Since 1868 a small British firm has been painstakingly handcrafting the finest umbrellas and selling them to Prime Ministers, presidents and royalty. Nick Hammond meets one of the most distinguished umbrella makers in Britain.
The parapluie, the bumbershoot, the gamp, the brolly: where would we be—aside from soaked— without the great British umbrella?
From dog walkers to City suits, the humble brolly plays a daily part in the lives of millions and, since 1868, a small British firm has been painstakingly handcrafting the finest umbrellas and selling them worldwide to Prime Ministers, presidents and royalty. ‘We’re a small family company and it’s our attention to detail that really sets us apart,’ enthuses Paul Garrett, managing director of Fox Umbrellas of Croydon. ‘Of course, most umbrellas sold in the UK these days are made in China, but ours are handmade to order by our team of craftspeople in our factory right here in the UK.’
The firm is in its second generation of the Garrett family, with Paul’s father Ray as company chairman and his brother John as director of manufacturing. Machinists, woodworkers, mounters and craftsmen are all required to make the perfect Fox umbrella. This team of specialists includes George Plonka, who’s been making umbrellas for Fox for the small matter of 53 years. Nuggets from decades of his hard-won handcraft are now being passed on to apprentices. ‘We had a very old umbrella come in the other day for re-covering,’ says Mr Garrett. ‘Its owner wanted to know when it might have been made. George took one look at it and chuckled— he’d made it himself 50 years ago.’ Fox umbrellas can indeed last a lifetime if looked after. A repair or re-covering job will see them good as new and ready for another bout of seasonal weather.
For the classic British brolly that doubles as a walking aid, look no further than the Ladies or Gents Solid, in which the handle and shaft are made from one solid piece of wood. Finishes include hickory, oak, scorched maple and rosewood, but there’s plenty of variety and, ultimately, the choice is yours.
‘We do get asked for some very unusual and unique things at times,’ admits Mr Garrett. ‘These range from hidden swords and hip flasks to some rather James Bond-like designs, including communications devices. Of course, we keep our clientele to ourselves.’
Despite this discretion, it’s believed that members of the Royal Family are users of Fox umbrellas and the firm has a long history of supplying the great and the good. President John F. Kennedy requested umbrellas for family members and TV and movie prop masters regularly call in with special requests. The Avengers’ dashing John Steed kept enemies at bay with a Fox special and another modified umbrella was made for a recent TV reprise of Dancing on Ice.
Although the days of a father buying his son a suit and ‘proper’ umbrella before he embarks on a job in the City may be over, many Fox creations still end up in the Square Mile. ‘If you’ve spent a lot of money on an expensive suit, you don’t want to be carrying a tatty old brolly, do you?’ says Mr Garrett.
It’s not only city slickers who can carry a stylish brolly. Classics featuring animal heads and bright and beautiful ladies’ umbrellas are still popular, especially during the summer months. ‘As well as being practical— which all of our umbrellas must be— many have a part to play in style and fashion, too,’ continues Mr Garrett. ‘Ladies may take a deep frill to an event such as Ascot, for example. We get requests to match colours to specific outfits.’
If you buy a brolly from the likes of Davidoff of London, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason or Turnbull & Asser, the chances are, you’ll be the proud new owner of a brand new Fox product. For something that screams individuality during the next inevitable downpour, then it’s time to discuss a bespoke special. You may eventually find yourself looking skywards in hope rather than trepidation. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?
Keeping the nation dry since 1868: popular the world over with presidents, Prime Ministers, royalty and anyone else of discerning taste, Fox’s fine umbrellas are painstakingly crafted by hand in the UK and, if you look after yours properly, it should last a lifetime. Ladies’ models from £121 and gentlemen’s from £70. Fox Umbrellas Ltd, 240a, Wickham Road, Shirley, Croydon , Surrey (020– 8662 0022; www.foxumbrellas.com)