Sell: Glass interviews Wilbert Das, ex-creative director of Diesel who now runs the luxury Uxua Casa Hotel in Brazil
It’s all very well us Westerners entertaining the “think global, act local” philosophy when we’re on our latest “experiential” holiday – giving something back to the environment of an exotic place and helping to sustain local communities is easy on a two-week holiday. But how would we get on with sustainable tourism if we made it our livelihood? Wilbert Das is the man to ask. Several years ago, he was the highly regarded creative director at Diesel – he’s now founder, creator and maintainer of Uxua Casa Hotel in Trancoso, Bahia, Brazil, on the north-eastern part of the country on the Atlantic coast, largely unspoilt, where nature has held its own for centuries.
Swapping an office, bustling city life and an enviable job with a major global fashion brand for what he dubs an “integrative tourism” business running Brazilian casas, design collaborations with local tribes and a plethora of tropical gardens (not to mention a tropical climate) is one heck of a life change and one of which Das has made a success – passionately so. Not just that, but the people from the local community of the small fishing village where Uxua Casa Hotel is located, are reaping the benefits of Das’s ambitious feat, in ways they previously could never have imagined.
What made you want to swap your past career at Diesel to set up Uxua Casa Hotel?
In my past job as Diesel’s creative director, I was executing collections in almost every product category, and in increasingly short cycles, from season to season. This is the nature of the industry and it was exciting – but having to work faster and faster led me to want to slow things down a bit. I wanted to create something longer-lasting, where I could explore ideas without having to fit everything under the umbrella of a major brand.
Almost by coincidence, two years before the end of my obligations to Diesel, I stumbled upon this property in one of the most idyllic places I’ve ever been. I didn’t have to think twice – I intended to build a holiday home and spend part of the year there, but after the first renovations began, I just couldn’t stop. And soon the concept of Casa Uxua Hotel was born.
I don’t see this hotel as my career but more an ultimate project of personal passion. It offered the perfect chance to be creative, but also to give something back in a social sense. Today I’m working on a few other projects outside the hotel and will likely eventually return to fashion, but I’ll do so with a completely different approach to the current system, which I think is a bit tired and overly business-driven, making it much too rare nowadays to find products that feel like they result from love and dedication.”
What is the thing you love most about Uxua Casa Hotel, from a) the point of view of eco-tourism and regeneration and b) from a personal point of view?
The thing I most love about Uxua is its design and its interaction between the locally employed staff and the culturally interested guests. The hotel is positioned right in the middle of the historical centre of Trancoso with native neighbours on both sides – their families have resided there for generations. The hotel is totally integrated into this environment, it is intentionally not signposted and staying at the hotel is like actually living in town, with the fisherman passing in the morning in front of your house, showing their latest catch and horses grazing on the grassy town square just beyond your front window. I like to call this “integrative tourism” because the impact is one of integration with the local culture and aiming to help the town maintain its traditions and improve employment and education. The eco aspect is important, but the social aspect even more so as many of these tourist towns, which historically made people fall in love with them, tend to lose their identity.
Personally, I like very much that in our case, luxury tourism does not have to mean glitz and glamour but an environment that is in perfect symbiosis with its surrounding nature and population, and where an honest smile means much more than the status-obsessed luxury the world has seen too much of lately.
Are there any comparisons, paradoxes or parallels you draw between your former role as creative director of Diesel and your current role as hotelier of Uxua Casa Hotel? (And how would you label what you do?)
In Diesel, I headed the creative department of almost 60 international designers and art directors situated in a small town in northern Italy. Now here in north-east Brazil the town is equally small and the 46 staff need the same amount of attention – the staff’s personal and professional lives here are very much intertwined like they were in Diesel’s creative studios. The biggest challenge here though is to educate the locals (many of them were illiterate when we started) to the high standards our hotel needs.
In terms of how I label myself, for certain if I’m in Trancoso, I feel like a kind of host despite not always meeting all the guests. Because even though the guests have their own casa and loads of privacy, it still feels personal to me, as if I’ve invited them into my own home. I have myself, always felt so welcome in Trancoso – from the first time I arrived here. I’m anxious for everyone to enjoy that sensation.
In terms of looking for an overall label for myself now, I’d still definitely say I’m principally a designer, somewhat of an entrepreneur – the role of promoter of sustainable tourism is just a sideline – but it’s a very important sideline for me because it’s a part of my values and was born from not just advocacy, but from personal action and quite a bit of personal sacrifice.
What have been the most rewarding aspects of founding and developing Uxua Casa Hotel?
The hotel building process has been very rewarding and exciting, since it always had an incredibly positive vibe and the collaboration with the local artisans has been more than surprising. Bahians have a love for life but also a real eye for beauty, and many a time, did the local carpenter or stone worker or metal-smith came up with incredible ideas during the building process. I started the project with a principal of making things using traditional techniques and sourcing reclaimed materials locally, where possible. I tried to avoid needing to import materials, using the various creative forces in town for decorating the casas, like our ceramic artist neighbour and the Pataxo Indians that have made many of the light fixtures and wall hangings.
One good example which resulted from our project is a showerhead created from eucalyptus wood which is beautiful. It’s a very simple piece and is now being copied both by local residents in Trancoso and, at the same time, by other luxury hotels and millionaire homes in Bahia, who like it for its beauty and originality. There are many other examples of our design work emanating out of it and helping the community in various ways and this is really satisfying.
I also take pleasure simply in the gathering of such an eclectic and interesting crowd of guests, many of whom now return again and again. It’s just a great experience to create this vibe and many nights have been spent drinking Caipirinhas with new friends and enjoying with the town and beaches with them. I feel very privileged to have been able to enjoy such great moments.
What do the native people have to say about Uxua Casa Hotel and what is their involvement with it?
From the day we opened, we registered every worker as an employee and promised they would not be laid off (our early hires naturally did not believe it), and we just asked that they work very hard. We made the business work and gained a lot of credibility in town after operating a year, and our staff began to trust us, gaining stable incomes. They have made no secret around town that this has changed their lives, allowing them to plan their futures, buy homes, invest in their children’s education, etc. We have also maintained goodwill by introducing benefits like profit-sharing, education and a healthcare program which were unheard of in this town until recently. All these things slowly are becoming more common in the area, but we’ve really been the catalyst.
We also identified from the start, a need to show support for the overall community, not just in the role of employer. We are committed to buying locally and we’ve helped develop organic farming and flower farming in the area. We contribute by supporting the preservation of the Atlantic rainforest and the local beaches, but by far the most visible and I think, appreciated community effort we’ve done has been our underwriting of the local academy of Capoeira (a mix of martial arts and dance). Bahians are proud of this sport, which has its origins here, so we pay a professor to teach it to all the local children, regardless of whether they can pay. The people of town really appreciate that.
Uxua Casa Hotel is not just a luxury five-star hotel business or a great example of sustainable tourism. Out of Wilbert Das’s organic project, a financially and socially happy community has flourished in what was once just a poor small fishing village in Trancoso. He’s also managed to create an addictive aura about Uxua Casa Hotel that his guests can’t resist revisiting time and again and has meshed design and creativity into every corner. And both are definitely achievements worth raising a Caipirinha.