In 24 Hours

Milan umbrella maker turns craft into art

Gisella Deputato, CNNUpdated 11th April 2016
Editor's Note — On the latest episode of "In 24 Hours," James Williams visits Milan. Catch the series online here.
(CNN) — With his white hair, tweed jacket, a pince-nez and sharp wit, he's clearly a sophisticated man of the world. But Francesco Maglia is also one of Italy's most exclusive umbrella makers -- and looks every inch the craftsman.
"Chino," as he likes to be called, is the fifth-generation descendant of another Francesco Maglia, the man who in 1854 founded the Maglia Umbrella Company in a town near Brescia, in northeast Italy.
The company relocated to Milan in 1876. Today, Maglia's workshop is tucked away in the residential area of Via Ripamonti, 20 minutes or so from the city's most fashionable quarters.
Every umbrella produced here is handmade using an 80-step traditional process. They retail for more than $300.
Maglia decorates them in an "English style," either in plain colors or patterned with pinstripes, tartan or regimental stripes. Each umbrella is produced from a single shaft of wood -- usually chestnut, ash, walnut or cherry, but more exotic Malacca cane and whangee bamboo are often used.

Concerns for the future

Only wooden shafts -- usually chestnut, ash, walnut or cherry.
Only wooden shafts -- usually chestnut, ash, walnut or cherry.
Harvey Hogan/CNN
In the workshop, a small team of mostly female artisans works on one or two stages of the production.
"Our workers have been with us for 30, 40 years -- some of them will retire soon. It's like a big family," says Maglia.
While Francesco looks after the design and international sales (he speaks fluent German, French and English), his younger brother, Giorgio, supervises the production and sourcing of materials, which is increasingly becoming a challenge. Every umbrella is made of about 25 parts and the number of the Italian suppliers have dwindled.
"It's hard to find suppliers that specialize in umbrella parts, especially metal ones like the ribs, which are the only parts produced in China at huge costs," says Giorgio.
The Maglias are one of only a handful of specialist manufacturers left. Francesco is worried about the future of the craft in which his family has made its name.
"When I started we were 110 umbrella makers. Now for handmade umbrellas there are two, three, but the other five or six companies produce 80% in China and 20% in Italy.
"I am the biggest producer even if I am very small. In the early days we used to sell hundreds of umbrellas even here in Milan. Now people can buy one made in China for €5 ($6.75), so our umbrellas have become an item of luxury."

Two-handled umbrella?

Milan umbrellas
Many of the company's workers are nearing retirement age.
Harvey Hogan/CNN
Despite the challenges, both brothers still take pride in their work and enjoy experimenting with new materials. They also make bespoke umbrellas -- even if the demands of their customers can at times be unorthodox.
"The clientele has changed a lot over the past few years," Giorgio says. "Very recently someone asked us to make an umbrella with two handles -- one for him, one for her -- but there is only so much we can do with an umbrella."
Like many luxury products, the Maglias' business has managed to weather the financial crisis, winning over some of the world's most exclusive retailers and brands.
Today, the company produces about 25,000 umbrellas a year, of which 90% go to Maglia's international clientele -- mostly in Japan, Europe and the United States.
Now in his 70s, Francesco shows no signs of slowing down. Holding up one of his favorite umbrellas, he breaks into almost predictable song.
"I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling and I'm happy again."