Search “Milly de Mori” online and the top hit is her current role as CEO and founder of No Gods No Masters, a Milan-based women’s sportswear start-up. But scroll down a little further and you learn that this stylish 50-something cyclist was once a top-flight DJ and has a rather striking backstory. We headed to central Milan to find out how her former lifestyle has shaped her take on the sartorial demands of cycling and how she plans on confronting the sport’s archaic model.
A young child sits in her bedroom in central Milan. It’s the height of the 1970s and she’s fixated on her cassette player, finger flitting from rewind to play and back again. On the tape is disco, with snippets of the vocals played over and over again. The words are furiously scribbled down, a song learnt and a language being understood – the need to know something from the inside out being satiated.
If it wasn’t music I was engrossed in, it was art. – Milly de Mori
These are formative moments for young Milly, growing up in the then grimy, industrial city of Milan. “If it wasn’t music I was engrossed in, it was art. I’d wake up before the rest of the house every Sunday and tuck myself into a corner with a series of books on contemporary artists. I had to feed my passion to know more about what interested me. I guess you could say this was the start of my love for popular culture,” explains Milly at her large dining table.
Stifled by the industrial city of Milan with its inflexible bourgeois fabric of society, Milly hit her early 20s and set off for the bright, multicultural lights of New York, ready to embrace the city’s creative buzz despite it being in the dying throes of a recession. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the young Italian to make friends with the right people and start moving in the right circles. She worked in an ad agency, learning more about brand building and consumer behaviour than almost anyone else back then. The internet was in its infancy and she adapted, moving online fast. New York clearly suited her – parties, work, exhibitions, you name it. If there’s one thing you pick up while talking to her it’s that her barometer for trends is still fully functional and highly attuned, even today.
Music was always in the background. Milly was introduced to music in her new life that fused with her past love for disco. Her friends were into fashion and art. They organised shows. DJing was a natural progression for her as the ’90s thudded to an end. The self-taught Milly built up a name and appeared behind the decks of some of the world’s biggest clubs. She moved from her adopted home of New York to Los Angeles and ended up spinning discs in Miami, Ibiza, and across Europe. She was doing well and requests were flying in. The move into music production and eventually founding a record label happening just as organically.
That’s the thing with Milly: she’s like a magnet, exuding warmth and curiosity and drawing it in around her. Intense, creative and very, very cool, her Milanese apartment is Instagrammable from floor to ceiling. Clearly, it also makes a great home office. Over a strong Italian coffee, Milly, now in her 50s, takes us back to the roots of No Gods No Masters, which launched almost four years ago with a fresh attitude and no qualms when it comes to disrupting the norms.
It’s a long story but bikes have always featured, almost like the bassline to Milly’s life. Ever since she was a child on holiday in Tuscany, bikes represented freedom. Later, in New York, she’d ride from her home in the West Village all over the city, loading her basket with groceries and locking her bike up outside music studios. Los Angeles was trickier to navigate, a bigger city with fewer bike lanes. Her life as a DJ was hectic. She took a lot of flights, meaning the few opportunities to ride kept her grounded.
In the early 2000s, she moved back to Milan, where a furious schedule of DJ sets and studio hours set the rhythm as she split her time between Europe and the USA. There were more flights (and she was thankful for being an early adopter of going digital over vinyl) but more time at home too. She loved what she saw back in Milan, witnessing her hometown evolve from an industrial capital into an international hub with a flourishing creative scene. Now as a late 30-something, Milly was running an independent record label and hosting a weekly tech house and minimal techno radio show. She was nominated for Best Italian Female DJ but the late nights and lifestyle were beginning to wear her down. Her girlfriend suggested riding down the Navigli, Milan’s canal network, on road bikes.
If something hooks me, I need to know it from the inside out. – Milly de Mori
As with every one of Milly’s undertakings, it was decided that if they were going to do this cycling thing, they’d do it properly: training, nutrition, equipment and everything else. Much like with the cassettes, books, internet and music scene beforehand, Milly’s need-to-know-more mindset came out in force. “It’s such a central part of my character,” she exclaims emphatically. “If something hooks me, I need to know it from the inside out so I dig deeper to get to the bottom, answering the questions and thirst for passion that I have, getting to the point where I gain autonomous independence in whatever it is I’m focused on.”
Milly set about going to every single bike shop in Milan, displaying a tenacity that few would have the patience for. “I asked millions of questions,” she laughs, “How to do it, why things hurt, what could be done if you punctured and how far we could push ourselves.” They ended up at Malpensa airport on a ride, turned around, and realised that they needed more comfort. The current saddles and shorts on the market didn’t cut it. These were the next things on Milly’s list.
“As my riding progressed, I was experiencing discomfort and I needed to know why. People told me it was my saddle, so I proceeded to literally throw money out of the window trying all the different ones on the market. I approached a well-known Italian saddle maker about their saddle, asking how the female-specific one was different and was shocked by their reply. ‘The stitching is pink.’ It took another year until we worked out the issue during a bike fit in LA with Specialized, who explained that the female pelvic girdle is wider than a man’s so you can’t simply repurpose a saddle created for the male anatomy,” Milly explains, looking cross. This could easily be cited as the moment of genesis for NGNM – the wake-up call of discovery of the inherent discrimination towards and lack of catering for women riders. Milly knew there had to be a better way. And a dedicated women’s brand could be the answer.
A far cry from mega clubs or catwalks, the idea for No Gods No Masters began to take shape. Milly’s energy was redirected and the immediate access to Italian manufacturing was a huge bonus for the brand’s design process. “Fashion and fabrics have always been part of my life. My mum ran a small knitwear label and instilled the importance of a fabric’s tactile nature in me and how products are constructed.” As her hands trace a pair of NGNM shorts, she points out key features, meticulously considered details that demonstrate a deep knowledge and rich passion for what she does. “The first thing that she would do is turn a product inside-out,” Milly explains, instinctively doing exactly the same to the NGNM samples in front of us. “I’d probably say the most exciting moment is when I get a box of prototypes. I open them straight away, but the most important thing is to try everything on a ride, which is what I do. I think that some people are born with an ability to be more sensitive to comfort and how clothes feel on your body, and I’d class myself in that group.” Milly continues with a laugh. “Obviously, while it can be a pain, there are some benefits to that sensitivity.”
“I love doing research in everything from product design to art and fashion,” she adds. Her curated apartment exudes her distinctive sense of style, which is so clearly reflected in NGNM: clean lines with bold patterns. “I don’t consider myself a designer; I’m much more of an art director, who loves fabrics and cycling, working to develop sports apparel for women that doesn’t cut corners.” For Milly, who rides upwards of 8,000 kilometres per year, both for R&D and her own satisfaction, there’s clearly no room for compromise on the topics of comfort and style.
“I didn’t create a brand to sell clothes. I created a clothing brand that sells a mindset. NGNM is the pursuit of emancipation through cycling. Together, it’s about giving women, or rather showing them how cycling can unlock certain skills, independence and confidence that they can apply to their life beyond cycling.” The solemnity of her conviction reflects her passion for this subject. “I’ve always been independent and believed in equality of rights, skills and capabilities. Emancipation starts from within. When I started riding, I realised that I’d fallen into a common role when it comes to sport – one where you rely on men to come and save you. It didn’t help that I was at the back a lot at first but it really spurred me on to find the self-sufficiency that I knew was well within reach. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cool it would be to see more groups of women out on the roads. As part of that bigger purpose, NGNM focuses on relaying everything that any woman needs to know in order to be fully self-reliant. From mechanics to recovery, training to activation, NGNM is bigger than any single piece of clothing,” Milly continues.
With attitudes gradually starting to change within the world of cycling, Milly and NGNM have clearly struck a chord across the globe. They’ve even piqued the interest of the global platform Zwift, who have partnered with NGNM to celebrate Women’s History Month during March. A big opportunity for exposure, it’s a strong sign that NGNM’s message is resonating.
NGNM is not only women-led, but built by women too. – Milly de Mori
This ethos of emancipation and independence is present within NGNM’s company culture too. “We live it first-hand,” Milly explains, stressing the importance of cohesion between what they say and what they do as a brand. “NGNM is not only women-led, but built by women too. Transparency in how we communicate is vital,” she gestures at the mantra on her sweatshirt. “Inside the community we’re building, we want to reinforce the values of courage and respect, of looking up to and looking after one another. My personal aim is to minimise or even eradicate competition between us women, both on and off the bike. I want to send a message that there’s a healthy way to be competitive, seeking progress rather than victory. Most of us are not pro athletes and I feel strongly that it’s healthier to shift the competitive drive to be internal, because the challenge, if any, is within ourselves.”
She can identify the toxic mindset of competitiveness across all aspects of her life: from corporate companies she’s worked at to potentially awesome music collaborations that never took off. They were decisions that, at times, struck Milly as petty. It was partly this that saw Milly call time on her career in the music industry. Competition amongst DJs was getting ever fiercer. Gigs were getting harder to come by as new DJs began lowering their fees. A culmination of factors led Milly to slowly move away from her life as a DJ, producer and record label owner, although it’s only been in the past few years that she stopped DJing at fashion shows. “All of a sudden, everything linked to my work with music seemed repetitive and trite and I couldn’t find ways to re-energise my interest anymore. There were no new frontiers to reach. I longed much more for getting up early on Sunday to ride, rather than staying up late working. But with one door closing, another opened, seeing me move into art direction and eventually on to NGNM,” Milly concludes, looking out the window wistfully over the wide Milanese boulevard buzzing below, probably dreaming of where to ride her bike next.
We wrap up our hour-long interview, having already been there three times as long, buzzing with excitement about the future of NGNM. We are left with the picture of young Milly, craning her neck at her first catwalk at the age of thirteen, engrossed and inspired. She admits to getting the same sensation of goosebumps whenever she sees anyone dressed in the distinctive designs of NGNM.
Whatever happens, our principles will always be at the core. – Milly de Mori
With the latest Zwift collaboration, NGNM are only going to get more desirable and we end with talk of how the still fairly fringe brand will become more mainstream in the future. It won’t always be the B-side of cycling, we comment. Other than inspiring a new generation of women, maybe it’ll start sponsoring a women’s World Tour team to gain a bigger platform. “Whatever happens, our principles will always be at the core. What sets NGNM apart is its bigger purpose – and we’ll keep driving that message home in the future,” Milly closes. From our standpoint, we’re excited about the fresh mindset and eyes that Milly and her past life in popular culture is bringing to cycling, and here’s to it continuing.
NGNM, what is it?
No Gods No Masters is a technical women’s lifestyle brand from Milan, designed by women, for women. Throughout history, empowerment and emancipation are terms that have often been thrown around, but both of these concepts are central to the roadmap of NGNM, which is committed to progress on and off the bike.
NGNM, where to find it?
Check nogodsnomasters.life to discover more about the brand and scope out its sophisticated products. You can join one of the weekly “Women’s Crush Wed” Zwift rides and take part in Zwift’s Women’s History Month programme, led by NGNM.
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Words & Photos: Emmie Collinge & Phile Gale