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The Quiet End of the Runway – Tulum!

Mar 13 • Categorized as Entertainment in Mexico

It was a honey-gold morning in Tulum, Mexico, the low-rise, high-key ocean strip in the Yucatán 75 miles south of Cancún. While many visitors saluted the sun in various yoga poses along the white swatch of the Atlantic Ocean beach, Irene Albright and her daughter, Marina, stared at a computer screen in the open-air lobby of the Hotel Nueva Vida de Ramiro. They were looking at Chloé’s Web site.

Tulum, Mexico, Is a Hot Spot for Fashion Insiders

On separate cellphones, their voices competed with the birds in the palms. “So it’s long sleeve?” asked Irene, who owns the Albright Fashion Library, a high-end rental boutique in Manhattan. “How much is it?” A few moments later, Marina chirped: “The quilted jacket is how much? Is the sweater beaded?”

Nearby, Nian Fish, a creative director, had just finished a conference call about a coming Tommy Hilfiger show she is producing in New York. She was barefoot with a faded blue bandanna on her head. “Welcome to my office,” she told a friend.

And welcome to Tulum, a destination so popular with the fashion crowd this time of year that it almost feels like Fashion Week. While Teva-wearing backpackers look for sea turtles and New Age naïfs look for nirvana, the fashion obsessed don’t have to look at all to find one other. They are everywhere, artfully dressed down in high-peasant style. The scene in late December included Nicola Formichetti, the stylist for Lady Gaga and creative director for Mugler; Amanda Hearst, the It Girl of Marie Claire; Tom Mendenhall, chief operating officer of Tom Ford; and Johan Lindeberg, the big-bearded BlkDnm designer.

“It’s like my Miami,” said Kim Vernon, a former Calvin Klein executive who is now a fashion brand consultant in Manhattan. “But I didn’t go this Christmas because I just didn’t feel like seeing everyone I know.”

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know who was there. “Francisco Costa rented a house,” she said of that Calvin Klein designer. “Linda Fargo from Bergdorf Goodman was there, too, and so was the designer Naeem Khan and Michael Carl, the fashion market director of Vanity Fair.”

There were movie stars, too: Evan Rachel Wood, Jamie Bell and Kate Bosworth, who stayed, as she often does, at CoquiCoqui, the limestone spa and hotel owned by Nicolas Malleville, the international male model. In past years, Ryan Philippe, Neil Patrick Harris, Sienna Miller and Alexander Skarsgard have also been spotted on the beach.

But never mind the air-sucking dust clouds of celebrities. They have St. Bart’s and Miami. Laid-back Tulum, which Italian Vogue called the new Goa, has its own players — minor ones to the masses, but important to those who speak fashion-ese.

“We were calling it the fashion jungle by the end of the week,” said JymBenzing, a New York advertising casting director who visited during Christmas with a pack of stylists and photographers, staying in what he described as “huts” at Hemingway beach cabanas. “Every year, it’s more fashion people, and they’re all huddled together on top of each other.”

Anne Slowey, the fashion news director of Elle, wasn’t as enamored with the scene during the holidays. “That place is like going to Fort Lauderdale for spring break,” she said. “Only instead of shots and wet T-shirt contests, there are shamans and yoga classes. The flight back was like the fashion plane from the shows in Paris. Yeesh!”

SO how did a former stop on a low-budget hippie trail become a magnet for Seventh Avenue materialists? Location, maybe? Flights to Cancún are quick and direct from New York, a little under four hours. The cab ride from the airport is an easy 90 minutes, made even easier with a recent highway upgrade that serves many new all-inclusive resorts (no, thank you) on what the Mexican government calls the Riviera Maya. There’s also the allure of a pristine white sand beach that stretches for miles.

Another draw? Sustainability. Tulum is consciously and adamantly off the power grid, which means it often uses solar generators and wind turbines to keep its lights on. Showers in many hotels are low pressure and often brackish, not fresh.

It makes people who spend their lives creating disposable luxuries feel slightly virtuous, or at least more rugged than they feel while wearing stilettos. And fashion people, often questing for self-enlightenment, are drawn
to places with a strong spiritual feeling. Steeped in Maya lore, Tulum is a veritable sample sale of yogis, psychics and seers.

“I work with the spiritually challenged,” said Robert Klein, a Los Angeles transplant whose business card lists “integrated healing” therapies. “My goal is to open doorways to more spiritual aspects of ourselves.” A former
restaurant owner, fashion photographer and psychologist, Mr. Klein said he was in a sweat lodge last year when he heard a voice tell him to move to Tulum. “L.A. had something missing, so I came here,” he said. Now he lives in a little house and charges Los Angeles prices — $100 and up — for an hour of conversation and guidance. So do other Tulum therapists, masseurs and psychics, including one who reads your future by cracking an egg.
“The openness here is the same as it was in L.A. in the 1960s,” Mr. Klein said over a simple $70 meal of fish, rice and vegetables at Posada Margherita, a rustic-chic resort and restaurant packed with the tan and trendy. “We had a lot of young seekers coming through there then, just like we have here.”

Another reason Tulum is a draw: it’s pedestrian-friendly. New Yorkers are often leery of driving, and so a tropical place where you can walk along the beach or bike along a quiet road, in search of one overpriced ceviche and
the next, offers a remote tropical ease that isn’t enjoyed by Anguilla, Mustique or St. Barts vacationers, who have to drive on winding roads to get to pushy parties with power players, guest lists and bodyguards.

“I used to go to St. Barts, and it was too much” said Ms. Fish, the fashion show producer. “So I started coming here 10 years ago and kept coming.” She wasn’t the first of her kind. Some say it started with Enrique Badulescu, a photographer who has had a house in Tulum for about 20 years, and this year rented it to Emma Hill, the creative director of Mulberry. Others say the real fashion invasion didn’t begin until the photographer Mario Testino bought a beachfront house about 10 years ago and booked many shoots there, until selling it a few years ago to Julie Taymor.

But like the 11th-century Maya ruins along the ocean bluffs, other celebrities and places dot Tulum’s history and tabloid timeline. Casa Violeta, a thatch-roof retreat built on sand, was an early vortex, with long-ago but
confirmed sightings of Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Posada Margherita was another early see-and-be-seen temple with a speedy tattooed Italian owner, Alessandro Carrozzino, who is said to have turned away Sean Combs, although he can’t confirm it because he isn’t even sure what Mr. Combs looks like. His girlfriend, Daria Hines, the daughter of Gregory Hines and  a stylist from Los Angeles, recently helped arrange the wedding of Damian Kulash, the lead singer of OK Go, and AmbraMedda, a design consultant in New York and the former director of Design Miami/Basel, at the restaurant on New Year’s Eve. She’s sticking around.

“People in Tulum are easy,” Ms. Hines said. “They give each other space even when they are flocked together like flamingos in a lagoon” Another name that comes up in modern Tulum mythology is Melissa Perlman.
She came from Manhattan in 2002, fell in love with it and opened Amansala, a funky spa resort where she created bikini boot camp, an exercise program for body-conscious women.

Her savvy (she claims to have coined the term “eco-chic,” which is all over Tulum) led her to lease a property at the far end of the beach — the former home of the 1980s drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. In 2006, Ms. Perlman set
up Casa Magna there, a kind of open-air sand castle hotel with good house music, dim lighting, a yogic mood and a laid-back staff more attuned with themselves than with the guests.

At $400 or more a night, the hotel was favored by media insiders with crunchy affectations, like Camilla Nickerson, a contributing editor at Vogue, and Michael Pitt of “Boardwalk Empire.” Ms. Perlman lost the property in a
complicated governmental glitch, but not her entrepreneurial love for the area: she just opened a new boutique hotel called AmansalaChica.

“Tulum is still inviting to the soul,” she said. “And it continues to evolve.”

Indeed it does, although some think it is no longer the off-the-grid fashion hideaway, but an overcrowded, high-pitched resort so full of hipsters, posers and Louboutins that it is beginning to implode. And with the Maya
calendar predicting the end of the world this December, perhaps it will.

“Tulum has so many fashion people now, it’s like the Hamptons,” said ArianeDutzi, a former fashion editor from Germany who has, like Mr. Malleville of CoquiCoqui, moved inland, to the colonial city of Valladolid, where she employs local women to make bags sold in stores including Donna Karan’s Urban Zen. “It used to be more relaxed and disconnected from the world. Now it’s so crowded that everyone’s looking at what everyone else is wearing.”

Especially if they’re at the new boutique resort Be Tulum. Veteran vacationers see the place — with its plunge pools, air-conditioning (unheard of in an area where many hotels have no electricity after 10 p.m.) and $500-a-night prices as the end.

Sebastian Sas, the resort’s strapping Argentine owner, doesn’t feel that way, of course. “People are saying 2012 is the end of the world, but I think it’s the beginning of a new world here,” he said. Mr. Sas works with local
hotel owners to keep Tulum low-rise and eco-chic. “People come to Tulum to feel lighter. Here everyone’s barefoot and on bikes. We don’t have heavy music or Lamborghinis.”

Photo shoots are another story. And so are upscale shops.

On Christmas Eve, along the dark stretch of main road where even trendy new restaurants like the Casa Jaguar resemble thatch shacks, a modernist and white open-air building stuck out like a spaceship from the planet St. Tropez. It was a new store called Josa, full of elegant $300 caftans designed by Joanne Salt, a New York transplant.

The place was empty and the tropical air was alive with the sound of tree frogs; the occasional bicyclist drifted past as silently as the pelicans overhead. Alessandra Montana, a chic Italian woman with feathers woven into her
hair, was tending shop that evening. She said that she moved to Tulum from Los Angeles last year to teach yoga and leave the material world behind.

“I was in the clothing business for 20 years, and when I moved here I told myself I’d never work in fashion again,” she said. “Maybe my dream will come true in 2012.”

Or maybe the Maya prophecy will come true, and Tulum will be gone.

 

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2 Comments

  1. I,m in Tulum at this very moment…full moon..and the Film Festival is winding down. Many of the tourist have left and only the dedicated few remain….I like those odds.

    Its hot as Hades (but they have bottled water and no flaming pitch forks) and the coral (not hot sand) beaches beckon. The restaurants are less busy and all of this is an open secret.

    Rent a house for a week a day or a month-you won’t regret it.

    a runaway New Yorker

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