“The opening of the umbrella should sound like a car door,” said Michel Heurtault, looking me meaningfully in the eye. I didn’t get the connection immediately, but he slowly pushed the umbrella open, and as it locked open there was a satisfying ‘thunk’ of metal sinking into wood. The resemblance was marked, and very satisfying.
Umbrellas are potentially beautiful accessories. The range of woods that can be used in the shafts is very broad, even today when so few ‘coppiced’ woods are kept for the purpose. The canopies can be made of any cotton, polyester or silk – with the latter having the most potential. And precious materials are often used in the handles and ends, with buffalo horn being the most common but also gold and silver used.
But men rarely get any of this. Men’s umbrellas are nearly always black, with a dark wood or metal shaft, and a fairly non-descript handle. Only a handful of European makers go any further and make single-stick pieces (where the shaft and handle are one piece of wood) or use unusual materials.
We’ve covered most of those makers on Permanent Style before, the most notable being Mario Talarico in Naples and Francesco Maglia in Milan. The UK has James Smith & Sons and Fox, though neither have quite the artisan detail of the Italian makers.
Michel Heurtault, however, takes things to a whole new level. The Paris-based umbrella maker has only been in business for seven years, having come from a background of restoration and film work. But he brings a fine, couture level of work to even everyday umbrellas.
For 20 years, Michel worked with restoring old costumes, outfits and corsets for period dramas – including a stint in 1996 making haute couture for John Galliano at Dior. Then in 2008 he decided to set out on his own, bringing that vintage and couture experience to new creations.
So what does he do that’s different? Well, he doesn’t bend and manipulate his own woods, which is one highlight of work at Talarico or Maglia. These are all bought in. But the work he does with the finishing, canopy and sewing is exceptional.
Each piece of the canopy (always silks, never synthetic) is cut by hand so that the patterns match perfectly – like the shoulders on a shirt. The circle of silk that sits inside the canopy, against the shaft, is cut with serrated scissors into a ring of points – creating a flower-like piece of silk origami.
On the top of the canopy, again where it sits against the shaft, a circle of silk is ruched up against the wood (see image above) creating a lovely transition. “I used to just nail a collar on at that point, but it seemed so abrupt,” Michel says. “It was nice to be able to add that little touch of couture instead.”
In common with other top-end makers, Michel usually uses horn to tip the umbrellas. But he also inserts it in other places, such in the curve of the handle (see image below). This is typical of his luxurious and inventive approach to design – one which also involves precious metals and skins. He recently incorporated a jade handle made by Fabergé for a female client.
“I learnt pretty much everything I knew in the years of collecting and restoring old pieces,” he says. “There used to be such experimentation and creativity in umbrellas and parasols, nearly all of which has been lost today. Women’s parasols in particular were absolute works of art.”
Most of Michel’s work is for women or costume, and it is these elaborate pieces that really show off his abilities – such as in the lace or hand-embroidered canopies, some of which are pictured here.
But his men’s pieces rarely seem effeminate. With a dark silk canopy, the little touches described above become very subtle. And many silks, like the grey-and-silk one pictured on the umbrella I’m holding, come from tiemakers, so are quite formal and geometric in their patterns.
There are many other craft points. The canopies usually have a slight wave to them, curving up as they leave the shaft and then running down towards the edge. Linings to the umbrellasAnd there’s the way the mechanism is lined up with the shaft, creating that car-like clunk we opened with.
Michel (above) is reopening his shop in Paris’s 12th arrondissement – under an archway – in January. It’s a nice space, with the back half a workshop for him and his apprentice Andrea. He points out that handing down his skills is an explicit requirement of the Master of Arts award he holds from the French government – it requires ‘mission et remission’.
Most of Michel’s work is made to order, but there are always a handful of men’s and women’s umbrellas lying around to either buy or be inspired by. Most men’s models are around €490 and take anything from 3 days to 3 weeks to make, depending on the materials. Those involving precious woods are usually between €1000 and €2000.
This is, of course, extremely expensive for an umbrella. But it feels good to know there is a top-end to the spectrum of makers, from Fox through Maglia to Heurtault. And the level of work is a suitable accompaniment for a Camps de Luca suit or an Hermes briefcase.
Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man
Fascinating post, as usual. This may seem like a foolish question, but is silk the best material for repelling water? Does it have to be treated with something?
I notice your shirt cuffs are unbuttoned in the fifth picture. Is this for style reasons?
Silk is actually very good at repelling water, but Michel also treats them to make them entirely waterproof
No, not style reasons, just that the sleeves are a little too short! It’s very annoying
What jacket are you wearing Simon?
Cifonelli double-breasted – same as the post on Wednesday last week, and as in these previous two posts:
Does that mean that your coat sleeves are also too short, as they appear to be the right relative size?
No, the sleeve is fine – it happens to be pushed up relatively far in the picture
Any thoughts on Brigg as an umbrella maker?
Following your article on Smith, I went down there..
Unfortunately, I don’t know if it’s because it’s near to Christmas, but I found the staff very rude. They kept insisting they couldn’t have it done by Christmas, which I kept saying didn’t bother me.. And they were saying they couldn’t put a gold tone collar, couldn’t change things, etc. Even though I kept stressing, I understood and wanted to order a custom one. Irritating.
Brigg was much more accommodating, and –instead — I ordered from them. But I haven’t read anything about Brigg umbrellas, and can’t find many articles.
Any idea how they compare?
Usually very well, but I can do something fuller at some point
First of all–Merry Xmas and Happy Boxer Day!! I hope you and yours have a delightful holiday.
Your comments about Michel and his products is most interesting. The French craftsmanship is supreme, particularly for the femmes in our lives. However, there are great pleasures with entities such as Charvet and Mes Chaussettes. You have now added to that. My only question deals with ordering their umbrellas. Can one purchase any of their products by means other than visiting them in Paris? One way or another, I shall make a point of connecting with them. Thank you again.
You will probably have to visit, yes. I certainly recommend it
A good umbrella is such an underrated and important accessory.
Nothing else can provide the same level of smugness and superiority as whipping out your bespoke shaft during a downpour. Particularly when all around you are drowning.
That said, the correct colour is crucial and it would be good if you could devote a piece to town and country options ?
Also, probably an enigma but do any of these makers do anything interesting that folds ?
They do, Michel actually made an ingenious bespoke one recently. And for travel there are the ones where tip and handle screw off
This is interesting – a folding bespoke umbrella.
Have you any idea of costs?
Perhaps this could make for a great PS collaboration with orders being placed up front?
Isn’t a bespoke-edition an oxymoron?
Allow me to bring to your attention another outstanding artisan on the same street, at 37 avenue Daumesnil:
Serge Amoruso, for fine bespoke leather goods.
One last observation re umbrellas. Have you visited Swaine Adeney Brigg? I have used their umbrellas for years and, when necessary, they have very kindly repaired them.
The car door thing is so true, I love the noise my James Smith ‘brolly makes. I don’t mind metal ones either, you can pack them slimmer which I think I prefer to the fuller wooden ones.
Hello Simon…I was inspired by this article…I went out and told Michel to make one “just like Simon Crompton’s”…It just arrived. Worth every penny…Michael Maglaras
Wonderful, and I’m very flattered. Thank you Michael
Hi Simon, I’m seeing a lot of umbrellas whipping around in London right now because of the wind. Is that because of the inferior metal rims and metal pole that attaches to the umbrella’s handle? Does your Heurtault umbrella (or anything with a solid wood stick in good English make) withstand the wind?
If Michel wasn’t directly making your umbrella since he has moved, would you still commission from Heurtault umbrellas? Without seeing him? Thanks
It’s affected by the shaft and the quality of the ribs, yes, though these gales could probably do havoc to any umbrella.
Yes, I’d still commission from Heurtault. Michel is still.making everything, just not in Paris
So do you recommend against using your precious umbrella during especially gusty winds?
Also, does your typical bespoke umbrella need any sort of maintenance or special care?
I heard for example that silk canopies should be left open when dried to let the water droplets fall off.
Yes, if it was blowing a gale I wouldn’t take it out.
No, they don’t need any special care – it’s good practice for pretty much all canopies to leave them open to dry to avoid marks down the middle of the panels
What kind of wood did you choose for your umbrella Simon? What are Some of the wood selections that Michel carries?
Can you please recommend some wood that is matte and conservative darker brown shade for a navy umbrella?
I believe it was a cherry wood. However, unlike some other makers Michel doesn’t make the shafts himself, so the range can be limited.
Also, please note that since this article Michel has moved to the countryside and mostly just does ready-made through a stockist in Paris
Who are some makers that do make the shafts themselves? I’m looking to make a 32” umbrella. Thanks
Talarico, Lockwood and Maglia
Among those would you say one maker is superior in make/ quality/ finish/service?
Talarico has more hand work. Maglia is more organised and consistent. I haven’t tried Lockwood
Good to know, thanks. So if you’re placing an international order via email you’d choose Maglia? And if you’re visiting Naples (where you have more control of the order), and arranged to have it shipped to you, then Talarico?
No, I wouldn’t say it makes much of a difference whether you visit in person or not. It’s the consistency of make that’s better with Maglia – they’re a larger and more professionally run company.
Is your Heurtault umbrella varnished (i.e. shiny) Simon?
I’m debating which one to choose and it’s difficult . I’m going for maple. Thanks
Yes it is
I was told by the umbrella makers that their polyester is more impervious to rain than silk. But silk looks so much finer than polyester from what I’ve seen in person. What do you think?
No, polyester is more impervious generally. But unless you’re in heavy rain for a long time, you won’t notice the difference
So quality wise, would silk be a ok choice over polyester for my first umbrella?
I just hope silk is not so fragile it will tear and need frequent repairs much more than polyester.
Yes, it would be fine
Forgot to ask if your Heurtault umbrella is in poly or silk.
How has your canopy held up Simon? I heard that silk will, if used long term, can dry out and sort of wear out a bit.
That news has made me a bit more hesitant about silk. Thanks
It’s been fine, but then I have three umbrellas and don’t use them very heavily. I wear hats more.