- Photography by Mr Nicola Carignani
For most of us, an expensive umbrella is seen as something of an extravagance: the sort of thing that a man invests in once he has ticked everything else off his "to buy" list. But to a certain type of man - the type who aspires towards sartorial elegance in all matters - it is far more important than that. After all, what good are a pair of Northampton-made shoes, a bespoke Savile Row suit and a briefcase cut from the finest Italian calf-leather if, at the first sign of rain, you're forced to duck for cover underneath an InjuryLawyers4U golf umbrella?
One man providing a particularly elegant solution to this problem is fifth-generation "ombrellaio", Mr Francesco Maglia. From a small workshop on the southern outskirts of Milan, he presides over one of Italy's last traditional umbrella makers - a business that began in Pavia with his great-great-grandfather, the first Francesco Maglia, some 160 years ago.
Our customers are pleasure people. The kind who buy a beautiful pair of shoes and want something equally beautiful to protect them from the rain
His shop is completely festooned with umbrellas: propped up against walls, neatly arrayed on racks and stands, and lining workbenches in various states of assembly. Lining the walls is a small fraction of what Mr Maglia claims to be the world's largest collection of umbrella-themed postcards and photographs. One depicts the scene at Hyde Park Corner at the end of WWI, of a victorious crowd completely submerged under a sea of black umbrella canopies; another shows the interior of James Smith & Sons, the famous umbrella shop that has stood on London's New Oxford Street since 1857.
The French call him "Le roi du parapluie", the Germans, "der König der Schirme". Both mean the same thing: the king of umbrellas. Standing at an imposing six and a half feet tall, bedecked in an eclectic array of tweeds and sporting a snow-white, Santa Claus beard, Mr Maglia - the fifth man in five generations of umbrella makers to bear his name - suits this regal appellation rather well.
Mr Maglia, a fifth-genration "ombrellaio", has
been making the finest umbrellas for 49 years
It's strange to find your workshop here, on the outskirts of Milan.
The company moved to Milan in 1876. We were in Corso Genova, in the town centre, until 11 years ago. The town loved us. Such a historical company! We received so many gold medals. But we couldn't find a place to park a truck to bring in our supplies. We had to move.
Why buy an expensive umbrella?
Why choose a Mercedes over a Fiat? Our customers crave culture; they are pleasure people. The kind of people who buy a beautiful pair of shoes and want something equally beautiful to protect them from the rain.
When did you first realise that you wanted to be a part of the family business?
It was never a choice; I always wanted to do it. I can still remember visiting the workshop just to watch my father work when I was a child.
When did you start at the company?
I started working with my father 49 years ago.
How much has changed in that time?
Back then there were more than 110 umbrella makers, just in Italy. Now, we are fewer than 10. Of those that continue to follow tradition - those which have not outsourced to China - we are, perhaps, three.
The world is changing. Does Ombrelli Maglia need to change with it?
No! Absolutely not. It's very important to maintain our traditions and standards. We can't compete on price terms with China - they can produce an umbrella for 80 cents! But they can't compete with us in terms of quality.
Your nephew is the sixth Francesco Maglia. Do you expect him to take the helm?
I am 71 now. Francesco the sixth is 22 - he is the son of Giorgio, my youngest brother. There is still time. I can teach him how to deal with customers, and my brother can teach him the technical skills. But in the end, it's his choice. And in 20, 30, 40 years, will we still have a culture to support this kind of business?
You have a very particular sense of style. What inspired you to dress this way?
I love to travel. Twice a year, I drive my collection all across Europe. I visit all my suppliers and learn from the people I meet. For example, a customer of mine in Paris was producing jackets without lapels. I started wearing them, and when his shop closed, I started taking fabric to tailors in Italy to copy the style. Now, none of my jackets have lapels.
And your beard?
That's from my time in the Alpini - military service. I was stationed in the mountains. It helps to keep your face warm, trust me!
Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER