Gitano is a tropical oasis born in Tulum, Mexico, offering a unique dining experience that fuses nightlife and gastronomy.
Infused with Mexican charm and a bohemian atmosphere, Gitano has since opened in key locations like Miami and NYC.
As part of our new ‘Meet The Founder’ series and ahead of NYC Pride 2023, we sat down with Gitano Island founder, James Gardner to talk about life as an entrepreneur in the hospitality industry and building a brand that is loved by LGBTQ+ communities and celebrity fans.
Let’s start with Tulum. We know you’re in love with the place. What is it about Tulum that captured your heart and inspired you to establish Gitano?
It started with the natural beauty, miles of white sand beaches, crystal Caribbean ocean and lush tropical jungles. But also how close and easy it is to get from NYC, yet it’s a whole other world. We first visited Tulum in 1996 with fashion friends, it was only really known by insiders. We just felt that we missed somewhere to get dressed up and go out for dinner, to show off the tan and holiday looks. At the end of 2013 we had the opportunity to create just that, Gitano, the place to see and be seen, and have a delicious dinner! Also, having grown up in the UK but as a long time New Yorker, I often wondered: where was our Mykonos and Ibiza? Where would the gays be going on vacation? I think that Gitano was one of the key players in helping establish Tulum as a super fun, cultural melting pot and one of the best vacation destinations in the world for LGBTQ+ people – and everyone else for that matter!
How has your connection with the fashion world influenced the vibe and aesthetic of Gitano?
I spent a lot of time around fashion and other creatives, they have a very specific way of viewing the world and event talking. I learned a lot and like to think that we have been able to apply some of that language to the Gitano experience, from the architecture and design to the approach to food, beverage and music. We like our guest to feel like every day is a special event, a chic fashion dinner or show.
Gitano boasts lots of LGBTQ+ celebrity fans. Who has visited over the past few years? Can you share any stories?
We are grateful for strong support within the LGBTQ+ community, of which I am a part. We have attracted some great celebrities right from the start in Tulum with Demi Moore, Rumor Willis and Orlando Bloom among the first. Last year we opened Gitano Island and Pride was once again an A-List event with Dean and Dan DSquared, Francisco Costa, Nyle DiMarco, Zane Phillips, Violet Chachki, Gotmik and Gigi Goode. Many others in our community have visited like Hamish Bowls, Jeremy Scott, Dominique Jackson, Billy Porter, MJ Rodriquez and Luke Evans.
Parties seem to be a big part of Gitano Group’s DNA. What is it about throwing epic parties that excites you the most?
In terms of Gitano, it’s not so much parties but that every day and every experience feels like a fun and glamorous event. My concept for Gitano from the beginning was “dinner and dancing” where you have so much fun while you are eating, and the music is so great that you are are dancing while sitting at the table and can’t wait to get onto the dance floor when dinner is finished! So, every Friday night in Tulum for example is a magical dinner and dancing experience. Then every New Year’s Eve, at all of our locations, it’s just epic!
You’ve been known to collaborate with renowned DJs and artists for events. Can you share some of your favourite collaborations?
We love Horse Meat Disco, they have played with us a few times in Tulum and Miami. Midnight Magic have done a couple live performances with us. Diplo popped in to play a surprise set last year at Gitano Tulum which was fun. We have had a long list of international DJs play at our venues but the most fun is always GYPSY-DISCO on Friday night’s in Tulum.
Now to New York, what made you decide to bring the Gitano experience there?
Quite honestly, it was the universe that conspired to make Gitano NYC happen. Having lived in NYC for a long time and moved to Tulum to open Gitano, I never imagined it working in a city, least of all NYC. However, when presented with an opportunity to turn a 24,000 squarefoot empty Soho NYC lot into a tropical jungle in 2018, I thought, ‘Well why not bring the Gitano to the concrete jungle?’ My original inspiration in Tulum was to bring a bit of NYC service, hospitality, fashion and glamour to Tulum, so it was a full circle moment to then have the chance to bring some of Tulum and Mexico to NYC.
LGBTQ+ people are renowned for being ahead of the curve in culture, music and fashion. The same can be said for travel. What destinations do you currently have your eye on both for business and leisure?
One of my favourite destinations that we are actively working on is Mexico City, and we will be opening Gitano later this year. There are other chic places in Mexico that I visited this year including Puerto Escondito and Zipolite. I am currently in the UK and about to visit Puglia, which is very hot right now also.
As a founder in the hospitality industry, you’ve witnessed firsthand how important it is to create spaces where people feel comfortable and accepted. How does Gitano prioritise inclusivity and diversity within its venues?
The whole spirit and essence of Gitano – which is Spanish for gypsy – is based on freedom, openness, diversity and inclusiveness, with a bit of luxury and exclusivity thrown in, which is an interesting juxtaposition. I am so proud and grateful of the diversity of our customer base, from age to race and sexual orientation. We somehow appeal to the cool kids just starting out at 22 to 23, to the young family with kids from Tribeca or Brooklyn, right up to the 85-year-old bohemian couple on a romantic dinner. From the beginning, we have made a big effort to support and create a space for the LGBTQ+ community in particular, having had benefits in support of the Black Trans Livee Matter movement and donating to the Marsha P Johnson Institute, among other organisations.
What advice would you give to an LGBTQ+ founder who wants to make it in the hospitality industry?
Create something that you want, that you feel is missing and others will most likely follow. Work hard: there is no shortcut to hard work.
Finally, looking ahead, what exciting plans do you have in store? Any new ventures or expansions that we can get a sneak peek of?
Gitano Mexico City will be opening February 2024 during Zona Maco. We are also working on developing a full hospitality concept, ‘Casa Gitano’, where you can stay, dine and dance with us – all in one location!