From gracing the cover of Architectural Digest to attracting celebrity clients like CNN’s Anderson Copper, the remote Pataxó Indian village in Trancoso, Brazil, has been getting a lot of press recently. The reviving creative force behind it all? The UXUA brand.
At the helm is Owner and Creator Wilbert Das. Long-time Creative Director of Diesel, the Dutch-born Das worked with local village artisans, using traditional methods and reclaimed materials to open UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa in 2008 to international acclaim. It was unexpectedly rustic and real, decidedly magical, and almost dangerously authentic. Everyone wanted to move right in. Literally.
In response, the UXUA Alma villa group was launched in 2018. A collection of six (soon to be seven) privately owned villas, these private homes are available to rent, giving visitors a chance to experience village life. The villas are spread around Trancoso, with many located just off the Quadrado, the historic main square.
CNN Anchorman Anderson Cooper owns one of the homes (Casa Anderson), which made the cover of Architectural Digest magazine, and Das has his own home as well (Casa Wilbert). The villas are adorned with unique pieces from Das’ furniture, décor, and textile collection, UXUA Casa. Focused on sustainable luxury design, each piece is handmade and matchless, thanks UXUA’s collaborative relationship with the local Pataxó Indian craftsmen.
With a seventh villa currently under construction, the UXUA Alma waitlist is epic and star-studded. We spoke to Das to get the details behind all the buzz.
UXUA Casa Hotel has been a great success. Why did you decide to introduce the UXUA Alma private casa collection?
UXUA started as just a couple of houses, and expanded to 11. These were largely restorations of colonial-era homes, and they had a really positive impact on the communities living in Trancoso – something I hadn’t really anticipated.
Entire sectors of artisanal work were brought back to life: young people who have been pursuing other fields started going back into crafts that have been practised in their families for generations, becoming carpenters, weavers, ceramicists, etc.
I wanted to keep developing this little micro-economy, so I started a décor collection at UXUA Casa. We have Native American painters and weavers on antique looms and ceramic wheels, all working inside the hotel in front of our guests.
Then, for the loyal UXUA clients like Anderson Cooper who’ve always asked if we’d be available to do a private home for them, we started saying yes. We saw the private homes as a channel to keep the positive story going. That’s how UXUA Alma began.
What’s the process for commissioning your own UXUA Alma private casa?
You’ve really just got to have a genuine love for Trancoso and be someone who shares our principles about social harmony and sustainability, and, of course, be someone who values beauty and preservation. It’s actually not an inexpensive process to make things by hand with reclaimed materials.
You’ve also got to be someone who has patience: we only do about one villa per year, and have about 20 requests in the pipeline from really great clients. It’s just not a process you can rush. Working in the traditional way takes a lot of time, but it’s absolutely the most rewarding approach.
What’s the plan for UXUA Alma private casas moving forward?
We have seven now, and the social and economic good [that comes from the construction] is so great [that we want to continue]. We’re restoring empty or underused spaces in the town centre, leaving the surrounding nature untouched; creating jobs and prosperity; and keeping everything beautiful and harmonious with the original vibe of the town. And as much as we’ve learned from artisans, we’re teaching, too, as we bring in international designers like Marcantonio Raimondi Malerba, who collaborate and help native craftsmen grow. These are things I really love to see.
What’s special about your newest build (a new modernist villa called Casa do Rio)? How is it different from the other private villas in the collection?
For starters, the location (on the edge of a cliff overlooking a green river valley and the ocean) was a new setting for us. But the biggest evolution was the slight move away from the modern, rustic look that we’ve gained a reputation for. Here, we’re doing what I’d call a playful, tropical modern aesthetic. We took so much joy in building this home, and I think you can sense that as soon as you cross the threshold.
Once UXUA Alma is complete, what’s next for the brand?
Our architectural work won’t end, even if the Alma collection stops growing. I’m doing some consulting on sustainable luxury communities around the world, but UXUA will likely continue to grow its décor collection with a few little surprises, like a custom eyewear collection, whose origin – like most things UXUA – have a personal story.
The supervisor of our beach bar, Fernando, is a lovely local guy. He continuously gave away the sunglasses we made for him and the beach team. Our best clients become like family, and they would always ask for the staff’s sunglasses, so we decided we’d just do a collection and sell them to guests. They’ll be ready in December.
Let’s talk about the magical style of UXUA Alma. How has the local culture influenced the design, style, and vibe? What were your other visual influences?
There’s no debating it: UXUA pays homage to our base, Trancoso. My collaborators and I utterly fell in love with the place. We immersed ourselves in researching their traditional craft-making methods, discovering skills and practices that have been passed on for generations. Inspired by tradition and heritage (and an awareness of how people want to live their lives today), we created spaces people would love, spaces that tell a real story. Combining indoor and outdoor living – the ideal lifestyle in Trancoso’s climate – was also very important for us. Our spaces indoors transition seamlessly into outdoor spaces and back in again in creative and limitless ways, just as they should in a climate like ours.
What were/are your biggest challenges in opening up a resort and private homes in such a unique area?
In the beginning, I worried that Trancoso would follow the model of most beach areas, where luxury was about moving further away into remote and isolated spaces.
We worked hard to get people to think differently, to see that there’s a luxury in being part of a real community in your neighbourhood, where you could interact with people from all sorts of social backgrounds, rather than isolating yourself and socialising with a select few.
For Brazil, this was a very new thing. Actually, it was the international clients and the clients from the fashion and design world who all came to us before the Brazilian market. But now, we’ve finally won over Brazilian clients with this new approach.
Tell us about your social responsibility projects and eco-initiatives.
What my partner and I simply cannot accept about Brazil is the poor state of its educational system, and the damaging effects our modern lifestyles are having on our environment. We’re determined to help, so we’ve put an enormous amount of time and energy into collaborations with our partner, NGO Despertar, which teaches sustainable tourism and environmental activism.
Our most innovative programme is Mama Trancoso, which allows socially influential adolescents to be educated on the basics of environmentalism, civics and communications. They then share their newfound knowledge with their peers and spearhead activist movements within their spheres of influence to combat these issues.
The UXUA Alma homeowners also dedicate 5 per cent of their rental income to Despertar, which finances sports programmes for over 400 kids. We don’t just give them money, either: my partner teaches environmental classes, and many of our staff volunteer pitch in by teaching languages.
What’s more, our staff and their families have really helped us reach out to our community. Around these parts, many believe that companies cannot be socially responsible; our aim is to break down this preconception, so strive to invest in training, have fun, and make friends – and generally be the best that we can be!
The results speak for themselves: 30 of 100 of our staff already have professional certifications, nine members are studying at university full-time, . A short 10 years ago, no natives attended university, so we’re incredibly proud of the progressed we’ve caused and had the pleasure to witness. Also, about 20 per cent of the team speak native-level English, many of whom have now moved on to learning French and Spanish.
We keep every promise we make, and, year after year, the trust, respect and love for our brand grows. This is mostly down to our staff, who have a genuine passion for what we’re trying to do here. They’re so nurturing now and protective of us as owners, instead of seeing us in a patriarchal light. The people in our community see our work as something of a miracle, as nothing of the sort had ever been attempted prior to our arrival.
What’s the one thing you want PUREists to know about you?
That everything we do is real, authentic.
[All photos are courtesy of UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa.]
Nicole Trilivas is an American writer based in London covering high-end travel and food and drink. She’s a luxury lifestyle contributor for Forbes.com and a restaurant reviewer for Time Out London. Her work has appeared in NYTimes.com, Condé Nast Brides, Men’s Journal, Fodor’s, Yahoo, HuffPost, Wanderlust, Afar, Suitcase, and Country Life (upcoming). She’s the author of the travel-theme novel, Girls Who Travel (Penguin Random House, 2015).