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Happy when it pours: The umbrella man of Milan

By Gisella Deputato, CNN
April 30, 2014 -- Updated 0833 GMT (1633 HKT)
Francesco Maglia is known for his sharp dress sense and sharper wit. He's also known to indulge in a spot of rain-related singing. Francesco Maglia is known for his sharp dress sense and sharper wit. He's also known to indulge in a spot of rain-related singing.
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The umbrella man of Milan
"English style" design
Wooden canes
Made by hand
Bespoke umbrellas
Long history
Eighty-step process
International market
Made by women
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Francesco Maglia Umbrella company makes every umbrella by hand
  • Umbrellas are assembled using an 80-step traditional process
  • The company was founded in 1854 by the ancestor of its current owner
  • The umbrellas are exported all over the world

Editor's note: This piece, and several others on Milan, complement the CNNGo TV series. Starting with a tour through the city with two top fashion models and a photographer, this month's CNNGo TV episode then ventures into the "fashion quadrangle," arguably the most fashionable shopping district on the planet, and also takes a trip to the city's most famed umbrella maker. More on Milan plus the full show can be found here: www.cnn.com/cnngo

(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.

MORE: Insider guide to the most fashionable place on Earth

Only wooden shafts -- usually chestnut, ash, walnut or cherry.
Only wooden shafts -- usually chestnut, ash, walnut or cherry.

Concerns for the future

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."

MORE: The fashion model's guide to Milan

Many of the company\'s workers are nearing retirement age.
Many of the company's workers are nearing retirement age.

Two-handled umbrella?

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 recent 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.

At 71, 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."

MORE: Milan: 7 things to know before you go

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