An umbrella is a quintessentially British necessity. As a nation, we are known the world over, due to our inclement climate, for our almost daily ritual of commenting, speculating and complaining about the weather and the resultant habit of carrying an umbrella at all times, no matter what the season is supposed to be. Rather than sheltering from the sun – the Latin ‘umbra’ means shade – umbrellas have historically been used in our maritime climate to take cover and shelter from, at times, incessant rain and lashing wind. Umbrellas of varying degrees of usefulness have been around in Britain since the late 17th Century. Traditional whale-boned-framed feather and silk umbrellas for ladies, pretty yet not particularly practical, have over time given way to the more substantial modern stainless-steel-framed nylon and polyester umbrellas, suitable for both sexes, so much so that the generic modern-day umbrellas, often typified as an accessory for the city gent, has become an icon of Britishness and part of our national consciousness.
One iconic company which personifies the British umbrella is Fox Umbrellas, founded by Thomas Fox; a quintessentially British company, having manufactured high quality, hand-made umbrellas since 1868. Since then, changes in frame engineering and covering material has meant a Fox umbrella has evolved into a modern-day object, fulfilling perfectly its function of keeping one dry; however this is by no means perfunctory. Fox is one of the few umbrella manufacturers that has retained the hand-made tradition (making a Fox umbrella takes up to 100 different steps to ensure a lifelong, and beyond, mechanical reliability), as well as an eye for impeccable style and quirky character – there are over 120 different models.
Because of this pride in tradition and heritage coupled with an obsession with quality and design, Fox remains the umbrella maker of choice supplying globally renowned companies like Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, Ralph Lauren, Barneys, Bloomingdales, Mitsukoshi to name but a few. Fox’s umbrellas are exported all over the world, patronised by past and present royalty, nobility, politicians as well as TV & film industries; all high profile clients where classic wooden, modern metal or extravagantly bejewelled handles and covers from business black to a myriad of colours are de rigueur.
Now at the helm is Paul Garrett, who alongside his father, Chairman & owner Ray Garrett, has consolidated and strengthened Fox Umbrellas as a global brand, sustaining the heritage of British craftsmanship, by retaining the skills and experience of a local and loyal workforce, whilst evolving its excellent reputation into the 21st Century by a clever marriage of classic craftsmanship and contemporary design; a combination as clever as a fox, in fact. Here, Paul kindly allows us a unique insight into the world of high-end umbrella making, giving us a glimpse into the fascinating world of a classic craft in modern times that is Fox Umbrellas.
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Fox Umbrellas, please can you tell us about the history of the company?
It all started in 1868 during the reign of Queen Victoria. Mr Thomas Fox opened a shop in Fore Street in the City of London (later becoming London Wall after the bombing during World War Two when the roads were rebuilt) making and selling umbrellas. Some 12 years later he sold the shop bearing his name to Samuel Dixon (the grandfather of June Dixon, who my father bought the company from).
Unfortunately we have no records of what happened to Thomas Fox, and some stories say he was a bit of a gambler and owed money to Samuel Dixon and that was how the business came into the hands of the Dixon family.
In the 1880s a major change in the manufacturing process took place with the introduction of a stainless steel umbrella mechanism, invented by a Mr Samuel Fox who, incidentally, was not a relation of Thomas Fox, they just shared the same surname. By replacing the traditional whalebone frame of the umbrella with the new steel frame, Fox created a unique, stronger and lighter umbrella. And so the modern umbrella was born.
As a result, over the next few decades, the company grew in status and reputation and by the 1930s had started to export to Japan, USA and other overseas markets.
Among the many milestones in our illustrious history, which includes making umbrellas for some of the most prestigious stores and individuals around the world; including Royalty, Presidents and Prime Ministers, is the creation of the first nylon umbrella. This was developed during our work making parachute flares in the Second World War, and the fabric used was a new invention called nylon. Realising the advantages of using nylon instead of silk, which was not actually a good covering for umbrellas as it doesn’t wear very well, we introduced the first nylon covered umbrella in 1947 at the “Britain Can Make It” Exhibition at Crystal Palace, in London (although we now use polyester instead of nylon due to its superior qualities).
Since those days the company has built a reputation for excellence, skill and superb craftsmanship, and today the quality and attention to detail are still the hallmark of a Fox Umbrella.
The process of making Fox Umbrellas has changed very little, as to obtain the high quality that we require, it is still necessary to rely on the skill of hand-workers rather than machines.
My father always says there are two certainties in life: death and taxes, but if you live in the UK, a third should be added: rain! An umbrella is therefore a necessary accessory for anyone, although it shouldn’t just be seen as an accessory – an elegant umbrella can be a constant companion throughout the years and if looked after correctly can last a lifetime and beyond.
Can you define the uniqueness of your umbrellas and why they are so special?
Certainly, Fox Umbrellas are world-renowned for producing the classic British umbrella which would be defined as a City umbrella. This stems from the days when a father would buy his son an umbrella as a gift for going to work in the City, which would be accompanied by a new suit and bowler hat; for that City gentleman look an umbrella was essential as it was necessary to keep that suit protected against the elements.
With regards to the uniqueness you just need to look at some of our handles and woods used on our umbrellas – on the stick umbrellas each piece of wood is unique in itself as no two pieces are the same. The shape and quality of our canopies really stand out; if you placed our umbrella alongside a cheaper made umbrella you can visually see the difference in the canopies alone.
How important is maintaining full production of your umbrellas in England, and not just the finishing aspect, to you and your brand?
For my father, and certainly for me, we are proud of our country and heritage, and maintaining all aspects of production of Fox Umbrellas in the UK is of paramount importance to us. I would rather not produce umbrellas if we could not make them in the UK and I couldn’t contemplate outsourcing production elsewhere as our heritage is deeply rooted in this country.
Could you briefly guide us through the production process for how you make one of your umbrellas?
That would be a huge task as there are between 70 to 100 steps in making an umbrella from start-to-finish depending on the model.
By way of a brief overview though on how we make one of our solid umbrellas, for example, we would start with the umbrella stick itself. This stick will have been fraised and lacquered prior to any work being started.
The stick is then measured for the desired length, either a standard length, or customised for a particular customer. We mark the stick depending on the finished size and cut the grooves for the hand spring and top spring to sit.
The springs are hand-made out of wire and formed for each individual stick. The stopper pins are added along with the runner and notch and the ribs are attached. The frame is aligned with the springs and ribs to give the perfect fit.
The cover is then cut; depending on the fabric or pattern this would be eight gores at once, or gore-by-gore for patterns or tartans. There are eight gores in each cover. Again the cover is all cut buy hand and machined, rather than mass-produced.
We hem our covers to give a neat finish. The patterns we use give that wonderful dome shape you see on a Fox Umbrella.
Once the cover is machined it is tipped and fitted to the ribs.
The umbrella is then ironed and rolled.
Once ironed and rolled, it is then passed back for finishing which involves fitting the open cap and ferrule.
The umbrella has a final check before being passed to dispatch for packing and wrapping. Throughout each process every department checks the umbrella for any potential defects as it progresses though the production line.
With the fact that you are one of the last remaining manufacturers in Britain handcrafting umbrellas in the traditional way, is the lack of an available trained workforce a problem for you, as I imagine some of the skills required, such as handle shaping and mounting, take years to master, and is it difficult to find trainees?
Sometimes it can be hard to attract the right staff; obviously no one turns up to an interview and says they can make an umbrella, at least not in recent years, maybe in the early 1900’s when people with the necessary skills who were able to make or repair an umbrella would have been commonplace throughout London and England. So we have to invest the time into training our staff. A good attitude and willingness to learn go a long way.
Some of the handles we produce, like our regal fitting, are probably only made by us today; I do not believe any other umbrella manufacturers still have the skills necessary to make that style of handle. In fact I would think only George, who has worked for us for 52 years, and my brother John, who has been trained by him, are the last two people in the UK capable of making this style of handle. Fox Umbrellas is a family-run business and we aim to treat our staff as part of that family.
Fox Umbrellas supplies an international client base of leading fashion houses and retailers such as Harrods, Ralph Lauren, Alfred Dunhill and Barneys of New York, but you don’t have your own store in the UK. Why is that?
Yes, we have made for those leading fashion houses along with customers like Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdales, Isetan and many more. We used to have our own shop in London Wall, which today still has the Fox fascia, but as it is a Grade II listed building whoever currently occupies the shop is unable to change the exterior fascia of this landmark building.
When June Dixon, the former owner of Fox Umbrellas, decided to sell the business, she offered my father the company including the shop and the manufacturing side of the business. My father always felt it was the manufacturing side that was the key to the company’s success, so decided to buy only that; the retail side was bought by another party which after a few years went into liquidation. The retail side was known as T Fox and Co. but the product (the umbrellas) had always been known as Fox Umbrellas. When my father bought the manufacturing side we re-named the company to Fox Umbrellas Ltd as this is how our customers had always known us anyway.
We are primarily a manufacturer; we make a large number of white label umbrellas for our clients, as well as Fox branded umbrellas and co-branded umbrellas. We do not feel a retail shop would benefit us as we would not want to compete with our clients, although we do have an online store which provides an outlet to show our craftsmanship and the full range of umbrellas, as well as accommodating customers with the opportunity to purchase something bespoke, which retailers may find it difficult to do.
Historically, your client base includes British and Japanese royalty, American Presidents and film stars. Is there a typical Fox Umbrellas customer today?
I would say we do not have a typical Fox Umbrella customer; our customers come to us for that classic British look or because they require something totally bespoke. We have customers across the spectrum from your average person to the super rich. I guess the one thing they all have in common is they want a quality product.
I would say that 40% of our customers are based in the UK, and the remainder spread across the world, but mainly Hong Kong, China, Japan, USA, Australia and New Zealand. Mainland Europeans tend, as a rule, to favour the Italian style of umbrellas, which are slightly bulkier and use a different fabric.
With a truly international customer-base, are there different types and styles of umbrellas favoured in different countries?
Certainly, we find customers from our Far Eastern market – Japan, Hong Kong and China – prefer our Tube umbrellas in the GT range, often favouring the nickel animal heads and our new gilt animal heads. As to colour choice, customers range from picking classic colours to being very bold with their choices – they certainly know what they want.
Customers from the USA seem to love the Solid umbrella and often will choose custom lengths for a taller umbrella. The European and the home market is quite mixed between Tube, Stick and Solid umbrellas, but many favour a classic British umbrella, such as the GT3 Malacca and the GT9 Whanghee.
How important is the quality of your raw materials in creating your umbrellas, and is sourcing these materials an issue, particularly during periods of unseasonal weather patterns with unpredictable spikes in demand?
The raw materials are absolutely key to our production and we keep a close eye on stock levels and ensure we have enough raw components to see us though times where materials might be hard to obtain, such as Whanghee cane, which could have a bad growing season, or the natural woods, like Ash or Hazel, which may be in limited supply. We source the best materials possible.
Wherever we can we try to source materials from the UK, such as custom-made brass fittings, or use British engineering firms to make our custom tooling. Obviously many of the woods that we use are not grown in the UK, so we obtain these from Europe or the Far East through British dealers, although in some cases we do travel abroad to source materials ourselves.
You have a vast range of umbrellas covering all manner of requirements, but do you also create bespoke designs and special commissions, and if so, have you had any interesting requests?
We have made some very special umbrellas, some we can’t even talk about due to confidentially agreements. One very special umbrella we made several years ago, when my father was still Managing Director, was for Aspreys; they were holding a charity auction and commissioned a woven platinum cover umbrella, with 18ct gold frame, specially forged by a goldsmith, and jewel-encrusted handle, including diamonds, rubies and emeralds. I believe it was purchased by the Sultan of Brunei before the auction as he wanted it for his own personal museum, although I believe he donated in the region of £40,000 to the charity to obtain the umbrella – I dread to think what the umbrella would cost today! George, who made that umbrella, still works for us today.
We often make umbrellas using the customer’s own materials for fashion shows, film and television; for example we produced umbrellas for ITV’s ‘Dancing On Ice’, where the umbrella covers were made out of the same dress material as the dancer, and we made all the umbrellas for Jackie Chan film “Around The World In 80 days”.
We also restore many umbrellas, some that are well over 100 years old and only require a new cover; it’s fantastic to see that with the right treatment how well our products last over time, with the hand-made springs still working perfectly, and we take a lot of pride in restoring items that have become family heirlooms.
With such a wide variety of umbrellas to choose from, with umbrellas coming in tube, stick and solid forms, woods and cane varying from whangee and malacca to acacia and patridge wood, and a wide colour palette and choice of styles, can you provide any tips for a first-time buyer?
Customers should first decide on how they wish to use the umbrella – will they want to lean or put pressure on the umbrella like a walking stick, if so then they would require a stick or a solid umbrella, but if they require a slim classic-looking umbrella then the tube range would be their best bet. The stick umbrellas are used when a customer wants a handle like malacca or whanghee which are canes and cannot be made into a solid umbrella. As to colour and style, that’s really down to personal preference.
For me personally, I like the natural graining and tactile feel of wood, and it provides good durability and longevity. However, I know that many of our customers prefer a slightly slimmer look, and prefer a tube. It’s all down to personal preference.
What do you think are the main contributing factors as to why Fox Umbrellas has endured for so long, and continues to go from strength-to-strength, whilst the majority of umbrella manufacturers operating in the traditional way has declined rapidly?
I believe it is because Fox Umbrellas has stayed true to its values; we operate at the top of the umbrella market and our passion and attention to detail is visible in the end product.
Most umbrellas today are made in China and many people claiming to make their umbrellas in the UK in fact only finish the product here by sticking the handles on, and our customers are very discerning and realise that.
We also have a strong export market which helps when sales slow up in the UK – it’s always raining somewhere in the world!
What’s next for Fox Umbrellas; are we going to see the opening of a store, greater product ranges, for instance?
We don’t have any plans to open a store, but we have, however, just launched a gents and ladies travel raincoat that is made in London out of our umbrella fabric to complement our range of umbrellas.
Again, we believe attention to detail is key. Our raincoats are produced from 100% High Density Polyester that has been proofed on both sides, and we have also ensured that even the thread of our coats is proofed for water repellence. The raincoats come with a carry pouch for presentation and storage, but the coats have also been designed to pack into their own hoods, making them small, compact and versatile.
We don’t have any overly-ambitious plans for the company; Fox Umbrellas have been producing top quality umbrellas for over 140 years and there is an old saying “if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it”.
Thanks to Paul Garrett for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. All images © Fox Umbrellas.