Words by Mr Derek Blasberg
Mr Nicolas Malleville is sitting on the sandy shores of Tulum, Mexico, his handsome, scruffy face staring out at a picturesque sunset. It's a familiar image, one that we've seen captured by the likes of Mr Mario Testino in countless magazines and fashion campaigns. But this time Mr Malleville is not helping to hock designer wares. We're with him - one of luxury fashion's most in-demand models of the past two decades - at one of the properties he has built on the Yucatán Peninsula, looking out on his own fledgling empire. "Everyone thought I was nuts. They called me coqui coqui," Mr Malleville explains of his first pilgrimages to this part of the world. Coqui coqui is Spanish slang for "coconuts", which Mr Malleville duly named his first property.
Originally from a ranch outside Córdoba, Argentina, Mr Malleville was approached by a scout when on a family vacation in Uruguay in his last year of high school. (He laughs that the scout kept talking about Ms Kate Moss, who he had never heard of.) Mr Malleville says at the time he was far more interested in "palm trees and paradise". Nonetheless, after studying outdoor architecture at the University of Córdoba, he moved to Paris to take landscaping classes at the Bagatelle Gardens and gave modelling a try. At his very first casting he met Mr Testino, who booked him for four Burberry campaigns and one Gucci.
Mr Malleville made his first trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in 2001. He bought his first beachfront property at the end of that year, and started renting it first to friends and later guests at the beginning of 2002. (Some of his VIP guests have included Ms Sienna Miller, Ms Kate Bosworth and Ms Eva Mendes. All ladies we wouldn't mind seeing frolicking in the sea!) The life of a male model affords much free time, which Mr Malleville took advantage of, spending his time away from the cameras and runways at his growing number of properties. He bought a house in the sleepy, charming city of Valladolid in the southeastern part of Yucatán, where he opened his first business, Coqui Coqui Perfumes, in 2003. The following year he bought a large property in a jungle region, which became a hotel and spa called Coba.
Back on the beach, Mr Malleville says that even though he didn't know it at the time, it was as if he had carried on the family business. "My grandfather was a pharmacist and my grandma was a botanist," he smiles. "So we've always had a passion for aromatic plants, I guess." His favourite scents include tobacco, agave and dry roses. Mr Malleville and his partner, the impossibly gorgeous Ms Francesca Bonato, were not only impressed by the locale, but also the handicraft and building techniques of the local people. Their properties are built in a style respectful of the local aesthetic, and they've branched out into other goods, most notably Francesca's own line called Montaecristo, which includes updated versions of the Yucatán's native scarves (called rebozos), baskets, ropes, hats and housewares.
The Mallevilles have achieved a perfect Bohemian look and local charm, mixed with just the right amount of dishevelled glamour. Similarly, their thoughts on the hotel business are just as relaxed. "I have always loved to have houses because I love hosting people, and making them feel at home," Mr Malleville explains. "We both come from very big families, and both of our cultures, Argentinian for me and Italian for Francesca, love sharing spaces, food, culture and folklore. What people commonly call a hotel is really just a place I want people to feel at home."
The consummate host and hostess, Ms Bonato and Mr Malleville welcome guests personally, and can be seen over the breakfast table offering tips and tourist suggestions. Then it's back to the beach life, taking long walks with his son, still a toddler but already well versed in the unique Yucatán lifestyle. "In the Peninsula you can combine entire worlds of history: a contemporary beach life in Tulum, the untouched jungle, or the pristine Mayan ruins, surrounded by crocodiles, exotic birds and lush vegetation. You can cross the jungle to reach a sleepy, colourful, colonial town created by Mayans where everything is organic," he smiles.
Mr Malleville deflects the question when asked if he ever had grand plans to be an international hotelier. (Indeed, he has plans to open new properties in the Italian Mediterranean and another on a gaucho ranch in his native Córdoba.) He would prefer to think of himself as assuming more of a creative role than a business one. "Having a hotel is like creating a movie - from the beautiful set to all the small details, I want to create a vision of happiness that everyone can understand."