It is difficult to find a linear definition that explains what Garage Italia does. This is what usually happens when ideas transcend the traditional categories of historicised sectors, such as the automotive industry. Let’s give it a try: Garage Italia is a creative workshop, or creative hub, founded in Milan by Lapo Elkann and Carlo Borromeo. It combines aspects of an atelier for car customisation with those of a digital communication agency. They made a name for themselves thanks to projects such as the electric re-edition of the Panda 4x4 (“we sold more than 50”), or the Spiaggina version of the Fiat Cinquecento, but their collaborations with major automotive brands are numerous and varied. To find out more about the brand’s ambitions and projects, we spoke to Enrico Vitali and Carlo Borromeo, Garage Italia’s CEO and creative director, respectively. They told us more about what they do, how they do it and above all why, at a time of profound change in the whole industry, the car remains a cultural element that will not lose its relevance.
Let's start with the basics: explain what Garage Italia is and why it is called this way.
Enrico Vitali: Let me say it straight away: we’re not a restaurant, we’ve never really been one! If you search on Google you will find references to our space in Milan, but the restaurant business was just a short chapter that is now closed. Garage Italia, on the other hand, is a creative hub, founded by Lapo Elkann with Carlo Borromeo, born out of the “Taylor-made” experience. After an initial period of exploration, we understood how to bring ideas together in a small and medium-sized business. We are following the example of restomods (creative car restorations that add new technological elements to a historic vehicle, author’s note): we remake historic cars, preserving their cultural heritage and history, but rethinking them for the present and the contemporary world.
Carlo Borromeo: The name obviously refers to our country, but it is not a reference to the traditional concept of Made in Italy. We are fed up with the rhetoric of Made in Italy! We want to be an expression of contemporary automotive culture, which is very different from that of the past. The concept of personalisation, based on common cultural references, fits perfectly into this. But we don’t stick to the rules of traditional collecting. The boomer wants the Ferrari 250GTO, we want the Panda. The nostalgia for our cultural references as kids grown in the 80s wins over the search for the collector’s unicorn. In doing so, we give new life to things of the past, speaking to the collective unconscious of a generation.
What is it like to be a car lover at a time when the very concept of car is being questioned?
EV: Before I took on this role, I didn’t even own a car. Carlo and Lapo made me realise how valuable it still is today. The car is problematic if we consider it, as we still do in most cases, as a commodity to get from A to B. If, on the other hand, we think of it as an element of cultural expression, it takes on a whole new dimension. This is why the extreme customisation of the object makes sense, even though it is never an end in itself. And above all, it allows us to explore concepts such as reuse and sustainability. Which is not necessarily a fanatical, monothematic concept: electric is great, but some of our projects still make sense as hybrid cars, or with a normal heat engine. And then there’s the aspect of closeness to the customer, who feels part of the creation and not just a user, as the big luxury conglomerates understood long ago.
CB: As my mentor Walter De Silva used to say, take any photo album and you will always find a picture of a car inside it. The car is still a cultural element today. It's a symbol of independence and autonomy, and it still plays a central role. We just have to stop seeing it as a means of transport. In the centre of Milan, for example, I would never dream of using a car to get around. I cycle or take the underground, and I dream of Milan without cars.
From what experiences and values do you draw inspiration from?
EV: We certainly look to the major companies like Zagato, or Pininfarina, but mutatis mutandis. What we are doing has a solid basis in 2021, so the engine part tends to be electric, or electric-hybrid, apart from a few exceptions not related in any way to performance. The truth is that, unlike others, we don’t really care about performance. We never look at lap times. In the past motorsport was a dominant value, the aficionado liked the fast car. Today, instead, style is what makes the difference. We are much more interested in that and it doesn’t put lives at risk. Nobody needs cars that go faster than you can go on the road.
The changes in the car market also affect the way cars are bought. You have just launched a configurator inspired by a video game.
CB: Yes, it’s the first one ever made for second-hand or restored cars. The idea is the same as for vintage clothing: enthusiasts go looking for models from specific series, with their own characteristics. For us, these cars are still living objects that you can rethink, personalize and recreate, tracing their history and cultural references.
EV: The idea is that through this tool you can interact with the designer. For now, you can customise only the restomod of the Datsun 240Z, but soon we will add more. It may seem like a game or a marketing gimmick, but it's not, we plan on really selling our cars this way. It’s also a way to bring our community closer together, so they can have fun creating their own model and sending us the image that we post on social media. As for the sales channels, as you said, everything has changed. Just think that our most effective sales channel is Instagram!
CB: Let me also say that selling and entertaining are not in contrast. The process of buying is always a playful experience. Also, the conversion to sale may not be immediate, it may follow a course sometimes convoluted, with various intermediate steps.
Your finished products are, after all, luxury cars. Aren't you afraid that this aspect might limit the target group?
CB: I’m convinced that you can’t make culture with the elite, there has to be an outlet. The simplest way to talk to a wider audience is through merchandise, but done properly. It allows people to feel part of bigger projects, to participate in a project by buying a small part of it, to feel like they are part of the project.
I understand it might sound like a load of rubbish to sell a few T-shirts, but trust me, it works and it is a surprisingly healthy and sustainable mechanism, which allows you to send important cultural messages. It’s easy for us because each project is a cultural box where we put everything, like a sort of transversal mood board. We make Spotify playlists, Instagram filters, but also various narratives, and finally merchandising.
EV: It has to be said that even though we often work on luxury products, the Garage maintains a great pop soul. The Panda 4X4 electric Icon-e starts at €38,000, after all. It’s a lot of money of course, but we’re not talking about unattainable figures for billionaires only. Then again, as always in this sector, prices are approximate, and each car is a unique piece for the new generation collector.
Speaking of collecting, you have also launched a project linked to NFTs. Will the next step be cars as digital collectibles?
EV: It was first of all a strategic choice. As a creative hub we absolutely had to explore this trend. But since we know that there is a lot of reading and noise about it, we immediately decided to decline the project because we were sure of one thing: it has no artistic value. Our NFTs are a digital validation that certifies the unique customisation of the car made by Garage Italia. In other words, it is a digital certificate of authenticity, but it tries to solve a problem, which is the value retention of customisations. With a digital certificate we expect that the customised car, which traditionally suffers a depreciation due to its uniqueness and distinctiveness, can maintain a higher resale price, for example.
CB: The other aspect we want to explore is that of collectibles, assets that can be intended as digital collectibles for the younger generation. As an almost 40-year-old man, I still perceive a profound difference in value between the physical and the digital object, but today’s kids certainly do not. The skins of a video game character have the same value, for Gen Z, that stickers had for us.
EV: There is also a further long-term step that we are still thinking about, which is the creation of an NFT validation and exchange platform linked to the automotive market. In other words, the idea is to become the owners of an instrument where this type of digital contract transit. It is a project that requires a great investment in technology.
What other models are you working on at the moment?
EV: We have almost completed the Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto project, and I can confirm that the prototype will be ready in October. It will surprise everyone, because we have completely changed the original mood of the car. You would expect Forte dei Marmi, Santa Margherita Ligure: instead, our Duetto is inspired by 1980s Rimini, with a mood board that closely resembles L’Isola delle Rose. It will also be a perfect example of our philosophy: it won’t be electric but hybrid, because we designed it for those who want to spend a weekend at the seaside, in places where finding a recharging station is still not easy. It will be a perfect project to sell through our configurator.