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James Gardner has not always been the ring leader of the bohemian lifestyle he’s known for propelling today. In fact, before establishing Grupo Gitano in 2013, he lived several professional chapters in the world of technology—first at Accenture in London, then at Goldman Sachs in New York, and later co-founded a business to consult with fashion companies. When he first moved from London to New York, what was supposed to be a six-month stint in the city turned into a permanent move, and he never looked back.
“It was the mid-nineties at the height of Wall Street hedonism, fun NYC clubs like the Sound Factory and Limelight, and a time when fashion was more insider and intimate,” he recently recounted to Whitewall. “I lived a double life in the closet by day on Wall Street, and going out to all the best parties and shows by night. I met some amazing and iconic people along the way like Marc Jacobs, Kate Moss, Lee McQueen, Edward Enninful, and Kim Jones who I already knew from the UK.”
In 2004, he co-founded a tech company to bring him out of banking and back into tech. For years, he worked with leading fashion and luxury brands—like Gucci, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, and Fendi—with offices in New York, London, and Milan. In 2013, however, Gardner pivoted to create a new concept in Tulum, Mexico that would soon gain recognition for its open-minded crowd, down-to-earth vibe, and see-and-be-seen scene. It would be called GITANO.
At first, GITANO opened as a small mezcal bar and kitchen in the jungle. Visitors to Mexico have since made it a priority to stop by the property and explore its grounds, which have grown to include new locations with unique offerings on white sand coves. Today, GITANO has five successful properties in Tulum, Miami Beach, and New York, with its sights set on more locations in the future.
This summer, its latest location opened in New York—but this time it isn’t a pop-up in downtown Manhattan like in the four seasons past, but a seasonal hot-stop named GITANO Island on Governor’s Island. Set back from the water and walking path, the 27,000-square-foot oasis peeks out from behind hundreds of lush plants and endless tropical decor. There, down a sandy path lit by neon lights and with a capacity of hosting 600 people, regulars and visitors can find the bar and restaurant accompanied by a disco ball-lit cocktail lounge, dining pergolas, an open-fire kitchen, and a beach club complete with cabanas and lounges. For the first time, too, GITANO will introduce a tented stage and a program of performances by local and international DJs.
After exploring the space and tasting an array of modern Mexican dishes—from ceviche and tostadas to tacos and churros—Whitewall spoke with Gardner to hear how his idea of GITANO has evolved, and what locations he's expanding to next.
WHITEWALL: Today, you can hardly travel without hearing the word “Gitano.” How do you feel you’re doing hospitality differently to garner such acclaim?
JAMES GARDNER: I have been able to apply skills and learnings from my first two chapters to hospitality, using the right and left side of my brain, leading both the Creative and the Business, which I love. We have been able to take a fresh perspective, looking at hospitality through a fashion lens, keeping it chic at every touch point, but also through a Wall St business and innovation lens, focusing on creating scalable and profitable F&B businesses. Our name “GITANO poetically captures our essence and we welcome free spirits, travelers, bohemians, the curious, conscious and creative. One important difference is our diversity, I am proud the broad range of guests and fans that like and follow the brand, every age group, Gen Z and Millennials to 80-year-old couples on a date, we have strong race and gender diversity and we have an important following within the LGBTQ+ community, which I am proud to be part of. We love the challenge and delicate balance of exclusivity and diversity.
We see GITANO as a new type of membership club, if you are aware and take time to think about how you are presenting yourself in the world, you are welcome, no matter if you are a starving artist or a billionaire with shoes off. We have also differentiated ourselves with our overall design concept, tropical and minimal, understated and elegant, we celebrate perfection in imperfection in everything from our architecture and interior design to our food and beverage menus. Finally, we have always focused on the overall experience, of which food is only one albeit very important component, all of our locations transport our guests, and we have developed our own unique sound that we call “Gypsy-Disco” that combines the happy hedonism and glamour of Disco and House with the influencers of world music and culture.
WW: What cities, properties, or cultures around the world inspired your idea to create something of your own?
JG: Living and working in London and going to Ibiza and Mykonos in the summer and then spending many summers visiting Tulum while living in NYC, long before we opened GITANO, were big influences I would say. Tulum was always so naturally beautiful with spectacular white sand beaches and lush jungle but didn’t have good restaurants or any place to get dressed up, go for dinner and show off the tan. So, we would also visit St. Barth, Rio de Janeiro, Florida, and back to Europe, but would always be wishing Tulum has a little more going on. Then, we manifested it and opened GITANO Tulum, which instantly became the place to see, be seen, and connect. The Mayan culture and the Spanish Colonial towns of the Yucatan like Merida and Valladolid have been a big inspiration. So we were inspired by our love for Mexico and the idea of bringing a bit of NYC and Ibiza to create something that didn’t yet exist in Tulum.
WW: What do the locations you have properties in say about the company’s ethos? Its mission?
JG: When people ask me, “Why Tulum?” I always say, “It was the universe." Every company has to have a strategy and plan, but in my third chapter, I also am learning to be more conscious, kind, and aware. I meditate every morning it’s an important part of my daily routine. This has opened me up to be more in tune with and listen to direction from the universe, which I believe has a master plan. Even though we had loved Tulum for years I could never have imagined moving there in 2013 to start a restaurant!
As we grew the business in Tulum, new opportunities arose, the most significant being in NYC in 2018. I never saw GITANO as a city brand initially but NYC had been my home for many years so I jumped on the chance to move back. Once we opened in NYC we felt Miami Beach was calling, as it was a strategic next location being physically and culturally right in between NYC and Tulum.
WW: What do you feel is a common thread across all Gitano properties?
JG: I love juxtapositions and the first big creative decisions were to hang a giant disco ball in the coconut palm trees and to design our now iconic GITANO pink neon sign which hangs at all our entrances, typically on a wood pergola with lush tropical plants. We call it dinner to disco and it has served us an original concept that people really respond well to. I also designed and named the first cocktail “Jungle Fever” which is our forever popular spicy mezcal margarita with fresh lime juice and chili. As we have opened new locations we have worked hard to integrate and adapt to the indigenous architecture and culture in each location while bringing our signature and familiar brand moments like our wood dining pergolas, banquets, pillows, and black and white striped curtains, signature cocktails and our modern Mexican menu and our sound identity to make our guests feel at home in all of our properties.
WW: Why did you want a space on Governors island this year?
JG: This was also the divine direction of the universe! In March 2022—yes just five months ago—we were told that we would not be able to open again in SoHo. It was always a temporary space (initially for two years and we had four years in total), but we had thought we would have a final season this year. I reached out to many people after hearing this news and our partners at Tungsten asked if I wanted to be introduced to the trust of Governors Island.
Initially, I was not so excited as I thought Governors Island was Randalls Island (apparently a common misperception), which is much further away. However, after my first visit, an Uber from SoHo to Casa Cipriani was 10 minutes and a five-minute boat ride, upon landing on the island for the first time I was completely blown away. How could something so magical exist so close to mainland Manhattan and I had never been there? I felt others would feel the same and felt we had a real opportunity to bring Tulum to NYC at a whole new level, which we have certainly done. It’s almost more Tulum than Tulum! [Laughs]
We somehow made a miracle happen and set this whole project up in less than 12 weeks just in time for Pride Month! We did have a bumpy first couple of weeks with 600 reservations per night but we quickly ironed out all the kinks and now offer an incredible GITANO experience. We expect to be at our new home on the island for several years to come, this is just the start.
WW: How does it really differ from your other spaces?
JG: All of our properties are beautiful and transportive but this really is a whole other level, I mean an almost 30,000-square-foot restaurant and beach club, covered with 300 tons of sand and lush tropical jungle on the water at the tip of Manhattan with sweeping city views! It feels like our experience in developing and operating each of our other properties has led us to this point where we have been able to bring the best parts of each property and the overall GITANO experience together to create something that is quite unique, spectacular and I for one have certainly never seen or experienced before.
WW: What was it like working with the city of New York to execute this property?
JG: Since 2018, we have learned a lot and have built a strong and experienced team adept at working with all of the different New York City agencies. This project was actually a lot smoother than 2018, although still incredibly challenging given the very tight timeline. We have also very much enjoyed working with the Trust of Governors Island who was incredibly supportive in making this project happen in an unprecedented timeframe.
WW: Your spaces hinge on cultural programming and community. How do you typically source the talent, curate the menu, and plan out celebrations like Pride?
JG: The core part of our success is our team and the culture and community within the team and all of our locations. My concept for GITANO early on was Dinner & Dancing and I knew this was challenging to achieve as I felt that both the culinary experience and the music had to be at a high level for this to work. I had industry experts initially saying you have to be one or other a good restaurant or a bar/club. It took a while to get the food right but in 2017 Noma did a pop-up in Tulum and this was a motivation to really move the bar. So, we started working with Chef Mads Refslund who had opened Noma with Rene Redzepi. Mads collaborated with me over a couple of years to really develop our unique point of view that was both elevated, accessible, and beautiful.
In 2019 when we opened GITANO Miami we hired our Executive Chef Antonio Maldonaldo from Puebla Mexico and he helped us further evolve the menu and took the food to the next level with authentic Mexican flavors. In parallel, we have worked with some very talented people who do our programming and have had some fantastic talent play at GITANO, many artists that we discover in Mexico also. In NYC, we have done a few fantastic Pride and other Events working with different people, we have done several successful events the Misshapes who always keep it chic and bring great people and we now work with Purple PR who are great partners and collaborators.
WW: Did the pandemic impact your view of experience? Ambiance?
JG: It was almost as though GITANO was specifically designed for the pandemic: large-scale outdoor dining in a comfortable environment with lots of space for social distancing, it was and still is exactly what people were looking for. I am grateful to say at a time that was overall incredibly challenging and especially for restaurants. We did very well at all of our locations. Aside from that, a lot of cultural change occurred in that same period and we really leaned even further into our diversity and understand that this is such an important part of our brand.
WW: How would you describe your ideal summer escape?
JG: Where I am right now—my house in Upstate New York in the Catskills. It’s a large Dutch stone house that dates back to 1786 with spectacular views. We have completely restored and renovated the property and put in a new pool. It feels like a dramatic estate in the English countryside at this time of year. We feel we are in the South of France or Italy without even leaving New York. The house and property are spectacular. It’s quiet and peaceful up here we can work and recharge, it’s certainly a good contrast from GITANO! The other summer escape right is GITANO Island, leave the city in a short five-minute boat ride. I have been having FOMO (the fear of missing out) this weekend with so much going on there while I'm upstate. We also love Provincetown in the summer and Europe of course.
WW: How are you closing out the rest of the summer?
JG: We will be mainly here back and forth between Upstate New York and GITANO Island until mid-September when I will visit my family in the UK, stop by London Fashion Week, and a short trip to Puglia and Mykonos before heading to Dubai. We are also planning some fun events at GITANO Island for New York Fashion Week through to a big season closing Halloween party.
WW: What’s next?
JG: We are very grateful that people seem to like what we are doing and what GITANO has come to represent. We do have a lot of opportunities to scale the brand and business into new locations and categories but we are approaching this very carefully. We will be making some changes in Tulum and Miami and look forward to an amazing high season which starts in October/November this year, Art Basel Miami is always a great scene and New Year Event in Tulum is incredible.
We had a super fun pop-up in Mexico City during Zona Maco this year and it was so successful we are working to make it a permanent opening during Zona Maco next year. We are looking at properties in Los Angeles, Mykonos, Dubai, and the Middle East. We think GITANO would do well out East in the Hamptons or Montauk. We are also working on extending GITANO into full hospitality working on CASA GITANO Hotel & Residences in Tulum and NYC. So we are keeping busy. Watch this space!