In the Lapo Luxury
As the grandson of Gianni Agnelli, The legendary leader of Fiat, Lapo Elkann inherited the weight of Italy’s greatest modern aristocracy—one built on style, taste, wealth, and speed. Now, after some front-page missteps that forced him to clean up his life, he’s launched a creative vision centered on the customization of automobiles. It's a bold move that just might make him Italy's worldwide ambassador of cool.
"I’ve been attracted to darkness, to dark places. Now that I’ve left those dark places, there’s light."
“This is what we Italians do best. We’re in the business of designing cool, fast things,” explains Lapo Elkann, the forty-year-old heir to Fiat, sitting in the cavelike interior of his new office on a rainy January afternoon. “The future gets interesting if you can get there fast.”
That office is set far in the back of his latest venture, Garage Italia, housed in a onetime Milanese gas station with a space-age aesthetic. Designed by Italian architect Mario Bacciocchi and completed in 1953, it had gone to seed, become a sort of futuristic relic, before Elkann arrived and transformed it into a bespoke- car showroom, restaurant, and café. Customers enter by the bar (beneath a floating cloud of toy cars) and pass by a gift shop and a Ferrari racing simulator before heading into the “Materioteca,” a cavernous room stocked with samples of metal, leather, and fabric in every conceivable pattern and color.
On the second floor, there’s the restaurant (with a miniature racetrack on the ceiling) and terrace (crowned with a tricked-out plane). Inaugurated last November, Garage Italia customizes cars, planes, yachts, and helicopters for a very wealthy clientele. “I chose to get into customization because the notion of cool has evolved very fast,” he says. “Nowadays coolness is bespoke. It’s just for you.” Leave it to the scion of one of Italy’s first families to pinpoint the next wave of luxury. As the old status symbols begin to feel increasingly commonplace, discerning customers now seek to make their clothes, their homes, and their vehicles one of a kind. Elkann’s grandfather Gianni Agnelli—head of Fiat and international playboy par excellence—was candid in his comments on the famous people he knew (and he knew almost all of them).
Of John F. Kennedy, he said, “The more he screwed things up, the more popular he became.” The same is true of Agnelli’s grandson. The patriarch obviously favored Elkann, the outgoing, charismatic one, the one with swaggering style and raffish taste (though his brother John was handed the keys to the company). And there’s no doubt that Elkann, just like JFK in his grandfather’s estimation, inexplicably grows more popular with every scandal.
Substance-induced spirals bookend Elkann’s time in the public eye, but he remains beloved in his home country and well-liked in both the business and fashion spheres, perhaps thanks to his upbeat attitude and his entrepreneurial drive to launch businesses, leaving Fiat to John. (He’s no black sheep, however: “I own some shares of the company,” he says modestly, the “company” being Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. And he is tired of the people—quite a few of them over the years—who “have only seen me as an ATM.”)
Why have so many Italians forgiven him so readily? It goes beyond inherited charm and personal kindness. Maybe it’s because Elkann, who could have chosen the easy life of a young man born a millionaire many times over, has had his nose to the grindstone since his teens—a workaholic who doesn’t need to work at all. Maybe it’s because his tattoos tell the truth: indomitable on his right forearm, independent on his left. He’s been resilient in the face of humiliation and doesn’t rely on his family business. He’s founded more companies than most men his age have worked for.
Those businesses—in fashion, advertising, spirits, and music, to start—haven’t always been successful. But at the moment, the future is bright. He recently sold a majority stake in one of his companies, the Independent Ideas ad agency, to Publicis, the multinational French communications titan. And he just signed a contract with Pharrell Williams: Elkann’s Italia Independent design firm will create apparel and eyewear with the musician’s Billionaire Boys Club. (He considers Williams one of his heroes. “Pharrell is an incredibly creative man. His spirit is clean. He gives me energy. He gives me light.”)
His latest endeavor, his chrome-and-neon boomerang-shaped baby, isn’t smack in the beating heart of Milanese cool. Instead, Garage Italia is in a blue-collar neighborhood in the northern part of the city. Members of the hip crowd living downtown—“in centro,” as residents call the 20121 postal code around the Duomo—mostly speed by on their way to the airport. The café opens early in the morning and quickly fills: working-class men, retirees.
“We’re part of the neighborhood now, part of the family,” says Elkann, happy to see locals drink espresso (quickly while standing up—the Italian way) only steps away from his showroom stocked with six-figure luxury cars, just downstairs from the upscale restaurant run by chef Carlo Cracco. (His Ristorante Cracco, also in Milan, has a Michelin star.) “All around this place we showcase Italian design: Guzzini, Frau, Cassina, Brembo,” he says, looking as Continental as ever in a slim-fit periwinkle suit and midnight-blue shoes (jacket off, sleeves rolled up). “It’s what we Italians have always been great at. We customize everything: BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, FCA, Gulfstream, Bombardier, Learjet. . . You name it, really.”
This is not an inexpensive undertaking. Prices run from $1,850 for basic car-seat work to a cool $1.2 million for a fully personalized Gulfstream. “Some projects we keep confidential simply because the clients might request anonymity. But the formula works,” Elkann says. “We’ll export the project to Asia—Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong. The U. S. A., very soon. Garage Italia just opened a pop-up in Gstaad. And we sponsor race-car drivers. I’m especially proud of a Formula 4 driver we support, an Arab woman named Amna Al Qubaisi. I’m honored to support her.”
It’s lame to ask the son of one of the world’s most famous carmaking empires why he’s so obsessed with cars. Luckily, he’ll tell you before you have to ask. “From Steve McQueen to Paul Newman, speed has always been cool, has always been stylish. Garage Italia is inspired by such men. My grandfather collected art, collected cars, loved clothes. I dream of bringing those very different worlds—the art world and the world of motion, of cars and planes—to bring them closer, to create a dialogue.”
In imagining this future of beauty and speed, Elkann often ends up looking backward, to his grandfather’s heyday. “The 1950s—I admire the sense of possibility, the can-do attitude that Italy had back then,” he says. “Now Italy—my country, the country I chose to serve as a soldier, the country where I pay my taxes—has cancer, a cancer of bureaucracy. It stifles potential, it forces talented people to move abroad.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Elkann has zero patience for the famously tangled red tape that hampers entrepreneurship with regulations and inefficiencies, problems that get most of the blame for Italy’s two decades of economic stagnation. (The country’s March elections, in which two upstart parties trounced the establishment competition, served as a referendum of sorts on Italy’s tight restrictions.) “I spoke to this young doctor, an Italian who now works at the Mayo Clinic in a lab whose budget is fifty times what he had here in Italy. Do I blame him for moving to America? How could I?”
Elkann loves America—he was born in New York—“but I gave up my U. S. citizenship in order to serve in the Italian military,” he says. “I’m a Catholic and a Jew, an Italian born in the U. S., a citizen of the world. I want to bring Garage Italia to the U. S., but I need the right partners, with the right ethics, and I still haven’t found them. I used to be impulsive; now I’ve learned to take my time.” One thing he appreciates about America: its businessmen. “Italians, once they’ve made a few bucks, they tend to get cocky,” he says. “Really huge American captains of industry know how to stay more grounded. I like that.”
He knows a thing or two about humility. You’ve got to when your private life makes front-page news. Elkann’s flirted with self- destruction in the past—the drug addiction, the predilection for escorts, the general sense of a life spinning out of control—and in Italy, the paparazzi have followed each new development hungrily.
“It all happened. I recognize that, I take responsibility for it. People have seen a human being struggling, not some superhero,” he says. “And I think they appreciated that. I recognize I shouldn’t have done certain things. That’s an addictive nature for you. I’ve been attracted to darkness, to dark places. Now that I’ve left those dark places, there’s light in my life. And now that this part of my personality is under control, I find out there are people, regular people, strangers, who greet me on the street. Warmly. People I feel only love and respect for, people who have noticed I’m an outsider, not an insider.”
"I’ve been attracted to darkness, to dark places. Now that I’ve left those dark places, there’s light."
He’s almost childlike in his surprise, and gratitude, that there are those out there who still care about him. He’s trying to return that goodwill with LAPS, a foundation he started in 2016. “I opened LAPS to help with problems I have felt deeply in my life,” he says. “ADHD, dyslexia, sexual and emotional abuse. Look, I’ve had substance-abuse problems, I’m dyslexic, I was molested as a child. These issues are very close to my heart, and I want to help. Donating money, yes, but also donating my time. I know I’m a good person. Some people think if you’re good, you’re an idiot. But I can’t become a mean person. I don’t want to.”
His grandfather wasn’t mean, either, but he was an incredibly complex man. “With the greatest respect for my beloved grandfather, I’m Lapo. As a kid, he was my hero. Am I similar to him? Yes and no.” One obvious difference between the two: the relentless media scrutiny. Agnelli partied hard for decades—doing drugs, crashing cars—yet was mostly undisturbed by the press. Elkann hasn’t been so lucky. Even here at Garage Italia, the scene of his next act, he is reconciling with his past.
“Look, I’ve got nothing to hide. People have written nice things about me; other people haven’t been so nice,” he says. “Those are the rules of the game. You need to be able to take the good and bad.” It’s an open question as to how the world will take to the new-and-improved identity Elkann has sculpted for himself. And he’s too smart to get cocky. “It’s like Enzo Ferrari used to say: Italians will forgive you everything, except success.”
GARAGE ITALIA CUSTOMS food space
Everything that Italians love: engines, design and food
Garage Italia Custom isn’t just a bar, neither a restaurant headed by a Michelin starred Chef, but it’s a creative and cultural hub of 1700 square meters, full with new and emerging projects. An experiential place to live, enjoy and admire the great Italian excellences: engines, design and food.
It is located in piazzale Accursio, in a symbolic place of the city’s post-war renaissance: the Agip service station wanted by Enrico Mattei, founder of the IEN and among the fathers of the Italian economic miracle, conceived by the great architect Mario Bacciocchi in 1952 . The building, realized according to the American streamline style, is characterized by an aerodynamic shape emphasized by the large two-level shelter, placed at the confluence between two roads that lead to the Highway of the Lakes, the first highway in the world.
In the restoration project, the building, which has been left in a state of abandonment for more than twenty years, the prestigious Italian designer and architect Michele De Lucchi has been involved (among other things, Compasso d’Oro as the “dad” of the Tolomeo lamp Artemide) along with star-chef Carlo Cracco, who penned the menu. Lapo Elkann has interpreted in his own, contemporary way the concept coined by his great-grandfather, Gianni Agnelli, founder of the well known Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino: Fiat Terra Mare Cielo. In here the excellence of movement in all the three elements is shown.