At the workshop of Francesco Maglia in Milano
Francsco Maglia V is hardly unknown to umbrella connoisseurs. Not only because there are only handful handmade umbrella manufacturers left in the world, only two in Italy, but also because of his charismatic presence and gentleman's attire. Old school pince-nez is resting on his spread collar shirt that is finished with impeccably knotted bowtie. The doors off of a busy street with a faded vintage poster at first opened only half way ..he examined us thoroughly and for a moment I thought that he won't not let us in. But when nodded in, Francesco became a magician, impressively in possession of his hidden kingdom and charm. His mannerism is that of a seasoned traveller, passion to which he quickly admits.
But what defines him the most is the fact that he is fifth generation “ombrellaio” - umbrella maker in Italian and, together with his brother Giorgio, the owner of their family company. It is one with old roots. By definition, ombrellaio modifies and assembles all components that come from several producers together, to create a functional and beautiful umbrella piece. Walking through the workshop, umbrella production unfolds in complexity similar to a tailor's shop. All parts come from various producers in Milano and Lombardy region, apart from the ribs- after the last factory in Germany closed down, Maglia had decided to developed their own steel ribs with a manufacturer in China.
To outline the assembly steps, the traditional, manual opening umbrella that we commissioned starts with a single piece of ash wood shaft on which a handle was shaped by steam. A slot for hand spring needs to be cut into the shaft and spring inserted before the ribs and stretchers are attached. After canopy is cut and stitched, it is hand tucked at each joint before the completed umbrella is passed over steam for final shaping. Passing hands of five different specialists, the process takes over an hour for each piece.
Of the two surviving umbrella makers in Italy, the Maglia workshop is known for superior quality and customized design. Handles from polished and subtle to naturally twisted roots and horns, covered in leather or made of cast metal imply the amount of creative possibilities. Tempting array of patterned or solid fabrics feeds the imagination further. All fabric is created in Como, Italy, using looming technique customary to silk ties.
I was tempted to ask what Francesco's personal favorite umbrella was- a classic long men's style in hickory wood was the answer, while his nephew, Francesco VI, prefers an innovative traveling style with removable handle. In his mid twenties, he is a talented and already seasoned artisan, proud and hopeful to become the next Maglia ombrellaio one day.
Before we head out, Francesco V makes us take a notice of his beautiful woven leather suspenders, his favorite ones that lasted him decades and finally need replacement- but, unlike Maglia's umbrellas, their production is discontinued. Then he gets on his bicycle, waving his goodbye as he rides off along a tram.