With her long black wavy hair, and her fifties workwear style, Corinna Mantlo of Via Meccanica and head of the all women's Motorcycle Club, The Missfires; looks every bit the champion motorcycle maven. A true Jane-of-all-trades, there's much more than meets the eye, though. From custom motorcycle seats to movie festivals and costumes at the Met, her New York story is an invigorating one. Read on, and ride on!..
Nativen: First off, I'd love to know a little bit about where you grew up.
Corinna: I grew up in the East Village and Upper West Side in New York. My mom is on 93rd between West End and Riverside. She's been there 30 years now.
Nativen: You're a woman of many trades. Can you talk a little about the variety of things that you do?
Corinna: I've always been into cars and bikes, but I come from fashion, specifically, costumes and costume history. I guess I’ve always been interested in figuring out how to fix things. Like, when my sweaters were falling apart, I learned how to knit.
I think my love of cars and bikes kind of falls into that also, it started from having to fix them and reupholster them and now I've been doing the Motorcycle Movie Night Cine Mechanic for 6 years! That's every week playing vintage motorcycle movies in a bar and the music that goes along with it. We also have the Misfires Motorcycle and Car Club. It's 155 girls in 7 cities. And then there’s also the Motorcycle Film Festival.
Nativen: Can you talk a little about the Misfires?
Corinna: We just hit our 2nd anniversary. We never really started with a plan, it just kind of happened, the only connection is that we like motorcycles. Just because of the affiliation with a club in New York, girls have come from Germany and Paris. Everybody does something else. They're artists, they're lawyers, they do a million things, but we all come together about that one thing, motorcycles. I think, for me, it’s about community and family. If you give to it, it will give you back tenfold.
Nativen: Do you think growing up in New York in any way inspired your interest in motorcycles?
Corinna: I have a bunch of friends who are also from New York and into motorcycles—3 of us. It's just a vintage. We didn't have to drive or ride growing up here, so it was definitely a conscious choice. I mean, we all went to public school in the city. We took the Subway. One of my best friends (who grew up here) got into motorcycling and cars the same time I did. He is now the top mechanic in Brooklyn. It was all because we watched way too much Brando and dressed out of the 50s. That was literally it.
Nativen: What do you love most about living in Brooklyn or New York and how do you think that's affected your work?
Corinna: I don't love Brooklyn. I'm for Manhattan. Brooklyn is not New York. I lost my rent-controlled apartment and that's why I'm here. That being said, my apartment is awesome and my studio is awesome and this is the first time when I've felt like this is what living in New York used to be and should be.
Nativen: Do you think being in New York has affected the work that you are doing now?
Corinna: No, it's just where I grew up. My mom moved here at 19 with an infant from Ohio, went to free college at Cooper Union, met my dad there and they were able to raise kids, be political activists, be artists, go back to school to become legal aid lawyers and public school teachers. They’re still in New York. That's a dream that I think has been lost in America, but in New York specifically. It led me to fight for my neighborhood and advocate for tenant's rights.
The main thing that I hate about New York is gentrification and the whitewashing of a city. There’s nothing like sorting out loopholes in New York City housing policy to make you really involved in community.
Nativen: What form does your community involvement take, for example your work for tenants rights?
Corinna: I worked on a documentary that was never finished about East Village evictions and did one on South Street Seaport being moved to Hunts Point. But when I came to Brooklyn and got into motorcycles, I immediately found myself fighting for the motorcycle community and happily settled in there. Now I organize a ton of stuff. I help get permits for events, fight for biker rights in the city, organize Misfire stuff…all of that kind of came out of community activism. But I will always be involved with fighting for and documenting whatever the hell I'm particularly interested in. That's pretty much a lawyer and teacher's daughter.
Nativen: A couple rapid-fire questions about New York in general: do you have a favorite restaurant in the city?
Corinna: Not anymore. My mom's macrobiotic and I grew up macrobiotic, so I guess my favorite is just good feeling home food. I'm going to dinner at my mom's tonight, actually.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite home goods or clothing store that you frequent?
Corinna: Same thing—all the vintage is gone! I used to manage and work at almost every vintage store in the city, literally the list: Family Jewels, Alexander Ground, Cheap Jacks…. I was just thinking to myself the other day, what the hell is left, 7th Street Style?
Actually What Goes Around Comes Around is still amazing for looking. And RRL and No Relation on 1st Avenue between 12th and 13th. Also Metropolis and Search And Destroy. I'm always amazed that their prices never change.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite park or outdoor space?
Corinna: Thompson [Tompkins?] Square. It’s still so cute. There's still a rat usually running around and there's still the heroine corner and the chess corner. Everything kind of stayed the same.
When I moved to Brooklyn, my mom came and visited. We were walking to get lunch and walked through McGolrick Park and she was like, "This looks like Thompson [Tompkins?] Square, this is all right." It was like her first kind of grumbly okay with the neighborhood.
Nativen: What part of what you do brings you the greatest joy?
Corinna: As pertains to fashion…when I was in art school, I didn't care about what people thought. I'm a LaGuardia High School dropout and a fashion/art school dropout, but I kind of realized early on that it was the process of any of it that was important to me, so I never really cared about the degree. It was going through the detail of actually making of the object that I really liked.
When it comes to motorcycles, I think there's something about being the sort of goofy, unintimidating girl in the center who can bring together real old school bikers in kind of a way they haven't seen anyone else do before. It's so inoffensive. It's not Harley, it's not Honda, it's not any specific style. You can kind of like say, "No, we're just here to watch films," and then you look across the room and realize that there's a Bonneville salt speed record champion and the winner of the Isle of Man sitting next 2 girls who've been riding for 6 months. That's pretty fucking cool.
Nativen: What part do you think is the greatest struggle for you?
Corinna: I don't think it's anything different for anyone else: I hate everything I make. I mean every seam. Everything. I don't think there's any way to do anything, any piece of art of craft where you don't look at it and see some tiny detail that makes you want to throw it in the trash and start over. It doesn't happen that much anymore, but on every single seat I can think of, there’s one stitch that's not quite right. That bugs the crap out of me.
Nativen: That's the game of the brain, right? Once you have this perfect unachievable vision in your brain, how do you manifest it?
Corinna: With fashion too, it’s always the same for me. The details of all of it, whether it's actually the construction or the design of it, it can be infuriating.
Nativen: Is there one thing that you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?
Corinna: Related to motorcycles specifically…I just want to spend more time on a bike. Travel a bit more. I've always had vintage bikes. It's inspiring to be around the girls in the Misfires now because so many of them have been riding a decade less than me and they have put so many more miles on bikes. They’ve ridden in other countries, gone cross-country a bunch of times, just stuff that I've never had the time or money to do or just never did because I was doing other stuff.
Nativen: If you weren't designing seats and busy being an active part of this whole motorcycle culture, what do you think you'd be doing?
Corinna: I worked at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, so that's kind of where I always saw myself, a costume historian teaching classes and working in a collection. Very behind the scenes, very quiet. I think I could've been a cop or teacher.
Nativen: If you could travel anywhere right now and drop everything you're doing and go somewhere, where would you go?
Corinna: Actually, the United States. It's one place I haven't seen that much of. Since we were from New York and didn't really have family anywhere else, we just never traveled in the country, always abroad, to Paris, Greece, that sort of ting. If I could do anything right now it would be, take a good amount of time and actually see the American West.
Nativen: Is there any music you have on rotation at the moment?
Corinna: It's always old country and American, all the folk music. It’s my obsession. The only records I collect anymore are all the motorcycle movie soundtracks— they always come with me no matter where I go.
Nativen: What are 3 words that sum up your work?
Corinna: Vintage, for sure. And I think just kind of for lack of a better word “work-wear.” Just simple. Yeah, simple. A lot of people say that to me about the seats—simple’s just kind of my style.
Nativen: Can you elaborate a little bit on what like what the community aspect of your work means to you?
Corinna: I really needed a community 5 years when I lost my apartment and a couple people passed away. I sold my bike and a friend bought me a tiny little stupid dirt bike. I'd had real bikes before, and because it was Japanese and not British, they connected me with NYC Vinmoto, which is a vintage group but most of the guys are Japanese bikers. Within 2 minutes of being on the email list, I knew that I could go to bar matches on Monday and watch the races. They had events every weekend and threw this block party. It was just immediate. It was so easy to say I'll come help sell t-shirts at the block party or I’ll volunteer for this. Literally, there have been days they just adopted me and they do that to everybody. It was just like wow. They were there for me when I needed them. It's an amazing community and now I also have it tenfold with these women, the Misfires.
Nativen: Do you have maybe like a hero or someone who's helped influence the work that you're doing?
Corinna: I think my dad. He was a comic book writer for Marvel for years and wrote everything for them in the 70s and 80s. Then, he left it all and I remember him telling me when I was 8 or 7 that he was leaving it to become a real life super hero. He became a public defender. Ultimately, he ended up having a car accident and has been in the hospital for the last 25 years. He hasn't been in my life since I was 12, but the way I was raised was with a sense of moral obligation and an interest in art, in fighting for what you believed in. My mom at the exact same time did the same thing. She was an incredible photographer who then went back to school to become a teacher. She worked in Harlem for 25 years as a public school teacher.
Nativen: Do you have any advice for women entrepreneurs or old school bikers or any New Yorker just trying to balance it all?
Corinna: Know your neighbors, know your city! If you're going to be here, actually be here and same for bikers. If you're going to play motorcyclists, actually involve yourself in the community.
Nativen: Last question. What are 3 things you can't live without?
Corinna: Stupid girl stuff like lip gloss! Seriously, I want to say the motorcycle, but if the motorcycle disappears tomorrow, I'll walk somewhere or hop a bus. I think it’s the ability to be able to go wherever I want that matters to me most. At this point I don't need anything anymore, which I think is kind of the amazing thing.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
Edited by: Kristin Knox (This interview has been condensed & edited)
all images copyright of Nativen