Umbrellas are an essential item for protection against seasonal spring showers – and one company in Cherbourg is finding this universal and most basic of accessories is still extremely popular.
Charles Yvon, 31, took on the family business, Le Véritable Cherbourg (parapluiedecherbourg.com) when his father retired – and explains what makes a successful family business.
What inspired your father to start making umbrellas?
In 1964, a popular film was released, starring Catherine Deneuve called Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
It was the first film to be entirely sung and filmed in the streets of Cherbourg and made the town famous.
My father was a fashion photographer who worked all over the world, but eventually he decided to come back to his home town and in 1986, inspired by the film and by the world of fashion he created Le Véritable Cherbourg company to make quality umbrellas.
You took over from your father when he retired last July. Were you happy to take over the family firm?
At first I did not want to have anything to do with it because my father worked so hard all the time, so I studied sciences instead.
Then, I began helping from time to time and when I realised how extraordinary and varied the work is, I went to business school and at the same time learnt everything there was to know about how we make our umbrellas.
I am now totally seduced by the world of umbrellas and I have very many projects and ideas for Le Véritable Cherbourg. I think it has a great future ahead of it and we will soon be able to take on more employees.
What is it that makes you so passionate about umbrellas?
They are a timeless and elegant accessory which are both beautiful and practical. They are robust and are passed down from generation to generation.
Many, many people come to our boutique with a broken umbrella that they ask us to repair, because it belonged to their mother or their father and they are very attached to it emotionally.
They are not anodyne objects, but important to the owner.
Are umbrellas still a fashionable accessory?
Yes, they are à la mode and very popular all over the world.
We sell to Japan and to Korea and are opening up in the United States. Because they are beautiful objects, people will carry them even when it is not raining.
Many women have collections, with different colours to match different outfits. For men it is very fashionable because of its “gentlemanly” style.
There are umbrellas to suit every occasion. We make very large, white ones for weddings. Size is important. Taller people can have larger and longer ones, while shorter people choose smaller ones.
The way it folds up is important. Tightly folded umbrellas are more city sleek and fatter ones are more rustic. All the art de vivre can be found in an umbrella.
We also produce an umbrella which is used by bodyguards to physically protect VIPs from the worst of the weather, but also from any projectiles that may be thrown at them. It is used as a shield and is much heavier than a normal one, weighing up to 2.5 kgs. We give training in how to use this model for self-defence.
You pride yourself on the quality of your umbrellas. What makes a good-quality umbrella?
It all depends on the materials you use and the way in which they are made.
We use beautiful wood like oak, chestnut and maple for the handle and a resistant mixture of polyester and cotton for the canopy. Our umbrellas are made by hand and we check them for quality at each stage and reject anything that is not perfect. We aim for zero faults. If we send an umbrella to Japan we do not want it sent back because the sewing is uneven.
We are proud that we have been awarded the Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant label which is given by the State to reward French companies for their traditional and industrial know-how.
Most people imagine that umbrellas are quite straightforward to make. Is that the case?
There are 160 production stages and five years of in-house training necessary to master making a Véritable Cherbourg umbrella, which shows the level of craftsmanship required. Tourists can visit our workshops, and we show them around 35 of the different procedures.
How, then, do you make an umbrella?
We start by cutting the material which we receive in 50m or 100m long rolls.
Twenty layers are placed at a time onto a bed which is raised so as to mimic the shape of an open umbrella and the material is cut by a specially made machine into eight triangles for each umbrella.
We have six full-time employees making 8,000 umbrellas a year who all know how to perform each different step.
The cut triangles are sown together and this is followed by the most delicate operation which is to make a 7mm thick hem and sew it perfectly, despite the tension it is under, from its concave shape.
The spokes are then added and sown in place. At the same time the cane has been shaped and finished according to the type of wood and style required, and it is added to the material.
The last procedure, which requires a great deal of skill, is to evenly steam the entire surface so that the material will be fixed into its final place on the frame.
The umbrellas are left to dry all night and then comes the most joyous step which everyone takes part in at the beginning of the working day.
When I arrived at 8am this morning the team were standing in a circle carefully folding the finished umbrellas. Each one takes two minutes to fold, and rather than one person taking over three hours to fold a hundred umbrellas, and getting bored, it is something our craftsmen and women do together, and it is a satisfying and convivial moment when they appreciate the finished results of their work.
The drawback to buying a handmade, quality umbrella is that they are expensive with your starting prices at €125.
Yes, but our umbrellas are built to last, while you might have to frequently replace a cheaper one. I think the future is in producing objects which are made to last and to make products locally.
Our premises are by the harbour and I look out over the boats and as I sit here I am proud to be producing something that is beautiful, will be in existence for many years, is made in France by local people and I think the growing success of the business is a great thing for Cherbourg as it will create jobs for local people. There is a great future ahead for our umbrellas.