Come Rain or Shine…
Fox Umbrellas will provide the required high quality and elegant protection. Tucked away in South London, their small workshop is a mecca for those seeking the finest ladies or gents brollies
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Given our climate and this country’s obsession with all things weather related, it is unsurprising that Britain has the finest umbrella manufacturers in the world. Foremost amongst these is Fox Umbrellas, the sixth-generation family firm who is celebrating 150 years in business in 2018. Founded by Thomas Fox on what is now London Wall in 1868, Fox Umbrellas now manufactures 25,000 umbrellas a year with international customers coming to the firm for both their supremely high-quality ready-made and bespoke models.
Thomas Fox himself soon bowed out of the firm’s story, in 1880 he allegedly lost the firm over a game of cards to the Dixon family who ran it for 119 years before the father of current managing director Paul Garrett, took over in 1999. Paul himself became managing director overseeing all day to day operations in 2013. This intimate, family feel is very evident when both talking to Paul and Huw Griffith-Jones, their sales director, who has been with Fox Umbrellas since 1986, “it’s about running a business that looks after its staff,” maintains Paul. Given out of the small team of 20 artisans many have been with the firm for well over a decade and one of the mounters, George, has been there for 57 years, Fox Umbrellas certainly has good retention and importantly, this allows generational continuity to be maintained and skills and knowledge passed down. “Hands on training for us is huge,” comments Paul, new staff have a three-month trial period but chatting with several of the craftsmen and women on the workshop floor, they all felt it took over a year to truly perfect their part in the process.
Fox Umbrellas offers a comprehensive selection of both men’s and women’s tube, stick and solid umbrellas. Tube umbrellas are based around a slim eight-millimetre steel tube whilst a stick umbrella utilises a wooden shaft. Solid umbrellas are made from one continuous piece of wood, these are the trickiest to make with well over 200 individual steps needed in its construction – even down to making the individual springs that are made and placed in the shaft by hand. Touring their factory, Paul explains that much of the process, even today, is done by eye; an experienced artisan can also tell by the sound alone whether the spring is correctly set. Certain woods as well, for example hickory, are harder to work with and require extra time and care.
The canopy, made of closely woven high density polyester, is cut by hand with each constituent panel being individually hemmed. Every model at Fox Umbrellas has its own pattern, the firm has around 25 of its most popular patterns in constant use. As well as polyester, some of the patterned canopies are made from a nylon/ polyester mix whilst for the Japanese market, the firm has used treated Liberty London cottons.
With this level of craftsmanship, it is unsurprising to hear Fox Umbrellas has constant bespoke orders, “all parts and details of the umbrella can be personalised,” comments Huw. The bespoke customer can select the wood for the shaft, the shape and material of the handle – up to sterling silver, Fox Umbrellas have had solid silver handles cast for clients – whether to have twin rather than single ribs in the frame (more like a golf umbrella), and this is before basic canopy colour, the collar metal and any engraving or initialling is considered.
Gratifying both Paul and Huw report a strong market, “there will always be a requirement for classic, high quality umbrellas,” Paul comments. Most of the firm’s sales are for men’s brollies though Huw remarks, “women’s umbrellas are a strong and resilient market for us.” Many women increasingly look for a more practical rather than ornate umbrella and from this customer feedback, the firm has introduced a slightly larger 23.5 inch canopy to sit alongside their traditional very elegant 20 inch canopied models. Whanghee or bamboo handles continue to be very popular with female clients as well. There remains a good market for solid men’s umbrellas whilst bamboo or Malacca shaft models remain perennially strong sellers. Though black continues to be the biggest seller, as Paul comments, “people love individuality and recently we’ve seen many more customers opting for other, brighter colours.”
In common with many other British craft firms, Fox Umbrellas has a strong presence and following in the Far East, the firm is 70 per cent export driven, with Japan the largest market though Huw sees both the Chinese and South Korean markets consistently growing. The firm is developing their US market, “they generally like larger umbrellas over there,” Paul remarks, “and they are huge fans of our solid, one-piece models.”
A classic umbrella remains an investment item, “treat it well and it can last a lifetime,” enthuses Paul, “you have an umbrella that clearly looks that little bit special.” As Huw points out, all parts of their umbrellas can be replaced or refurbished – the ribs are usually the parts that first go due to being caught by a gust of wind. Fox Umbrellas has a steady stream of repairs coming through its small Croydon workshop, they handle a lot of antique repairs and even occasionally see whalebone framed umbrellas come back in for work. Whilst there is an outlay for such a quality item – one that many of us can forget we’re carrying – like any top-notch accessory as Huw says, “if you spend good money on an umbrella you become more aware of it and cherish it that bit more.”
Fox Umbrellas is now a wholesale and e-commerce oriented firm; sadly their shop in London Wall closed in the early 2000s. Though now a wine bar, Huw smiles that the shop and its fittings were architecturally listed so their old display cabinets are still intact; just now showing off wine rather than England’s finest brollies. The firm also offers a comprehensive range of walking sticks, Paul asserts there will always be a market for them, “not everyone wants a basic stick if you have to use one, if you do find you are having to use a stick every day you want something a bit different that reflects your taste and is robust enough to take constant use.”
As part of celebrating their 150 years of business, Fox Umbrellas have produced a limited run – 150 examples – of an anniversary umbrella. A solid umbrella made from walnut it, unusually for a formal brolly, has a twin rib frame and has a hallmarked silver collar which will be individually engraved and numbered.
Challenges will always remain, “the heat wave (of 2018) doesn’t help – dry summers are always a problem for us!” Paul says with a chuckle, “it means that wholesale clients don’t see the walk-in purchases they usually do.” Much though of Fox Umbrellas business is more considered, people make a deliberate and considered purchase. Given the sheer craftsmanship and quality at Fox’s of this too frequently overlooked yet critical accessory, for both a summer downpour or winter snow flurry it is worth choosing and investing in a sound brolly that will give you decades of service and this small Croydon workshop clearly makes some of the best.