Made-to-order umbrellas at Francesco Maglia

Monday, March 15th 2021
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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

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Anonymous

How much is a really swanky mto brolly then?

Anonymous

Whilst I understand the reasoning of robustness, I would still be disappointed in spending €240 or over on an umbrella and it having a polyester canopy.

zo

I’ll be more worried about leaving a £200+ brolly on the bus or at the self-checkout.

Hugh

Same for me, but with sunglasses. I lose cheap ones, but always seem to remember the more expensive ones!

Oliver

I once lost an umbrella on the very day I bought it. That was 25 years ago and I still miss that umbrella; it was gorgeous. Consequently, I’ve never mislaid one since.

I suggest everyone buy a good umbrella and lose it immediately: you’ll then be set for life.

Anonymous

I think the solution to the danger of forgetting a cherished bespoke brolly is to have it fitted with a tracking device. They are very small these days and one could be concealed in a cavity in the handle. I have a terror of losing such things since that fateful day when my pince-nez blew off in a gust in Pall Mall never to be found again and leaving me groping around like Mr. Magoo.

matrix.rx1

I can vouch for them: stellar quality and impeccable service, shame I lost my first one.

Anonymous

Are you happy with the construction of the umbrella? I’m looking to buy a Maglia umbrella, so your article is perfectly timed. How does it compare to other makers?

Chancellor

Would you say that the longevity of a Maglia umbrella would be equal or better than other quality makers?

Also is the first photo of you in the brown linen suit you just reviewed last week?

Adam

I visited Lombardy a few times last year and couldn’t help but notice more people had umbrellas with good wooden canes. They look absolutely wonderful but I just don’t know if I can justify the price on something I’m probably going to lose.

Ravi

Hi Simon,

How would you say the quality of Francesco’s umbrellas compares to that of James Smith & Son (in both cases, MTO)? I’d love to get a MTO umbrella, but travelling all the way to Milan, or indeed Paris, to do so seems a level of indulgence that even I’d struggle to justify.

Many thanks!

Joseph

I deeply appreciate how your writing helps me imagine an accurate representation of how satisfying this purchase was, Simon.

One of the photos, depicting the choices of canopy I believe, has been duplicated. I think the first instance was meant for a photo showing the arch-shaped ribs?

Joseph

Happy to help.

Wow, those steel/carbon ribs do look like they’d fare better in strong winds. The pliability is reassuring.

Anonymous

Hi Simon, I have to say that the polyester doesn’t put me off at all. I understand the emotional desire for natural materials but there are certain circumstances where performance is key and provided the material is of high quality i don’t mind it being synthetic. Interestingly though this only applies to utilitarian items such as brolly’s or bags. I wouldn’t settle for synthetic fabric on my tailored or indeed most casual clothing.

I would have been good to see some more distanced photos of the umbrella both up and down and in use. I don’t feel we get a very good picture of what it is actually like from the photographs. Also it would be good to know the exact cost of this one and how long it took to be delivered?

Matrix.RX1

enquired this morning, your cloth is sold out

Jim

That’s a lovely piece, Simon. What’s your view on what influences the formality/lack thereof? Beyond just going for a black canopy for the most conservative look. I.e are darker/lighter woods, more prominent wood grain and knots, bark on/off etc etc features that would influence this? Is silk more formal than polyester? Or perhaps none of this matters that much at all? I find this an interesting topic.

Robert

Hey Simon-
On a lark I bought one on line a few years back for a couple hundred dollars. Silly indulgence. Black canopy with polka dots and a bamboo handle. Lovely but not custom. Surprisingly enough the greatest benefit has been in what it has allowed me to share with my two young boys about acquiring and taking care of things of value in our throw away culture. My boys love to hold it. We visit the website and then sit in front of a wall map and I quiz them on the location of Milan. I let them feel the handle and tell a small fable “….that man you saw on the website made this umbrella by hand for us and he’s in his shop today making umbrellas for people who love beautiful things and a long time ago that is how all things were made….”
As an aside, the price you quote seems pretty reasonable for a work of art especially when I consider the price of other bespoke items you cover (ie shoes). All the best.

Gab

That’s going too far Simon. Soon an article on bespoke forks and spoons… (just kidding, obviously)

Anonymous

As beautiful as it is, I’m regretting buying the Drakes x London Undercover umbrella now

Alexander McShane

Hi Simon,
I have always had a soft spot for umbrellas, but currently, I work and live in the South Atlantic (Falkland Islands), and the winds here are very strong 31 to 41km/h on average.

Do you believe these could handle that sort of wind? Just for context I really don’t like hoods, but I either have to have one or a good hat.

Alexander McShane

It isn’t, but I have always preferred it to any other cover. it is also true the rain blusters around, but usually predominantly from the same direction as the wind.

Anonymous

Simon, what do you think of Whangee as a material for an umbrella?

Alex

Wonderful feature Simon! It may be worth adding that Francesco and Francesca are also wonderfully helpful over email and WhatsApp – last year I ordered a MTO umbrella, and whilst I would have loved to have visited the workshop, doing so virtually was the next best option! They were patient, helpful and encouraging in offering suggestions, advice and sending numerous photos of swatches and combinations. Now I am the proud owner of a wonderful piece of craftsmanship, which I felt like I had a hand in creating!

Thomas

Simon, I fully appreciate the appeal of umbrellas made from a single piece of wood. Over the years I bought two from Swaine Adeney Brigg. They have repaired them and provide excellent service. Both unfortunately need the canopies repaired again. My favorite however is the wood and steel combination from James Smith & Sons. It is a slim model that I think is very elegant and kinda cool. The great thing about beautiful umbrellas is that they look wonderful gathered together in a stand beside the hall door. So they have decorative and practical use !!

Marco Mutti

Francesco! Ne vorrei 2 blue navy bordato bianco e grigio bianco e la S dei Seamen
Grandi

Lucas

My wife bought me an MTO umbrella at https://www.european-umbrellas.com/. I believe that they are made by Francesco Maglia (if you don’t want to to travel to Italy). It is beautiful like no other – and has that car door thump when you open it.

Lucas

Correction: not MTO – it is the Oertel Handmade.

Penn

For those who, like me, balk at nylon canopies on luxury goods, I note that the Prince of Wales model at Briggs, cost with nylon canopy £580, offers the option of a black silk canopy for an extra, extraordinary £345. If this surcharge reflects the actual added cost to Briggs of silk, perhaps one can guess why they, Maglia, and Talarico might find the virtues of polyester more compelling.

Christopher

Dear Simon,

wonderful article and what a serendipity. I have inherited an handle from my father, who inherited it from is father and so on. It is made of ivory and my father had no interest in making an umbrella, now it is up to me. Currently It is under construction at Francesco since some weeks. I choose a navy canopy, according to Francesco’s recommendations.
I am conscious about the problem of ivory, but in the past it was a material, which was used. I have decided to use it, instead of putting it away and let it gather dust.
Since your first article about Maglia, I was obsessed to getting an umbrella once. Now I had the opportunity and I am very exited about the result.

Ketan Sanghvi

Wonderful article. I’m glad you chose this experience. It’s a great feeling to watch a custom-made item take shape under your very eyes. I must have paid the same amount for a smaller folding umbrella with a horn handle & the privilege of watching it made while I was there.

Scott

Simon, are you familiar with the British umbrella maker Fox? If so, are the umbrellas of comparable quality to the Maglia?

Scott

Thank you

Quentin

Scott, I have one of their brollies with a whangee handle. Don’t know whether they’ve changed something as mine is about 10 years old now, but the slider as well as the ferrule are made of plastic on mine. So, as Simon indicated, they are not on Maglia’s level.

Mine also creaked when opened as the plastic slider is about 2, 3mm larger than the stick and the canopy amplifies the friction.
I put some fabric in between to make it go away and also replaced the plastic ferrule (which was worn fairly quickly) with a solid brass one.

Since these upgrades it’s been a trusty and beloved companion but had I known this shortcomings first hand (ordered it online), I wouldn’t have bought it, probably.
Hope that helps.

Anonymous

Hi Simon,
I was interested in purchasing an umbrella from Maglia and was curious how well they hold up in strong winds. I live in Sydney, and the winds tend to be fairly strong when it’s raining. Would you say that Maglia’s umbrellas would be ok in those conditions?

James

As someone in my 70s who was into everything British and French in the 60s and 70s, I was at one time very serious about my umbrellas. But living in Streeterville in Chicago, I blew out a number of spokes due to our heavy winds.

The last repair was done perhaps 35 years ago by an older fellow in New York named Gilbert Center. Had worked in umbrella repair at Uncle Sam Umbrellas in NYC(now closed) and then retired from there and did repair on his own, working at his home in Brooklyn. I sent my umbrella to him and about a month later when I was in NYC on business I contacted him
and he met me at a specified bench in Central Park. We were both right on time and he had my umbrella.

Since then I have been using a large golf umbrella with two layers, to allow for wind to pass through the canopy so as not to rip out the ribs. Sad(or happy) to say they work great, but I miss my old umbrella fetish, though don;t miss leaving them in restaurants(or offices) and panicking when realizing I lost something so precious to me. Strangely I was always able to retrieve them.

Anyway, I really just write to say how beautifully written and informative your umbrella reports have been and the memories they aroused for me. I only wish I had had the chance to visit one of the umbrella shops you report on, as well as those of the other purveyors you biograph.

I love reading Permanent Style, as do my numerous other friends(of a certain age) who were(and still are) so fascinated by finely crafted and designed garments and objects of all kinds.

Thanks for what you do.

Marc

Simon, this umbrella looks great! The chestnut, brass hardware and British racing green canopy go very well together. In general, I think this particular color is underestimated, I don’t see it often, yet it works very well in more casual settings. A few weeks ago I bought the Private White VC Harrington Jacket in British racing green and I have come to find that this color is especially suited for plain fabrics with not much structure or other visual interest. That said, the herringbone weave of the canopy of your umbrella takes that British racing green a step further again.

Marc

Thomas

How would you compare Maglia to Talarico?

Anon

Hi Simon, may I know how does the London undercover solid stick compares to Maglia’s solid stick? Obviously London undercover’s quality must be inferior given it’s much cheaper, but are they like miles apart? Thanks!