‘We basically work like tailors,’ says Enrico Vitali, the urbane CEO of Garage Italia in Milan – an extraordinary customisation enterprise based in the outskirts of the city. ‘At the first appointment we try to figure out what kind of inspiration the client wants to apply to his object, whatever it is – cars, boats, airplanes. From there we usually make three different proposals: we try to stick to exactly what the client asked for in our first proposal, in the second we try to give a little bit of our own input. For the third we just run with it.’
If you’re driving past, you can’t miss Garage Italia – it is housed in a historic, white Art Deco building designed in the American streamlinestyle. Now the structure, a former gas station that lay abandoned and decaying for years, is home not only to the Materioteca consulting room, which displays all manner of leathers, wood samples and potential body colours, but also a bar (complete with 1,100 toy cars suspended from the ceiling), and a restaurant where cocktails are served out of the chassis of a Ferrari 250 GTO. Not to mention the toilets, which are constructed from dark wood and copper-look detailing evoking Riva Aquarama speedboats.
Vitali talks of the Italian tradition of craftsmanship and design, and of the importance of personalisation and customisation in defining modern luxury. He sees this venture not as something purely automotive, but as a way of treating cars as fashion. Already, Garage Italia has collaborated with Hublot watches. Clothing and accessories are sure to follow.
Opened in 2017, Garage Italia is the brainchild of entrepreneur and designer Lapo Elkann, the man who launched Ferrari’s Tailor Made programme back in 2006. ‘Lapo figured that as Ferrari was a very historical brand, it had always limited what customers could do to personalise their vehicles with respect to materials and colours,’ explains Vitali. ‘So he came up with the idea of allowing people to really personalise a supercar.’ It was a success, and several years later, Elkann and his designer, Carlo Borromeo, hatched the idea of Garage Italia.
What is interesting here, though, is that the service on offer is peculiarly democratic. Creative director Borromeo explains, ‘We want to give all kinds of people the opportunity to customise their vehicles, not only the super, super wealthy, but also young people.’ So Garage Italia is just as keen for you to bring in your old VW Beetle or Alfa Romeo Giulia as it is your brand new Ferrari.
Witness its cute Icon-e project, which brings back the spirit of the iconic car while making much-loved models contemporary, usable and fun through electrical redevelopment.
In this first release, the roof of the Fiat 500 Jolly Icon-e has been removed, hand-made seats with woven natural rope are installed and, hey presto, you have a brand new electric run-around, complete with authentic Italian heritage.
‘We all grew up in Milan here in the company, and one day we made a list of all the cars that we have a deep and cultural attachment to,’ Borromeo explains. ‘Which cars are the true icons and represent something to our collective imaginations? Could we revive these and make them viable for our current times? That’s how we arrived at the Fiat 500 Jolly. People love that car, but if you’ve ever tried to drive one it’s kind of a mess – no synchroniser on the gear shifter so you grind the gears and burn so much oil that it pollutes. That’s not relevant today but we can preserve the spirit and bring it into the modern age so everyone can appreciate it for what it could have been, not what it was.’
The Fiat 500 Jolly Icon-e electric vehicle has already caught the attention of customers and, interestingly, it has been adopted by car-hire company Hertz, which has commissioned Garage Italia to build some for its Selezione Italia fleet. One of these is even painted in the tricolour of the Italian flag.
‘Electrification is very reliable and gives great performance,’ says Borromeo. ‘You don’t need much power in a small car. It’s silent, it doesn’t pollute and when you drive around Italy in a Fiat 500 everybody smiles at you!’
So what next? An electric Fiat Panda? Borromeo says, actually, yes: a limited edition 4×4. In the meantime, Garage Italia will pursue its mission of offering customisation to anyone who wants it, for a car, boat, plane, helicopter or, even, motorbike. In the Materioteca, customers are taken through myriad options. There are 220,000 different colours available from German automotive paint specialists BASF, though you can always create your own by matching a favourite painting. Or sweater. Then, as well as hand-painted bodywork detailing and hi-tech sound systems, the trim available takes in leathers and materials like the suede-like Alcantara, which was developed in the 70s and used for racing car seats. If you want though, Garage Italia will upholster your car in suiting fabric.
While many bring their old cars in for a refresh, or new cars in for a makeover, some customers will work with Garage Italia and a car maker to create a vehicle from scratch. Then there are those who want their grandfather’s old Alfa Romeo restored and re-imagined. And the corporate motoring clients who are looking for something special for a car launch or event – such as BMW, which wanted a limited edition of 2015 models to sell exclusively in Switzerland.
The mantra here is that anything is possible. Although the team draws the line at changing the actual ‘physics’ of a machine. ‘Some places make body kits and do modifications to the original design of a car, but we try to be as respectful as possible, so manufacturers are willing to work with us,’ explains Borromeo. Apart from the recognition of the manufacturer’s art, it makes good business sense to show that respect too.