, its tropical, ancient cabaret discovered lost among the trees; and for MEZE, its island-inspired restaurant flush with fresh fish and framed by bougainvillea archways and a lime-washed courtyard.
James Gardner—the face of and brain behind GITANO—is always moving, always ideating; he’s the obvious source of its near-constant branching off into different disciplines and spaces. Almost immediately after I meet him, he’s disclosing his newest off-menu feature—to me, and to anyone else accessible by foot or vocal range. He’s eager to ensure all are aware that, now, they can and should order “The Violet,” named for Violet Chachki, who is dangling her feet in the water nearby with Gottmik. “She’s added raspberries that give it this color,” Gardner divulges, gesturing to a richly colored drink in her hand. “She asked if we should change the color to match the name, but I like that it doesn’t.”
Rome? Paris? Somewhere in Canada, maybe? Whispers of future destinations echo across emptied cocktail glassware. GITANO’s home is in Tulum, but it’s duplicating around the world, already embedded in the scene in Miami and set to open this May on New York’s Governors Island—just a short ferry ride from the density of the city. Everyone imagines how it might settle in different global locales, ideally the one most accessible from their own home base.
Gardner joins Document to break down the allure of Tulum, and how, through GITANO, he hopes to carry it beyond its geographical bounds.
Megan Hullander: What first sparked your love for Tulum?
James Gardner: We were always looking for new places to visit, asking our fashion insider friends for recommendations; this was way back in 1997. The very first time we set foot on the sprawling, white sands of Tulum Beach and swam in the crystal clear Caribbean Ocean, we fell in love—with its natural beauty, [its] rich heritage from the Mayans and the Spanish colonial towns of the Yucatán, and with the short direct flight from New York.
During the summer of 2013, I started a new chapter in life, discovering the power of meditation, gratitude, and kindness—but also a whole new career in hospitality, building on my experience on Wall Street. I’d built an innovative digital and e-commerce company, working with leading fashion and luxury brands. At the end of 2013, my partner Andrew and I decided to uproot and move to our favorite place, Tulum. Today, it is a booming center of development and has changed a lot, but it is still a paradise of spectacular natural beauty. There is no place like Tulum.
Megan: How has your perspective of Tulum evolved since you started GITANO?
James: Like any love, there are different stages. I have been in love with my partner Andrew Cramer for over 20 years. We married secretly, just the two of us on Gouverneur Beach, St. Barts, long before gay marriage was legalized. We married officially at the end of 2013, just before opening GITANO. Love and longevity have stages and take devotion, commitment, and compromise.
It really has been the same story with Tulum. We fell in love as tourists, and loved it so much we set up home, and built a team and businesses here. We were the first to bring fun and glamorous dinner and dancing to Tulum. Since then, it has exploded. While Tulum has its challenges, the locals, business owners, and government are all working hard to address them. I always believe that one cannot resist change—one has a choice to move on and do something different.
Megan: How do you see GITANO fitting into the larger community and culture of Tulum?
James: Tulum has a very powerful energy, an energy that is both dark and light, dating back to the ancient Mayans—and it has attracted a community of like-minded nomads who have fallen in love with it, just like us. We felt that GITANO had the opportunity to create a platform in Tulum, to bring like-minded people together in a beautifully designed, physical space, at one with nature: a place where people can get dressed up, listen to amazing music, drink mezcal, share a delicious meal, and dance. GITANO is the place to see, be seen, and connect.
We see that GITANO can play a key role as a bastion of good taste, helping to preserve the original and authentic Tulum that we fell in love with, but also embracing, and even leading, positive change. Integration with our local community remains important to us today. We work hard to ensure that our development and operations are sustainable and fit within the local rules and regulations that protect the fragile natural environment. We have special discounts and events for locals, and we work closely with local concierges and travel agencies.
“At our core, we are bohemian and nomadic, which Tulum is also known for—but we add our twist with the glamor and disco that we [experienced] growing up in New York.”
Megan: Where does GITANO differ from other nightlife experiences in the area?
James: From the beginning, we have looked at hospitality differently—from our approach to design, to the juxtapositions of a pink neon sign against the lush green jungle, a giant disco ball hanging in palm trees under the stars, and our unique sound identity that melds the spirit of classic disco, nu-disco house, and even pop together with world music.
Megan: Which details of the different spaces of GITANO do you find most exciting, whether that be in the physical construction, the menu, or some other aspect of the experience?
James: Andrew and I often laugh, we need to write the book, Pillows, Curtains, Disco Balls & Things. It sometimes seems like a never-ending process of design. We are personally responsible for the architecture and design of all properties—exterior, interior, and landscaping. I remember when we were first presented with the opportunity to bring GITANO to a 24,000-square-foot lot in Soho—which seemed like an impossible feat, and almost was. The first thing I did was sit down and sketch the layout, imagining myself in each position on the property: walking down a long stone runway, arriving at the central dining tent with its 360-degree bar, the hundreds of tropical palm trees and water features. We design, manufacture, and source every component and detail ourselves.
We built the New York project in Tulum and shipped it to Soho in 10-by-50-foot trucks. We designed it to move like a real nomadic caravan, and last year, we picked it all up and went to Governors Island, at an even bigger location on the water with spectacular views of the Downtown New York skyline.
Megan: As you continue to expand into different cities, what aspects of Tulum do you hope to carry over into?
James: As we were opening our first location outside of Tulum, in New York of all places—pop stars do New York at the end of their tours and not the beginning for a reason—we were focused on bringing the essence of Tulum. But as we were executing the first project, and moving on to Miami Beach’s Faena District, we saw that GITANO had really developed its own design aesthetic, culture, and personality. At our core, we are bohemian and nomadic, which Tulum is also known for—but we add our twist with the glamor and disco that we [experienced] growing up in New York.
Megan: How do you see your space on Governors Island fitting into the greater culture of New York?
James: With each property we’ve opened, we have been able to take all elements and the overall experience to the next level, learning from challenges what works and what doesn’t. At the Soho location, we had significant sound restrictions and never had DJs, for example. On Governors Island, there are no residents or direct neighbors, so we can offer the full Tulum experience in Manhattan, on the water. It’s pretty spectacular. There were several times last year, toward the end of the season, when everything was finally in place, where I would take a step back and say to myself, This is even better than Tulum—can you believe it?