British umbrella maker always open to more exports


Reams of sheet gold, chunks of solid silver shaped into horses' heads and acres of exuberantly coloured fabric are surrounded by a cacophony of whirring and hammering.

The interconnecting rooms and workshops have the feel of an Aladdin's cave for adults and the Heath Robinson-like machinery, controlled by nimble-fingered workers, hums with long-practised skill and expertise.

This is the beating heart of the Fox Umbrellas factory. The company was founded during the reign of Queen Victoria and her descendants are still customers.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The character of John Steed, seen here in The New Avengers, carried a Fox umbrella

"Prince Charles bought his father one of our racing umbrellas," company owner Ray Garrett says. "It's got a special handle which holds a pencil to mark the racing card."

They have also made umbrellas for John Steed, the dapper secret agent in The Avengers, and Mycroft Holmes in the BBC Sherlock series.

The domestic market has traditionally formed the backbone of sales but exports have always been crucial to the factory.

Ray says John F Kennedy liked a Malacca cane handle with a gold collar on his brolly when he was US president.

Perhaps the most extravagant product to leave the Croydon, south London, factory was a specially commissioned gold model made for the Sultan of Brunei.

"The frame was gold-plated, the canopy was a gold-leaf fabric and the handle was covered in diamonds and rubies.

"At the time it cost £15,000, although I dread to think what it's worth now," he says.

Rising overseas sales

Private retail clients are just a small part of the market. The bulk of foreign sales are to department stores such as Bloomingdale's in the US and Mitsukoshi in Japan, but emerging economies are increasingly important.

"We sell to the USA, Australia, western Europe, China and increasingly Russia," says Mr Garrett.

"In Russia and China the new middle classes want to buy traditional, well-made British products."

Last year, exports overtook domestic sales for the first time with 54% of orders coming from abroad.

Fox sells around 20,000 umbrellas a year in the UK and abroad, and despite the financial crisis has continued to experience year-on-year sales growth.

Image copyright Elizabeth Hotson
Image caption Rolled, packed and ready to go - to customers all around the world

In the cutting room, Mr Garrett is surrounded by rolls of vividly coloured cloth.

"Italy and Germany prefer darker colours whereas Japan generally goes for lighter shades," he says, before walking over to a table covered in swathes of eye-catching, patterned fabric - samples of a new Liberty print for export to Japan later this year.

'Customers are willing to spend'

Image caption Ray Garrett says the new middle classes in Russia and China want to buy traditional British products

The colours are noticeably bright and summery. Mr Garrett explains that in Japan there is demand for umbrellas in both wet and dry weather. In the summer, the brollies are used as parasols.

Crucially, the international client base means the company does not suffer seasonal slumps, because "it's always raining somewhere in the world".

"If it's sunny in one country it'll be damp and drizzly somewhere else," he adds

The umbrellas are not cheap, starting at £40 ($66) and going up to thousands but Mr Garrett says business was unaffected by the recession.

"People who can afford it will always buy quality. Our customers are willing to spend money on a premium product. You could say we're the Rolls-Royce of umbrellas."

But quality takes time and effort and umbrella making is a labour-intensive industry. From engraving names on to handles to sewing the buttons to the umbrella straps, dozens of individual processes are involved.

Experienced workers

Jan Johnson, iron in hand, is standing over an open umbrella. She explains that ironing the material on the covers does more than just create a neat finish.

"Once they've been ironed, we put them on the floor so that when they cool, they fit perfectly around the shape of the frame. I normally iron about 40 covers an hour."

Image copyright Elizabeth Hotson
Image caption Fox staff put finishing touches to the brollies

It can take years to learn specialisms such as handle shaping and mounting and many of Fox's employees have spent most of their working lives at the factory.

Ms Johnson has been with the company 13 years and one of her colleagues, George Plonka, started 55 years ago.

Emerging markets may be crucial to the company's survival. But for Fox, experience is priceless.

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