One of Milan’s best-kept secrets: Umbrella artist Francesco Maglia

The trademark umbrellas of Maglia involve a 70-step process, which sometimes takes a month to finish. Photo: Rosella Stephen

The trademark umbrellas of Maglia involve a 70-step process, which sometimes takes a month to finish. Photo: Rosella Stephen

I am one of those who lugs an umbrella everywhere, be it an overcast Chennai or a solitary day of sun in Speyside. Friends have learnt to live with this peculiarity (one I have been conveniently passing off as a Malayali quirk). The threat of UV rays or a sweaty brow is hard to comprehend, I understand. So when a recent visit to Milan included a free afternoon, I wasted no time in getting acquainted with Francesco Maglia. As the fifth generation descendant of the founder of Ombrelli Maglia Francesco, he is one of the last few following the traditional methods of umbrella making (going by fashion journals, there are only three left).

One of Milan’s well-kept secrets (my taxi driver, hotel concierge and Italian friends had to look him up on their smart phones), Maglia’s workshop is on the outskirts of Milan in Via Ripamonti, tucked away in a basement. Rows of shelves filled with umbrellas, parasols and bolts of rich fabric line walls that are covered with photographs and postcards. A bespectacled woman cuts trapezoids of striped lavender fabric in one corner to be hand-sewn later, and another inspects a light box. Similar to what you would find in knitwear factories, the box is used to check for imperfections in the canopy. Maglia walks in, six and a half feet tall, with a white beard, Italian charm, and jokes and anecdotes.

The umbrella postcards are his obsession, he rasps, proceeding to open a little black book filled with handwritten addresses of his personal clients over the last 50 years. The company was launched in 1854 in the town of Montichiari, before his grandfather came to Milan in 1876, and supplied to the leading luxury companies. Apologetic that he cannot disclose names of luxury clients as they may sell his umbrellas with the ‘Made in England/ France’ tag in their stores, Maglia only opens old ledgers and points to names belonging to European royalty and famous businessmen.

He now has his own label, Francesco Maglia, and he recalls a time when automobile majors like Mercedes and Porsche placed orders for over thousand umbrellas. That has changed, with business going to China now and umbrella parts being manufactured there. “I have to save the culture of the handmade umbrella. China is killing everything,” shrugs Maglia, referring to the $5 plastic umbrellas that have taken over the global market.

That said, it is hard to dismiss the solid-stick umbrella, the ultimate masculine accessory, and the technique involved in making it. Meticulously crafted, the 70-step process involves a single wooden shaft, brass crown, iron runner (to open and close the umbrella), robust spokes, fabric and thread. Sometimes, shaping the handle alone can take up to six months.

Maglia, 73, briskly shepherds me around his workspace, pointing to ash, elm, walnut, maple and chestnut sticks, with either stately or extravagantly shaped handles. Hickory, ebony and rosewood are also offered, all sourced in Italy, and popular among both European and Japanese clients. Imported wood, like whangee bamboo or Malacca cane, need careful supervision when shaping the handle. Details range from mother of pearl to silver, deer horn and braided calf leather. While Shantung silk was used initially for the canopy, declining demand affected quality and the fabrics used now are a waterproof jacquard designed for Maglia by a small company in Como, or cotton, polycotton, and a blend of polyester and nylon that is lightweight and durable. He prefers black, dark green, navy and pin stripe designs, but is open to experiment — a chartreuse number with delicate frill lies waiting to be shipped to Korea.

Maglia says that department stores like Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman retail his brand of umbrellas, but he isn’t sure where they are available at present. The online men’s fashion store, Mr. Porter, has them at £257 onwards. Style mavens from New York and Tokyo still find their way to his workshop to place bulk orders.

Customised umbrellas of different wood, lengths, patterns and canopies, with initials on the metal plates, take a week to 10 days, and the pricing can vary. Your handle can be braided with calfskin or crocodile leather, and if you consider the fashion economy of cost per wear, this is clearly a wise extravagance for fashionable men (and women). Big enough to offer shelter to a companion and with hardy ribs and personalised appeal, these brollies will weather the severest of storms (and sunrays) and bring back chivalry in men, insists Maglia, as I pick a bamboo-handled specimen to take home. His parting tip: “Never fold a wet umbrella. Treat it well, and it will last forever.”

Wayfarer: Maglia, a former rally driver and a master of the outdoors, speaks Italian, English, French, German and Spanish. He has travelled across Europe for over 50 years with his samples and has friends in almost every town. He recalls walking trails in Kashmir and Ladakh from his youth, and a Bombay from 40 years ago. He favours Crockett & Jones handmade shoes from another fifth generation family-managed business, in Northampton, and makes his own bow ties.

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2022 2:13:36 am |