by Heather Stewart Feldman
From a distance it looks like any other city block in Milan, but a closer look reveals it's anything but average. Rapidly taking shape in the heart of the Isola neighborhood of North Milan is Europe's first Moto-Quartiere: 330 feet completely dedicated to the world of custom and vintage motorcycles—and all that this passion and lifestyle encompasses.
Created by Dario Mastroianni, founder of Officine Mermaid and native Isola resident, together with Stefania Colussi and Antonio Pirozzi, this “promised land" for motorcycle enthusiasts effortlessly combines restaurants and cafes with mechanic workshops, clothing stores and artisan spaces. Fast-growing and quickly multiplying in participants, the sensation one feels when strolling through the Moto-Quartiere is that of being transported back to the US in the '50s, yet with the sophistication and elegance that is characteristic of Italian style fusing with rockabilly attitude.
Heart and soul of the project, Officine Mermaid—consisting of three spaces: store, garage and cafe—offers both new and old school lovers of motorcycles a unique place to connect, shop, design and customize their two-wheeled dream machines alongside expert mechanics who could be better described as artists. Working on brands like Zaeta, Samurai Chopper, Triumph, BMW, Buell and Harley-Davidson, Mastroianni and his team of 14 have managed to revitalize both the neighborhood and the stereotypes associated with the motorbikes—many of the people who frequent the Moto-Quartiere are non-riders.
The epicenter of the project is a two-story building that was once a fabric factory, located in Via Genova Thaon di Revel. Today, the factory and its courtyard have been turned into retail stores, services and event spaces where Australian custom motorcycle, track bike and surf company Deus Ex Machina recently opened its first European flagship in March 2013 and which also includes a workshop and cafe.
The newest entry on site is Bullfrog, a small '50s-style barbershop inspired by the grooming traditions of the past. Blending together tattooed rockabilly barbers and clientele, vintage furniture and products, and an eclectic collection of butterflies that decorate the walls, the space is truly dedicated to the artistic reinterpretation of this male ritual. On the second floor South Garage Motor Company opened its first atelier and retail store which offers a unique blend of vintage and modern custom motorcycles. Retrò Vintage Clothing, with its retail space next to the South Garage showroom, is a vintage lover's haven for those hard-to-find pieces from the '40s and '50s, and resembles a museum exhibit in the way its merchandise is displayed. Finally, Blocco 3 is an event space, private clubhouse and theater with 70 seats.
To better understand the dynamics and story behind the project we stopped by the Moto-Quartiere and Mastroianni and his team gave us a tour of the developing neighborhood.
Can you tell us a bit about Officine Mermaid?
Officine Mermaid came to life five years ago from my own deep passion for motorcycles and the choice of area is not at all random: I was born, grew up and still live in this neighborhood. The name comes from my love of the sea. In particular, the mermaid is a mythological figure that can have many different meanings. Back when we started we were the only ones here, we had our store and workshop in the same location (on the corner of Via Thaon di Revel and Via Francesco Arese). After a couple of years, we opened the cafe and store, leaving the workshop for parts and services in the initial location. From there, the Moto-Quartiere project got going and today it consists of quite a few different realities—ranging from food and beverage spots to the customization of motorcycles—all united by a common spirit and a passion for motorcycles. That is to say, freedom and style.
It’s in an interesting position, inside and around a courtyard of a residential building. What’s the reaction to the project been like from those in the area?
The people who live in the area are happy with the developments that our project has brought on in this part of the city, which had been somewhat forgotten about and had earned a bad reputation around town, local businesses included. Obviously some residents complain about the noise created by the roar of the engines, but they are a minority.
What makes Officine Mermaid and Moto-Quartiere unique?
The fact that we work on all types of bikes—we don’t limit ourselves to working only on specific brands or models. The most important aspect for us is that the customization project a client has in mind is one that demonstrates style. The same goes for the Moto-Quartiere; style is the most important factor.
How are the relationships between all the different participants in Moto-Quartiere?
The relationship between all of us is great and in continuous progress thanks to the common vision of wanting to enhance the meaning and significance of the project as a whole. The only unwritten "deal" between us is not to compete in any way.
How would you describe the people who frequent the Moto-Quartiere?
The people really vary—from the veteran who has been riding for years, to the young guy who wants to experience new emotions.
What does the current success of Officine Mermaid and its continued evolution say about the direction the city of Milan is heading in?
Simply put, we were in the right place at the right time. With tons of effort and some sacrifices we were able to emerge successful.
What is your "dream" for the project?
My dream is to make this project become a part of the city's history!
Photos by Heather Stewart Feldman