How GITANO's James Gardner Went From Fashion Insider to Hospitality Powerhouse

How GITANO's James Gardner Went From Fashion Insider to Hospitality Powerhouse

Gitano, the Tulum-inspired seasonal restaurant and beach club beloved by celebs and models alike, recently opened Gitano Island, a new outpost in New York's Governor's Island complete with 12 truckloads of sand, and 500 tropical plants and palm trees, all just a few minutes by ferry from Lower Manhattan.

PAPER recently caught up with James Gardner, Gitano's effervescent and spirited founder, to talk all things music, fashion, dancing and how he got his unlikely start.

Hi James! Some people may not know about your time in the fashion industry prior to launching Gitano. What did that experience entail and why did you decide to make the career switch?

Much of my time in NYC since the mid-90s has been connected to fashion in some way, even back when I was working on Wall Street when I just happened to meet figures like Marc Jacobs, Kate Moss, Lee McQueen, Kim Jones, and Edward Enninful. I would sit in the front row of an important show, and people wondered who I was. I had a selfie/celeb blog, “Subversive Glamour,” long before Instagram. In 2004 I co-founded a digital and e-commerce business working with leading luxury fashion houses, including Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Gucci, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, and others.

Long story short, after nine years and building the business to 400 employees in NYC, London, and Milan, things didn’t go quite according to plan, and the universe took me in a completely different direction. At the end of 2013, we opened a small restaurant and bar in Tulum as a side project. I saw an opportunity to look at hospitality differently through a fashion lens. Fast forward eight years, and we now have five amazing GITANO properties in Mexico and the US, with more in the works!

I can tell you're still an avid fashion lover. Are you still involved in any way?

How can you tell? Was it my excessive runway and obsession with your Prada mini? Fashion has its own language, and once you learn it, it sticks. Also, the fashion set loves to come to GITANO. Having worked with major luxury fashion brands, I learned how they build a lifestyle around their product. I saw an opportunity with GITANO to create a platform for people to see and be seen, and realized especially in Tulum, that this was a real lifestyle and a specific look, so we launched our SOUK GITANO concept, a marketplace of essentials and exquisite goods to for the modern traveler.

What is it about Tulum that draws you in so much? What do you like to do when visiting?

Tulum has intense light and dark energy, which dates way back to the Mayans; there is no place quite like it on earth. My partner and I had fallen in love with it years before opening GITANO, at a time when there was barely any development, just long white sand beaches. Tulum back then was only on the radar of fashion insiders on photo shoots and bohemian travelers. Tulum has changed a lot, but it is still fabulous, and it certainly is a lot more fun with lots of entertainment options. My favorite day is to wake up and get a coffee in town, spend the day on GITANO Beach, then have dinner at MEZE or GITANO Jungle; I am biased, obviously.

The disco beach vibes at Gitano Island are so fun. How did you decide to approach this new location/concept?

My idea for GITANO from the beginning was "Dinner & Dancing," integrating delicious food and cocktails with great music and a dancing vibe. We developed a music concept that I call “Gypsy-Disco:” the juxtaposition of happy, hedonistic, uplifting, sexy, glamorous, Disco, Nu Disco, and House with world music and culture. We were the first to introduce this type of music in Tulum at a time when it was mostly what I call “Tulum Techno.” We then opened GITANO Beach Tulum in 2021, it’s so gorgeous, and we brought Gypsy-Disco to the beach. So when the opportunity came to open GITANO Island in NYC, it was a natural progression, and we have been able to transport Tulum Beach to Governors Island! It’s almost more Tulum than Tulum right now!

How would you describe what makes each location unique?

Well, each property is unique and different; the original Tulum location is an open-air restaurant and club set in the lush Jungle with the dramatic, ancient Jungle Room that transports to pre-revolution Havana, GITANO Beach Tulum is set in a sprawling, private white sand Caribbean cove with spectacular rock formations and a Mayan ruin, inside the Parque Nacional, there’s nothing quite like it in the Yucatán, GITANO Miami is set in a beautiful Spanish Colonial building in the FAENA District with restaurant and terraces downstairs and the Jungle Roof with sweeping ocean views.

You have seen GITANO Island, a beach club in Manhattan, I’m not sure that has existed before. So each property is unique and we bring many of the familiar design and brand moments that make our guests feel at home, from the pink neon GITANO sign and giant disco balls to the familiar zapote wood pergolas and, of course, our Jungle Fever spicy mezcal cocktail is served in all locations.

What have been some of the most iconic/fun parties Gitano has hosted so far?

There are so many, at every opening we have had a glitzy, glamorous turnout. I still remember the first opening, GITANO Tulum, Friday December 20th, 2013. I grew up in London going to Ibiza, which was an inspiration. We designed a chic, more-fashion-than-club, invite on organic paper rolled it up, tied with a string and hard Tulum hotties go up and down the beach inviting people, over 500 people came, it was so major. Demi Moore, Rumor Willis, and Orlando Bloom were among the first to hit our first mini stone dance floor under a giant disco ball in the palm trees. We have had many other parties since.

Our first NYC opening in June 2018 was epic, I arrived with sublime and ever-chic Chloë Sevigny. Jordan Barrett celebrated his birthday with us at GITANO Miami during Basel last year, and Christian Cowan had a glamorous Fashion Week dinner at GITANO with Isamaya Ffrench and Rosalía last season. This year the opening of GITANO Island miraculously coincided with Pride, and we had the most fabulous party ever with performances by Violet Chacki and Gottmik, the Misshapes, the Muses, Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared, Francisco Costa and Nyle DiMarco. It was definitely a super fun GITANO fashion moment.

Favorite cocktail/food item on the Gitano menu?

I have had fun naming our cocktails, the Jungle Fever and Gitano Margarita are two of the most popular. Kisses in the Car is fresh passion fruit, mezcal, and habanero, spicy and sexy! If you're good you get a back seat special! Our menu is Modern Mexican cooked in an open fire and designed for sharing. We have the menu evolved over the years, Chef Mads Refslund helped us develop a strong point of view of elevated, accessible, fun, and photogenic dishes. In 2019 our Executive Chef Antonio Maldonaldo from Puebla in Mexico joined us and that was a turning point where we really captured the essence of authentic Mexican flavors and the food went to the next level. My favorites are the Lobster Tostada, the Truffle Tlayuda, and the Branzino in Banana leaf.

What's next on your radar this year?

We have a lot going on right now, people are quite interested in GITANO and our expansion. We had a very successful pop-up in Mexico City during Zona Maco earlier this year and it was so good that we are now making plans to open there permanently which is very exciting. We are working on our CASA GITANO Hotel concept and we are in discussion to expand to new locations including an iconic property in Los Angeles, and a property in Mykonos, we are in discussion on several properties in Dubai and the Middle East, we think the Hamptons or Montauk would also be a hit. So watch this space!

Photos courtesy of GITANO