Made-to-order umbrellas at Francesco Maglia
When I visited the Francesco Maglia workshop in Milan last year, I ordered a bespoke umbrella.
Why? Purely to deepen the experience of the visit. There's no other excuse really.
I’m not such an unusual height that I require particular dimensions to my umbrellas. Even if I use them as walking sticks too, the standard length is perfect.
Neither is there the personalisation argument. There are enough Maglia umbrellas out there that I can find one I want, in a canopy and wood I like. And I’m highly unlikely to ever meet someone with the same one.
I did it because it meant I left with a very personal souvenir. Rather than just learning about the different woods - their properties and their relative rarity - I was selecting one myself. Rather than noting down the range of colours available, I was digging around for the perfect green.
Francesco is a smart cookie, and did this on purpose. (The younger Francesco, above, not his uncle, better known previously as the face of the company. More on that background here.)
Francesco wanted to get people into the workshop in Milan, so they would discover what went into a well-made umbrella, and why it cost so much (Maglia umbrellas start at €240).
“I think most of the mission here is to educate,” he told me. “Once you’ve done that, and they understand the value, you don’t have to sell.
"Opening up the workshop, bringing people in, showing you’re hiding nothing. It feels so refreshing. The biggest customers are Americans I find - there’s just so little like this in the US.”
There is something striking about seeing stacks of beautiful woods, from ripply Malacca to ‘flamed’ Canadian maple (the latter looking more like tortoiseshell, or lacquer, than wood). And about watching someone delicately sew the canopy together.
But the most interesting making points - at least for me - are the less obvious ones. The kind you don’t notice until someone points them out (and tries very hard not to be smug, or patronising, as they do).
For example, the ribs on all good umbrellas are not solid, but hollow. Or rather, they’re arch-shaped - if you cut through them, the section would look like an ‘n’.
This makes the ribs more flexible, and so able to bend with the wind. They are less likely to snap, or turn inside out. (Demonstrated by Francesco, below.)
The quality of the metal matters just as much, if not more. Some cheaper umbrellas also have ribs in this shape, but they use cheap aluminium or even plastic, where Maglia uses a mix of steel and carbon fibre.
But you can’t point that out to someone on the bus (who of course, really wants to know). The arch-shape thing is much easier.
The other craft point I like about umbrellas is that much of the hand work is necessitated by using natural materials.
If you’re making a solid-stick umbrella, where the shaft and handle are one piece of wood, then it’s hard to mass manufacture them - because with most woods, every piece is different.
Some, such as maple or hickory, are more consistent, particularly when polished. But even they have small variations along the shaft, requiring the central mechanism (the 'spider') be carefully put on by hand.
Below, you can see the spider on the finished umbrella, now wrapped in the canopy material.
I have to say, selecting a wood for an umbrella is a nice experience. It's similar to picking swatches of cloth, with the same minute differences in shades - only with knots and growth lines rather than slubs and twills.
And just like cloth, there are rare and hyper-expensive options, the equivalent of Super 200s or vicuna. Malacca, for example, is the root of a plant rather than the trunk, and as a result it's rare to find one that’s long enough to use as a shaft - rather than just a handle.
Francesco had one to show me, and estimated that only one in 150,000 harvested roots was suitable. His father said he only saw three in his lifetime.
Fortunately, I wanted something a little more rustic than that, and went for a polished chestnut. Much cheaper, and hopefully a casual addition to a collection that has more smart pieces, like this from Heurtault.
For the canopy, I wanted a British racing green, as I thought it would be quite casual too, and a nice partner to the pale yellow/brown of the wood. (I never asked why the colour was called 'Elvis' - see above.)
However, the canopy was one area that was a little disappointing, or at least where Francesco and I differ.
Although the Maglia canopies are woven in Como, they’re mostly polyester rather than cotton or silk. For Francesco, this is preferable because polyester is more robust, and waterproof. All fabrics are treated to make them more water-resistant, but still, polyester performs best.
Personally, I’ve used both cotton and silk and found them fine. Cotton will eventually saturate, and takes longer to dry. It will also fade over time - particularly if not dried open. But I have one from A&S that I use and love.
Silk has a tendency to let through fine droplets under heavy downpour. But unless you’re walking for a long time in such weather, it’s not a problem.
And it’s certainly more delicate. But again I’ve had one from Heurtault (slim, black) for five years that hasn’t needed repairing yet.
Still, I was happy with the green colour of the canopy I chose, and I understand polyester is more commercial. Most normal customers would expect an expensive umbrella to be stronger and less likely to need repair, rather than more.
I once said that the perfect experience for a craft-obsessed consumer such as myself, or indeed most readers, is to visit a workshop, learn about everything that makes it special, watch it all being done just for you, and then walk away with a personal result.
Nothing makes the product feel more special, and I’m sure it’s a big motivator behind bespoke experiences.
I’ve been privileged to be able to do this in many factories around the world. I hope reporting on them also deepens the experience for readers. And I’m glad to recommend doing so at Maglia, whenever you can.
Photography: Alex Natt and Permanent Style. More on the making of Maglia and the company's history here