This story was originally published by NYC Motorcyclist.
Via Meccanica’s new Brooklyn-based digs are a cozy space … kettle on the boil, NPR tunes in the air, comfy couch and a quartet of motos in a backroom which houses a collection of leathers, threads and an industrial sewing machine. Creativity and inspiration abounds …
You may have seen Corinna Mantlo’s handiwork on a number of classic restorations, seats that give a nod to vintage styling with piping and creative stitching, but with added details … a slightly more curved line than stock, or increased support for a smoother ride.
Revival Cycles’ Rickman Velocette – on display at last year’s Brooklyn Invitational, the Vinago, a 1982 Virago 1100 custom from Billy Joel’s collection at 20th Century Cycles, and Iacona Custom Cycles IMS Championship Sportster are just a few showpieces recently added to the 36-year-old’s proverbial leather belt.
For Mantlo – known in NYC moto circles for founding the Motorcycle Film Festival, Cine Meccanica and the largest women’s riding club in the US … the Miss-Fires MC/CC – each bike she creates a seat for offers her another way to explore her creativity, a talent she brought with her from years restoring, designing and producing period costumes.
SEATING AN IDEA
Contemplating custom upholstery as a potential career initially came out of a conversation with long-time, close friend, Peter Boggia, owner of Moto Borgotaro, a Brooklyn shop specializing in restoring, servicing and building custom vintage European motorcycles.
“We’ve known each other in New York since we were like 16,” says Mantlo, who at the time was riding ‘any junky bike’ she could get her hands on. “I think about 10 years ago (Peter) said, ‘You know, you should just make a seat for a bike … just try it.'”
But as with everything in life, the timing has to be right … Mantlo at that point had dreams of becoming mechanic, and then moved on to producing and directing documentaries for several years when she realized car and bike repair was not her calling. Fast forward four years …
“I needed a break from making films, and I was on the Vin Moto (group), an email list of a bunch of vintage guys and girls basically getting together for beers, but also just talking,” she said. “I kept seeing it come up … can anyone make seats? Where do you go? The question never got answered. There was just nobody. There’s always upholstery shops that know what they’re doing, but there was nobody (specialized), not like in Los Angeles, where (they) have hot rodder shops you can go to.”
Mantlo created her first seat pro bono for one of the NYC Vin Moto regulars, and was instantly hooked, braving broken needles and other hurdles inherent in working with leather on her original 1930’s Singer Featherweight sewing machine, even after adding a walking foot.
“Last year, finally, like five years in, I (bought) something expensive, (industrial) and slightly modern, with a long neck, just to be able to do car upholstery better.”
The shop sees a steady stream of both bike and car upholstery requests, restorations and custom jobs for everything from choppers and art bike projects to bike museum pieces.
“Everyone keeps me really busy, and it was definitely one of those things where … I can’t say I should have done it 10 years earlier, but the minute I started doing it, it was just like it was perfect. I’m a shitty mechanic, so really like this is … it’s a perfect fit. I have something I’m really good at, and I like being able to do that last little piece that the mechanics or the restoration guys can’t do.”
I kept seeing it come up … can anyone make seats? Where do you go? The question never got answered. There was just nobody. There’s always upholstery shops that know what they’re doing, but there was nobody (specialized), not like in Los Angeles where (they) have hot rodder shops you can go.
— Corinna Mantlo, Via Meccanica
CUSTOMIZING THE CREATIVE PROCESS
For Mantlo a major part of her draw to upholstery, coming from the fashion world, has been the variety of work, with each piece seemingly being created off a custom, unique form.
“Every job is different, completely. I do like the chopper stuff and the super art bike stuff. Honestly, there’s a couple girls and guys out there who … I’m blown away by their work … that’s more their thing. I’m really good at the historical recreation stuff. I like doing it, so I think even when it’s simple, I always try to find something in the new design that’ll kind of harken back to that (original design), but make it a little slicker.”
Mantlo points to her own personal rides in the shop – a 2006 Triumph Thruxton, a ’71 Yamaha 125 (waiting for a new engine), and a ’68 BSA 650 Lightning hybrid of sorts – as examples of how her work can improve on an existing design both aesthetically and functionally … even make it look a bit ‘cooler.’
“If it is just that stock look, (like) that Yamaha right there … that’s a classic dirt bike seat. But why can’t it be an inch lower – ’cause it looks like a loaf of bread, just to clean it up a little bit.”
“I like when you’ve got two bikes stock next to each other and one has my seat and one has the original. You kind of can’t tell until you get real close, and then it’s just obvious; A little thinner, little sexier, cleaner lines, and then there’s all the stuff you might not see. You know, like this one’s getting gel in there, which is why I took it all apart.”
One recent job Mantlo is particularly proud of was for Billy Joel’s 20th Century Cycles.
“Kind of finding a way to geek out on that historic reference side is really fun. I got this brand new modern Harley that they’re trying to make look like a ’63 Panhead, with those crazy solo seats and the wraparound backs. You have to get this massive boat seat to look like that, so that’s been pretty challenging work, and I’ve just been really happy with the results of it. Shaved like a pound of foam off the seat, did it in white and blue sparkly diner vinyl, which was classic Harley look in the early ‘60s, and it just looks awesome.”
“For me it’s how to find that in between of is there a way to not make these bikes something they’re not … finding that right fit, even for the custom builds, for bikes that are gonna travel the world doing shows. Does the seat need to be super fancy? Is there a way to let the builders work really shine? Do something simple that complements it, whether you’re going for historical restoration or just cool modern. Just like that right fit so that it’s not my seat glaring out of their bike. It kind of all fits together.”
For me it’s how to find that in between of is there a way to not make these bikes something they’re not … finding that right fit, even for the custom builds, for bikes that are gonna travel the world doing shows. Does the seat need to be super fancy? Is there a way to let the builders work really shine? Do something simple that complements it, whether you’re going for historical restoration or just cool modern.
— Corinna Mantlo, Via Meccanica
THE COMMUNITY EQUATION
Mantlo credits her upbringing and the moto community for influencing her views and social calling in the city.
The daughter of a socially active legal defense lawyer and a teacher, who both changed careers after successes as a Marvel comics writer and photographer respectively, Mantlo was exposed to a New York which is quickly disappearing, spending time in the city and country (on a self-sustained farm) and surrounded by kids from a wide range of ethnicities and income levels through her informative years.
Even now Mantlo’s 71-year-old retired mother works with the ACLU helping people to know their rights and effectively protest injustices.
“For me, all of that was definitely why I got into making documentary films. All of our films that we made, as a group of kids from New York, were about the things that were being lost and trying to tell the story, and hopefully spinning it in not a ‘what have we lost way’, but in a how could we have not lost this. Is there a way to do gentrification? Is there a way for the city to continually change, but not have this just blanket loss?”
Bringing it back to Via Meccanica, that is as simple as Mantlo lamenting the loss of local manufacturing and products, such as the leather she uses to make seats.
“This neighborhood, Hasidic Williamsburg, used to be incredible for leather sourcing years ago. They’re all kicked out. There’s one … I do buy from a local leather source often in midtown. It’s three times as expensive, and it’s not fantastic, but it’s good for if a seat comes across your desk and you need to get ox blood … or you need to send somebody local or far away samples. How do you do that with a mail order company?”
Mantlo does work with one America-based company – Horween – on a regular basis, but their homebase is Chicago, IL.
“I mean, you’d probably get a kind of similar answer from any of the craftsmen you’re gonna talk to, like, where’s the local machine shop anymore? Where is the transmission guy, or where do you get a tank boiled out? In New York, obviously it’s cost. LA, it’s cost, but then you go to small towns, and the shops are gone too. So I think a lot of us are sending stuff all over the country, which sucks, but it also creates, especially on social media, creates this really interesting new motorcycle community, which is cool.”
I mean, you’d probably get a kind of similar answer from any of the craftsmen you’re gonna talk to, like, where’s the local machine shop anymore? Where is the transmission guy, or where do you get a tank boiled out? In New York, obviously it’s cost. LA, it’s cost, but then you go to small towns, and the shops are gone too. So I think a lot of us are sending stuff all over the country, which sucks, but it also creates, especially on social media, creates this really interesting new motorcycle community, which is cool.
— Corinna Mantlo, Via Meccanica
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
Community in a sense also birthed several projects dear to Mantlo’s heart … the weekly Cine Meccanica for moto film buffs, and its eventual progeny Brooklyn’s Motorcycle Film Festival, and the ever growing Miss-Fire MC/CC women’s motorcycle club.
The former grew out of a need to bring the NY moto community together, especially in the off season winter months when bikes are placed in storage. The latter sprung from Mantlo’s experience in both classic car and motorcycle clubs, where women members were never truly given equal standing.
“Sometimes it takes the self-deprecating dingbat to be the one to put that stuff together ‘cause if it’s too cool for school, nobody shows up, or feels like they can. So instead, you get girls who are 21 who drop their bikes too often, or super nerd guys who are the sweetest, but would never walk into a tough guy motorcycle shop on like ‘cool kid’ night. Then the cool kids come too, and then everybody realizes nobody’s cool, and it works itself out. Getting to be the girl in the center on a bike that barely ever fucking runs, I don’t know, it kind of, it seems to work to get everyone to not take themselves so seriously.”
Cine Meccanica is likely reinventing itself this season into a series of special events, with the same moto film being screened in multiple cities on the same day each month.
“I do miss Wednesday nights … you roll into town, you have a place where you can come and meet 10 people, and immediately friendships start or rides get planned or you meet someone interesting and people get jobs and get together and whatever. It’s kind of cool to have it be simple and small and regular. Even I miss that a lot, so I’m trying to figure out how to phase that back in.”
Mantlo is also looking for new venues to host NYC-specific events including a series geared toward saving the traditional drive in movie theater, a locale which ironically has in the past had rules on the books banning large groups of riders from attending films.
“You can still get turned away, so it’s like a cool idea of literally using bikers to save, to help promote and save drive-in culture, which is being decimated,” she said.
The highly successful MFF is also going through ‘interesting times’ with internal politics seeing Mantlo being forced out of one of her biggest successes (expect a specific story on that situation soon).
Then there’s the Miss-Fires, a name which Mantlo says was specifically chosen so the club’s membership would never take itself too seriously.
Sometimes it takes the self-deprecating dingbat to be the one to put that stuff together ‘cause if it’s too cool for school, nobody shows up, or feels like they can. So instead, you get girls who are 21 who drop their bikes too often, or super nerd guys who are the sweetest, but would never walk into a tough guy motorcycle shop on like ‘cool kid’ night. Then the cool kids come too, and then everybody realizes nobody’s cool, and it works itself out. Getting to be the girl in the center on a bike that barely ever fucking runs, I don’t know, it kind of, it seems to work to get everyone to not take themselves so seriously.
— Corinna Mantlo, Via Meccanica
“There isn’t any club culture, the way that LA has, in New York. There never was. There’s Hell’s Angels and they’re awesome. I know a lot of them, and grew up with that, and I also grew up around classic car clubs. In fairness, I’m a shitty mechanic, but also I’m a girl, so I was never going to be allowed to be part of that even though when I dated some of them over the years I became and still am family.”
“There was never room for me in either of those groups, and I hadn’t really thought about it until Miss-Fires actually got started, how much it meant to me.”
The Miss-Fires club origins were as simple as a small group of women riders getting together for dinner one night.
“Just the girls this one time … I think there were like 12 (of us), and literally, like we always say it, everyone says it, ‘before we got home from dinner, we knew it was a club’. It got its name not long after, which again is kind of an homage to the classic car clubs. A lot of the other women’s clubs, nothing wrong with it, are like very sexy, cute, beautiful names. We’re the fucking Miss-Fires. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing, you know? It’s like Gasket Goons and Knuckleheads and all the car clubs that I grew up with … the fun of it is you’re always going to break down. Something is always gonna happen, and you’re never as cool as you look. Let’s get the ego and the selfies and the self-importance kind of out of the club and remember subtly but consistently why we’re in this.”
The club is now 140 strong, dealing with all the admin issues every club deals with but from a standpoint where no one person consistently leads.
“I think it’s worked, and most people don’t even realize that that’s going on. It just kind of became the underlying vibe of the club to the public and within.”
AND IN THE END … THE LOVE YOU TAKE IT EQUAL TO THE LOVE YOU MAKE
Despite the changes in her often crazy life, with traveling, racing, and of course organizing events, Mantlo is in a good place, doing what she can to keep artisanship alive and the NYC moto community vibrant and relevant.
“I don’t take days off, I don’t take vacations, but if I can work it into an angle like I’m working. Working is this terrible job of writing and drinking and hanging out and meeting new people, like that’s the best job ever. And, in a completely natural, self serving way, doing all the community organizing is a ‘thanks’ … It’s what the community gave me when I needed it most, and I kind of don’t want that piece to never be there, for other girls and guys (in the future).”
Source: NYC Motorcyclist