A former hippy hamlet that had no electricity until the 1980s, former Diesel Creative Director Wilbert Das first holidayed in Trancoso, in Bahia on Brazil’s Eastern coast in 2004 – and fell in love with the town’s rustic charm, and candy-coloured, UNESCO protected casitas and pousadas. Working between Italy and New York, the transient nature and breakneck pace of the fashion industry left the Dutch designer wanting a project where he could invest in something meaningful and give back to a community.
His answer to this work-life conundrum was to restore a cluster of 15th Century houses and ateliers in what was rapidly becoming fashionable playground for some of the world’s most influential jetsetters and Brazil’s social elite – the kind of place subject to a steady stream of private jets and helicopters; where you’re likely to spot Beyoncé kicking a football with kids in an empty square. But here in Trancoso, nobody bats an eyelid.
One-by-one, Wilbert remodeled a few humble adobe cottages that fringed the verdant and car-free town square. Amid crowing roosters and chattering nativos—the badge-of-honour term for the true locals there—his UXUA hotel is made up of several old casas, including the old workshop of a ceramic artist, that Wilbert took it upon himself to restore with the help of local artisans. With an army of cherished local collaborators, UXUA’s unpolished charm is Wilbert’s labour of love. As the former fishing village gears up for peak season, we scope out the hotel while asking Wilbert about what it’s like living in a paradise of his own making.
Tell us a bit more about what drew you to Trancoso.
I grew up on a farm and I like the realness of it—in Brazil they call it manter o pé no chão—meaning, “to keep your foot in the earth.” UXUA is connected with design, and I wanted to create something different from the usual boutique luxury hotel – it has no boutique and no logo.
How would you describe the look and feel of UXUA?
Rustic luxury in a tropical forest. What’s unique about UXUA is that it is integrated luxury. Luxury is usually about separation but because we have 14 local neighbours on the property, we’re completely connected to the social infrastructure of the town and I think that’s a new thing.
If you tried to look for UXUA from the main square in town, you might miss the hotel, thinking it was just another lime-green wood-shingled casita or acai-purple café. Wasn’t it originally your private home?
Yes. When we were thinking about making it into a casa hotel—which was a new concept six or seven years ago—we wanted to make something that went against all the logo craziness happening in luxury. Time, nature and human smiles were the biggest luxury – that’s still my thinking. To be able to talk with people, eat real food, see real nature and experience the true essence of life. It’s designed with a personal touch as if it’s a home. There’s no brand strategy, no design language – just nice spaces. Four of our casas are right on the historical Quadrado[town square] and their origins date back to the 15th century. The climate here is tropical and hard on human interventions – leave a house unattended for a few years and nature takes a grip of it quickly.
It’s a big leap from your fashion days…
The hotel was a reaction against my time in fashion. Towards the end, everything was about cheapness and speed. It felt like we were trashing the planet. In the beginning my work in fashion was purely passion based – and that’s how it is now with UXUA. In the 80s it was just about fun—and it was fun—making money out of that came by itself, but fashion then became all about money and business. My reaction with UXUA was to make something timeless, that isn’t trend-led, but based on primary feelings. We use reclaimed materials and there is a zero-kilometer strategy: products and labour are all from the same village, so it has little impact on the environment. I am interested in making pieces based on the visual language of the Indian tribes too.
Did you take inspiration from your personal travels?
Cuba in the 90s was maybe my best experience. Every day was a real adventure although my best stories are probably too sexual! I went back every year from 1995 to 2000.The attitude towards life in Cuba is similar to Bahia: just seize the day, even if you are really poor; just make each day as good as you can and don’t moan. On my later trips you could already feel the divide between rich and poor, and people seemed less happy and less nice even if they were doing better than 15 years before. In Havana, for every hotel an elderly persons’ home, a sports centre or school is built, and they make sure development continues like that so it won’t become Disneyfied. This is my dream for Trancoso. I realise I’m a part of attracting more and more people who want to open businesses here and that can take away from the ‘realness’ which everyone comes for, and then it becomes too expensive for a native person. But I am working on this and hoping to maintain a similar structure.
Local families work in the hotel and live next door to it – how do these neighbours help create UXUA’s uniquely authentic experience.
One neighbour is a 90-year-old playboy, probably the granddad of half of Trancoso. He’s a great guy who loves to dress up—hats, shirts, he’s nicely perfumed—and always loves to talk about women. We named a house after him, Seu João, the one with a pool – the playboy mansion. Then we have the Gloria family. She was a midwife and she helped give birth to about 500 kids in Trancoso. They’re a really cool, beautiful family and they’re very creative. We get along and all have the same vibe and they really understand well what we’re doing and the charm of the place.
What’s Trancoso like in low season?
It’s quiet and I like it a lot more. In our winter it’s like a fresh sunny summer day in Europe. People are always smiling; we work a lot but it’s always very upbeat and everyone’s always joking. It’s a fun environment. February to November is my favourite. The locals live only by the day, they don’t think about tomorrow. It’s hard in business to be like that, but we’ve forgotten a bit too much how to live like that. We’re too cautious and always look at the future – then all of a sudden 20 years have passed by and you haven’t really lived.
So anyone who’s mocked Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula becoming a sandy suburb of Williamsburg and Hollywood won’t be able to say this small patch of southwest Brazil is the next Tulum any time soon. Do you think Starbucks will ever open here?
If that happens I will leave, or will have left already…