Hubert Burda Media

Lapo Elkann's latest venture

The entrepreneur, playboy and Fiat heir’s new business is a petrolhead’s dream: an upmarket car, boat and plane customising outfit in Milan.

Lapo Elkann at Garage Italia Customs

Want to really stand out from the automotive crowd? Have heads swivel wildly when you roar up to a hotel forecourt, and pedestrians gawp, slack-jawed when you’re idling at traffic lights?

Distinctiveness is assured for customers of Garage Italia Customs, a company that specialises in personalised paint jobs and interiors, from the mildly outré to the totally outrageous. Car owners can opt for shout-out-loud tiger stripes, subtle grey pinstripes, sandy military camouflage, or a design and colour of their own choosing, whether it’s shocking-pink polka dots, or puce-and-purple hoops.

The business is the brainchild of entrepreneur Lapo Elkann, the maverick Fiat-car-company heir who was the driving force behind the reinvention of the classic Fiat 500. And it’s not just cars that Elkann’s team are offering to tart up to the max: the technology and expertise can also be applied to motorcycles, helicopters, planes and boats.

Not that Elkann is desperately in need of any extra props to stand out from the crowd. He’s led a rip-roaring young life that’s seen him battle successfully with addictions, be acclaimed as a style icon, throw himself into the role of international playboy with relish, produce movies and, more recently, turn his attention to reviving and encouraging Italian craftsmanship via Garage Italia.

Elkann with a customised Fiat

Elkann with a customised Fiat

Wrapping or spray-painting cars are not particularly new techniques, of course, but Elkann’s shtick is that Garage Italia does it the Italian way, using master craftsmen and gifted technicians. To underscore and emphasise that point, the headquarters of Garage Italia is located in a Milan heritage building, a former petrol station that’s been acclaimed as an architectural masterpiece. While the owners of Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Maseratis wait for work on their swish vehicles to be completed, they can opt to enjoy a fine-dining meal in the in-house restaurant.

Garage Italia does undertake smaller-scale jobs, such as scooters or motorbikes, and significantly more grandiose commissions that have included decorating and furnishing private jets, installing the very best sound systems, furniture and carpets that money can buy. Rich-boys’ toys – fast cars, speedy boats, jet planes – are radically upgraded from the already-high factory levels and given the personal touch, which might be judged as tasteful, or tacky, depending on your aesthetic standpoint.

“We make the impossible possible,” says Elkann, speaking exclusively to Prestige on a flying visit to Beijing. “The only thing we do not accept is not to make excellence the key to the product. If you want something that’s unique, and you want it cheaply done, we don’t do it. Quality is the first and foremost consideration, we prefer not to do it if people want it on the cheap.

“We’re using artisans – maestros, as I like to call them – to deliver dreams to our consumers. We’ve already done 75 cars, two helicopters, four private planes, and we’ve only just started.

“If you look at the business of personalisation in the auto industry, it’s huge. I want to unite all the centres of excellence in Italy, unity is strength, and to retake what Italy was so great at doing and what Germany and England stole a bit from us. It’s time to get in the ring and get into battle and grasp what we’ve lost.”

Reinventing, or at least re-invigorating, Italian craft industries is one of Elkann’s constant themes. The Agnelli family scion, whose grandfather, Gianni Agnelli, was a revered figure in Italy, is rightly proud of helping to spearhead the revival of the moribund Fiat brand, overseeing the relaunch of the much-loved Fiat 500. Fittingly, the new model served as a guinea pig for Garage Italia’s early experiments with customisation: cars were “wrapped”, a technique whereby strips are applied to the paintwork rather than carrying out a full paint job.

Technicians later let their imaginations rip when thinking up ways to tart up the car in attention-seeking ways. One option is the “black tie” finish, whereby the vehicle is given all-over pinstripes, a look that conveys refined sophistication; at the other extreme is the “tiger stripe” makeover, which sees the bodywork decked out in gaudy orange and black, a finish recommended for owners who are extroverts with a well-developed sense of humour.

A few one-off designs were created by Garage Italia to show just how they can practically interpret even the most outlandish ideas or themes. For the Montreux Jazz Festival, a couple of Renegade Jeeps were painted to try and capture the rebel spirit of jazz, blues and rock ’n’ roll. The colours chosen were cherry blackburst and classic blackburst, loosely inspired by guitars wielded by Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Carlos Santana. As a final flourish, technicians added a wood-effect, and etched guitar strings on the bonnet and boot, incorporating into their work three-colour shading, nine-layer painting and varnishing. Various bits of chrome were also put into the mix.

A Renegade Jeep customised for the Montreux Jazz Festival

A Renegade Jeep customised for the Montreux Jazz Festival

They are extreme examples of Garage Italia Customs staffers at work. The craftsmen can work to specific briefs, decking out vehicles in any colour, or combination of colours, in patterns that can be patchwork, striped, polka-dotted, shaded, zig-zagged or purposely blotched. Interiors likewise, can be any colour, in suede, leather, cashmere or denim.

Elkann has not been shy about pushing the boat out – literally – with extreme makeovers for his personal fleet of boys’ toys. A recently launched patrol-style boat, built by Baglietto, was customised to Elkann’s very specific requirements: the entire exterior was hand-painted in five different shades of blue to give it a nautical camouflage effect. Not that the skipper and his pals will be performing guerrilla-style Navy Seal night-time undercover missions – the idea is that the vessel attracts attention and envious looks as it transports Elkann’s gang of fun-loving pals around the Mediterranean.

The image of Elkann as the epitome of super-cool Italian stylishness does, of course, help immeasurably with the marketing of the company. Owners of corporate jets are among those to wave the chequebook around, in some cases giving Garage Italia carte blanche to make their globe-hopping aircraft more distinctive and more comfortable. One tycoon’s simple instruction was to custom-make everything in the very best materials, which means a large bill for carbon-fibre interiors, buffalo-skin furniture (with temperature-control inset) and an awesome sound system.

Elkann's own Baglietto yacht, customised by Garage Italia Customs

Elkann's own Baglietto yacht, customised by Garage Italia Customs

Elkann is untypically reserved when citing the exact cost for a job of this nature, but he does mention a figure of €300,000 for an elaborate makeover of a car, and a starting point of €500,000 for a boat; bog-standard wrap jobs start at €4,000. In most cases, where the owner already has the dosh to buy a fleet of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, money is no real obstacle, especially those intent on acquiring an automotive look that’s a true one-off.

There’s a chance that Elkann may franchise the Garage Italia concept if there are local partners who can guarantee paying the same meticulous attention to detail that’s found at the Milan headquarters.

The place itself is a petrolhead’s dream destination: at any one time the garage is stocked with supercars in the process of being transformed. There’s even a possibility of encountering the unmistakeable figure of Lapo Elkann, hopping off a camouflaged scooter, getting out of a fire-red Jeep, or roaring up astride a tiger-striped cafe racer motorcycle,

Catch him on a good day – or any day, for that matter – and he’ll talk garrulously, particularly about cars. And as someone who has been behind the wheel of virtually every Ferrari model ever made, the man knows of what he speaks. Elkann’s is truly a life lived in the fast lane.

“But we don’t want to race with the business,” he says. “If you’re an intelligent businessman, you understand that racing can be interesting but can be dangerous for your business, especially when you sell beauty and dreams. You need to aim for perfection – and perfection takes time.”