Handcrafted Excellence: Ascari Bicycles
Few people have lived a life as interesting and varied as Helio Ascari. Hailing from South Brazil, he was blessed with photogenic genes and spent most of his young adult years as a well-paid international model working with some of the foremost magazines and photographers. But a few years ago, he experienced a personal, existential seismic shift and realized he didn’t want anything further to do with the lights and cameras of the fashion world. Instead he wanted to return to the passion of his childhood; meticulously crafting objects of long-lasting value with his bare hands. He attended the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon, and went on to form Ascari Bicycles. Together with his design/business partner Gary Mathis, they build some of the most beautiful, vintage-inspired bicycles you’ll ever feast your eyes upon. Even the king of American Sportswear, Mr. Ralph Lauren commissioned him to make one of his outstanding creations for his heritage-inspired RRL line. He currently splits time between Williamsburg, Brooklyn and his main bicycle workshop in Portland, Oregon. Welcome to the enchanted life of Helio Ascari …
After being a well-paid fashion model for so long, when did you realize you were sick of the industry and needed to pursue something different with your life?
I grew up working in steel and wood factories in the south of Brazil. The process of design and development of a product, and seeing the final product was such a delightful experience to me. When I was working as a model, I had the opportunity to not only see the world but also to improve my sense of values, which was fundamental for the creation of my own company. Yes, I was a well-paid fashion model but my mind and heart were always in those factories from my childhood. I always had a fascination for the process of transforming materials into objects. I find true happiness when I have my lathe and torch near me.
How did building bicycles become the career you decided to pour all your passion into?
I have always had a passion for combining elements into objects. I started restoring bicycles at the age of 8, and since then, it instantly became a passion that never left my heart. It was only a matter of time and money for me before I made this a career.
You’ve stated that making your handcrafted bicycles is your way of creating products that have lasting and staying power – can you elaborate on that?
Yes, I think that we surround ourselves nowadays with so many disposable products, things that leave no memories. I always mention that our bikes can last 200 years or more, because I wanted to create something that can be passed from generation to generation – classic in design and using only the finest materials available.
What differentiates an Ascari-handcrafted bicycle from anything else on the market?
I think that what makes an Ascari different is passion; the amount of passion we put in each one of our bikes is intangible. We constantly hear people saying that what we are making over here is art. So I can say that the passion followed by art and design is what makes an Ascari unique. Of course, it is also a combination of the many unique elements we use in the bike.
When it comes to the division of labor, how does it go between you and your partner Gary Mathis when it comes to building a custom bicycle for a client?
Gary is a well-known frame builder, and he’s been working in this industry forever. He is my mentor on the construction process. When we met, we had an instant connection – we have so much in common. There is a mutual collaboration going on, and we build my designs together.
Also how do you make it work being bi-coastal, having a garage in Portland but maintaining a presence in NYC?
I make it work by constantly traveling back and forth. NYC has been an unbelievable experience in my life; it brings me so much inspiration and opportunities. I say that NYC is the only place in the world that you can be whoever you want, including yourself. On the other hand, having Ascari workshop in Portland has given us recognition and respect amongst frame builders. Handmade bicycles are huge in Oregon.
Bicycles are getting faster and lighter with use of carbon graphite frames and other technologies – how do you feel about these advancements?
I think that it is awesome to see new technologies coming alive. We can not run against the advancements of technology, and every improvement allows us to create new designs and enhance our performance in so many ways. But we have to ask ourselves: “Why go faster and lighter?” It all depends on what exactly you are looking for. I particularly like looking back to move forward, meaning I like how things were done in the past. I like to rescue the preciousness from the past, and keep the classics alive.
What was the biggest lesson you learned at UBI with regards to building bicycles that you hold sacred to this day?
Oh man, I learned so many cool things, but UBI helped me to rescue something that was asleep inside of me for years. And of course, that’s where I met my business partner Gary Mathis.
Can you briefly explain the pride and accomplishment you felt when you got to make an Ascari bicycle for Ralph Lauren?
Mr. Lauren has inspired so many designers around the world and I was one of them. For me, it was a dream come true. It was a blessing to have this iconic personality endorsing my creation.
Why do you think bicycle culture is experiencing such huge popularity right now?
First of all, it is a Planet’s need. I think that people are realizing more and more that we need to create a more sustainable environment. Secondly there is a whole fashion movement around bikes right now – it has become very fashionable to have your brand linked to bikes. Actually there is no better way to expose your style than commuting in a bicycle.
Let’s talk about your fashion aesthetic. You have a very well-tuned vintage style – 1930’s hats etc – how did you gravitate to this look?
Undeniably my vintage style comes from lessons I learned from my father. He taught me good taste with personality. But part of it also comes from my old soul – I’ve loved old stuff since I was a little boy. When I saw RRL’s windows for the first time, I felt an unbelievable connection to my roots.
There is harmony and rhythm between my work and my look.
Lastly switching speeds, being that you are from Brazil and an innate soccer fan – who are going to be the last two teams standing in the upcoming 2014 world cup?
Oh man, I would love to see Brazil against Italy.