You don’t meet Francesco Maglia, you experience him. A larger than life character, edging toward 6 and a half feet tall, with the charisma to match. Francesco (Chino, to his friends – pronounced “keen-oh”) is unashamedly unique and thoroughly himself, possessing a childlike energy and enthusiasm for his craft (and most other things we spoke about) a smile that hits you from across the room and a genuine warmth of character that makes you feel awfully welcome within seconds.
Francesco, along with his brother Giorgio are the 5th generation of the Maglia family to continue the family’s umbrella making tradition, having begun in 1854 and remaining in the same hands ever since. Enchantingly, each generation has named one of the sons of the next generation “Francesco”meaning that the “Francesco Maglia” name on the door has been accurate for each generation since the doors first opened over 160 years ago.
Whilst Francesco has had no children of his own, his brother Giorgio has and, unsurprisingly, choosing his sons name wasn’t particularly difficult, meaning that another Francesco is waiting in the wings to take the business into its sixth generation, should he so choose, when he comes of age.
The Maglia name is one of only a few of the authentic names left in quality umbrella making (Mario Talarico of Naples being in the same category) and employs only 6 staff. Sadly, most of the better known “quality” (and higher priced) umbrella makers who trade off the “Made in England” name have their umbrellas mostly assembled in China, before being sent to the UK to have a couple of finishing details applied and the “Made in England” mark added. It’s tragic and shouldn’t be allowed, but the number of businesses who do it across footwear, clothing and accessories are equal parts astounding and depressing.
Fortunately, Maglia is far removed from this category, with all umbrellas assembled by hand and in house on via Ripamonti, a nondescript thoroughfare away from central Milan. Maglia, like so many of the worlds other leading craftspeople in menswear (such as Ambrosi in Naples) are often in the most unexpected places, away from the spotlight, quietly crafting incredible things.
Francesco Maglia has no direct points of sale, preferring to work with trusted specialist retailers around the world, such as James Smith and Sons in London. Speaking of which, I’d had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that my umbrella from James Smith and Sons was, in fact, made by Maglia. I showed him a photo of it and he smiled like a proud father, before he put his hand on my shoulder, pointed to his chest and said, “that’s one of mine”.
I met Francesco on an (appropriately) gloomy and rainy Saturday morning, before walking with him into the subterranean factory, which could just as easily double as an old curiosity shop. The high walls are covered with umbrella parts; shafts, bolts of cloth, end caps, some you’d be convinced have been patiently waiting in their given nook for years, until the right combination of colours and timbers require their use. Perhaps what’s most fascinating, is that although you’d swear it impossible to find any specific item when required, Francesco was gliding from room to room, picking up exactly what he needed without so much as a pause to think, or to open the wrong drawer. That’s what happens when you’ve spent 52 years working out where you like things to be (Francesco is now 73).
His personal style is markedly unique. Bold colours such as mustards, purples and mossy greens, tweeds, woven leather braces and his signature collarless jackets are more English country than Italian city (with the exception of the jacket). Francesco is a reminder than to be truly stylish is to know yourself and then dress accordingly. In these clothes he is comfortable and most able to be his extroverted and charismatic self. His height, matched with his beard and unique sense of style make him an imposing figure, or at least they would, if they weren’t quickly diffused by his smile and kind demeanor.
Most of the Maglia umbrellas are what’s known as “solid stick” umbrellas, meaning they are made from a single shaft of wood, from handle to tip. It may not sound like much, but the look it gives is beautiful, with an elegant, slim shaft unencumbered by joints or metal bands. The handles arrive to Francesco largely finished (the most common timbers being ash, elm, maple or chestnut) before the hand assembly takes place, often having horn inserted into the handles for subtle detail and contrast. Each year they will choose their canopy designs (often influenced from their extensive archives) which will then await the right shaft to arrive before they’re called off the shelves to be put together. Silk used to be the main choice for canopies, its tight weave being well suited to keeping out rain, but due to an inability to source silk of suitable quality anymore, polyester has become the norm. Whilst the thought of silk is a nice one, polyester does do a better job of keeping water out, as well as providing greater durability as it can take much more of a beating than silk. Given that an umbrella isn’t a garment worn against the skin, it’s not really an issue anyway.
To put everything together, the ring which holds the arms in place (at the handle end) is threaded onto the shaft from the top, the arms are then individually secured to the ring at the bottom and then secured to a separate ring at the top, before having matching pieces of canopy hand sewn into all contact points to hide the mechanism. The cavities housing the spring-loaded clips which lock the canopy in the open and closed positions are cut out of the wood using a morticer, then the spring clips are locked into place. Once the canopy has been strung across the arms and sewn in to place, a silver or metal ring is threaded onto the top of the canopy and nailed into place. The tips are then left long and uncapped, waiting to be cut down to the right size for the eventual owner (clients are measured and the tip cut so that the umbrella is at a nice holding height when walking, as you would with a cane).
All in all it’s a relatively simple process, but like most simple processes, to do it well takes a great deal of skill and finesse, brought about by years of muscle memory gained through countless hours of practice.
Given this lifetime dedication it’s no surprise to hear Francesco’s disappointment when he talks of the steady reduction in trade over the years, citing a growing lack of interest in quality from the general population. When the Chinese can manufacture an entire umbrella for less that he pays for a single horn end cap on one of his umbrellas it can be seen as a difficult case to be put forward to pay north of a couple of hundred pounds for an umbrella from Maglia. But when you see the effort which goes into a Francesco Maglia umbrella and the quality of the parts, for those of us who care about craftsmanship, the value is obvious. A Maglia umbrella is a unique and valuable product in an increasingly throwaway world and if the case for a Maglia umbrella hasn’t been successfully made by the points above, the satisfying RollesRoyce-esque “thunk” of the canopy, stretched as tight as a drum, being fully opened should be reason enough to buy one.