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Wilbert Das, who transformed Diesel from a small denim company into a global design brand, tells Dominic Rodgers of his new passion

10 min read

When you hear the word “hotel”, a number of images go through your mind. From a roadside lodge or city sleeper, with hard mattresses, no air conditioning and noise coming in from outside, to an opulent, luxury, veritable destination with chandeliers, spa treatments and Michelin-star food. There’s a huge variety in style and substance.

There is something, however, that unites the vast majority of hostelries with varying degrees of transparency and success – efficiency.

Wilbert Das

Wilbert Das

Touted as a key objective in every which way by business consultants, it can be a blessing and a curse. No one would advise against prompt service, streamlined stock controls and first-class housekeeping, but there can be huge benefits in relaxing the rigours of administration in favour of creativity that simply wouldn’t pass big-chain criteria for efficiency. Some things may cost more and be harder to measure, but that doesn’t mean they’re not exactly what people are looking for.

So how do you go from a billion-dollar global powerhouse brand in fashion to launch a new boutique- design hotel concept, where a personal touch and creativity wins over organisation every time, and which is a project achieving global acclaim and influence in both the hospitality sector, as well as the world of architecture and design? I asked Wilbert Das about his journey.

What inspired you to go from fashion to hospitality?

For me it was really about creative challenges. I arrived at Diesel in 1988 when it was a small denim company with a Western focus. I set about introducing modern elements of workwear and streetwear, and I think we succeeded in redefining people’s expectations for what collections from a denim label could be. But as creative director I was aware that no denim brand had been successful in transforming itself into a true design company selling broad ranges of products. That challenge inspired me and eventually I set about finding good designers to work with in creating ranges of watches, sunglasses, footwear, fragrances, and eventually even furniture, lighting and linens.

Doing my own hotel was just a natural progression; a desire to continue that kind of innovative approach in new creative areas

It was actually liberating to be able to approach each of those product ranges without much burden of heritage from the brand, using instead a totally fresh perspective. And since the company didn’t need to count on these brand extensions to pay the bills, we were allowed to take risks.

The only resistance really came from licensing partners who cautioned us that the collections weren’t commercial enough. But our distance from the market trends proved to be a strength as the products stood out and were wildly successful, which I think happens when products are born from love for design instead of a sales strategy.

Doing my own hotel was just a natural progression; a desire to continue that kind of innovative approach in new creative areas. I wasn’t without some preparation as I’d done one hotel already for Diesel, and had done stores and interiors for years. Also the recently launched Diesel furniture, lighting and decor ranges I’d created with Italian partners such as Moroso and Foscarini were going very well, so I did have a bit of confidence. But the appeal was to keep moving forward with new things to challenge myself

UXUA is widely regarded as one of Brazil's best hotels

UXUA is widely regarded as one of Brazil’s best hotels

Why the location in Brazil?

Whether Brazil or Italy or anywhere else, creative challenges and the creative process don’t really alter. You need to start with a challenge and ideas that excite you.

What happened for me is that I found an inspiring location. Trancoso is a totally distinct place. One of the oldest villages of Brazil, yet remaining in a totally green unspoiled natural setting, and absolutely one of the best-preserved colonial atmospheres of South America. It’s really a wonder.

The local people, young and old, respect tradition and hold a great eye for beauty, and have never let the outside world seduce them to trade in their way of living and style. Despite the locals being very open and welcoming of outsiders, the place, I believe, will always remain totally authentic, making it a paradise for people like me who are a bit fatigued by growing mono-culture in the world.

Working in a remote place, far from world fashion centres, how did you find people to collaborate with?

That’s a great question and hits really at the heart of the UXUA project. UXUA is a tribute to a single place, Trancoso, with its few thousand residents. The hotel’s creation was realised only by collaborating with these locals and Indian tribes of the area, such as the Pataxó. No outside contributions at all.

To make a standout property, a creative approach is needed; just trying to repeat established trends or proven formulas won’t work

While this sounds like it would be difficult, it was actually pretty easy and definitely thrilling. This 500-year-old village founded by Portuguese missionaries has remained almost totally isolated for centuries. The economy survived on a barter system through the 1970s and no roads or electricity even arrived until the 1980s. As in all remote places, there’s incredible artisanal skill among the local people because, if they want or need something, they traditionally have had to create it themselves.

Thus nearly everyone in Trancoso can make things with their hands and the best of the craftsmen are absolute masters. Their materials were, of course, organic – wood, plants, stone, coral, shells, clay and, because of the difficulty in getting materials, very few things were ever wasted. All of this fit very well with my own environmental values and growing interest in organic design, and I thoroughly enjoyed my collaborations. I learnt a lot and was able to teach a few things from my international experience. It remains a very beautiful way of working.

I was also helped a bit because of the social approach of the project. At this point in my life, I like to give back, and we had many environmental and community-related goals with the project. This was a part of the world where there was not much formal employment when we began, most opportunities for locals being just informal and seasonal. Most of our staff did not even have official working papers when we started, and we helped them obtain these and offered year-round employment from the start, even though the tourism was pretty seasonal.

We also offered schooling for the staff and their families, healthcare, transportation, monthly staples of food and basic amenities, all things which were very uncommon. It was really an incredible leap for these people, going from not working most of the year to stepping into a very progressive and nurturing company atmosphere full time. But this paid us lots of dividends, as the love of the staff and their loyalty is really what makes the project work. They’re fabulous natural hosts who love their town and guests can feel that.

The hotel is based in the village Trancoso, one of the oldest villages of Brazil

The hotel is based in the village Trancoso, one of the oldest villages of Brazil

Is this what you are most proud of?

Achieving a hotel which is a totally authentic part of its community is incredibly important. Instead of claiming beachfront or developing virgin lands, we restored antique fisherman homes in the centre of the historic village, avoiding putting up signage, cutting down trees or anything that might interrupt the harmony of the place.

And very importantly, instead of isolating clients from the society around them, which is what luxury and resorts tend to do, our guests are actually totally immersed in the life of the village, its people and culture, and without anything being staged.

Creating a luxury hotel which is about “integration” instead of “isolation” and which truly respects the environment instead of just delivering eco-rhetoric, this I’m proud of.

Design-wise there are also many innovations. We collaborated with local Indian tribes and artisans using traditional techniques, and local and reclaimed materials, and worked with the challenge to innovate while of course making simple things which are very beautiful.

A few of the ideas which came out were really powerful and many are being copied now across Brazil, such as making shower heads out of eucalyptus wood and sink fixtures from recycled copper.

Other organic elements were used very well, such as fallen trees and tree trunks turned into sinks, baths and even showers. The pools we made from thousands of small pieces of local quartz, using a sort of mosaic technique. Televisions were built from used flat screens which we incorporated into antique travel trunks. The number of elements which we were able to create purely from found materials is amazing – sofas upholstered from old truck canvases, recycled roof tiles, wood from old farms and so on.

Casa Seu Pedrinho exterior and interior

Casa Seu Pedrinho exterior and interior

Was letting creativity be the guide an obstacle in operating a new business like the hotel

I think it was definitely an advantage also in this case. For a leisure hotel, where people go for relaxation or stimulation, they definitely seek something memorable. And to make a stand-out property, a creative approach is needed; just trying to repeat established trends or proven formulas won’t work. A bit of risk must be taken. I had a concept of “localism” and of having a sort of brand-free experience for the guests, a hotel which didn’t feel at all like a hotel. I felt confident that could appeal in the same way some design ideas from my fashion work just “felt right” to me; but I really had no research to back it up at all and I sought none. 

Of course, it’s a luxury to be able to take risks, people need to eat and feed their families at the end of the day – this I understand. But it seems to me so much money in the world is fed blindly into banks and bond and stock markets which hold all kinds of bad surprises – it seems much more sensible for people to put their money behind their own bold ideas. At least this can be far more satisfying.