HIGH AND DRY?

Should an umbrella last a lifetime or be a mere consumer disposable? Our panel tests eight across the range
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UMBRELLAS were first seen in ancient times in China, when their use was largely ceremonial; the bigger the canopy, the more important the person beneath. (Some psychologists claim this rule exerts a subconscious influence over modern umbrella users). But almost 60 per cent of all umbrellas sold today are bought by people caught in the rain: distress purchasing, as it is referred to gleefully in the trade. Umbrellas bought as fashion accessories enjoy a more discriminating market, but are significantly more expensive. Are they worth it?

THE PANEL

We asked Jonathan Wardle from James Smith & Sons, the oldest umbrella shop in the world, to give away some trade secrets. He agreed to give us general advice, but would not comment on specific brands. The rest of the panel consisted of Jeremy Spooner (a golf umbrella enthusiast), Shelley Grobler (rueful loser of more umbrellas than anyone she has ever known) and me (tag hag and scorner of all telescopic varieties).

THE TEST

We examined the umbrellas for signs of durability, value for money, aesthetic appeal and ease of operation. We had intended to test them in high winds, until James Smith & Sons advised that no umbrella was made for use in storm conditions and "in any case it wouldn't keep you dry, because wind blows rain sideways".

****KEITH HARING DESIGN

pounds 23.95

We were all delighted with this jazzy, shoulder-strap umbrella printed with a painting by the late graffiti artist Keith Haring. Even Jeremy Spooner applauded the cover design, and said he would definitely buy it "for a girl". Shelley Grobler thought its brightness rather than the shoulder strap had helped her not to forget it - "the strap is actually too long and can't be adjusted". The matching rounded tips, ferrule and handle were points we all applauded. This is a real city umbrella - extremely lightweight and with no sharp features to stab someone in a railway carriage.

**TOTES AUTOMATIC

pounds 25

"One of your cheapish chain-store umbrellas," was Jeremy Spooner's immediate response to this black, spring-loaded model. He felt the automatic mechanism was too fast; as it hits the top of the frame it would eventually break it. "It makes more sense for an umbrella to be manual; this is just one more thing to go wrong." Shelley reported having "no confidence in this umbrella". I thought it looked reasonable value until I discovered a hole in the nylon cover and found that the impressive "lifetime warranty" does not cover "fabric, case or handle". Jonathan Wardle said automatic brollies need not be more breakable than manuals; it's just that you have to spend "around pounds 50" to procure a good one.

VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM J G CRACE

pounds 59.95

A classic case of nice idea but poor execution, this double-covered, bulky and heavy umbrella has a lining printed to look like a ceiling with putti by 19th-century designer John Gregory Crace, but the story on the label is the most impressive thing about it. Shelley Grobler disliked the "nasty sheen" on the black outer cover and the way that the fabric bunched around the tips. We all found the day-glo pink of the cherub figures on the lining tacky. Jeremy Spooner likened going out with it to "walking around with a preposterous portable gazebo over your head". Clearly not worth the price.

***BURBROLLY

pounds 112

The only umbrella tested to be made entirely in England, this Rolls- Royce of rainshields has a stem and handle made of the same piece of wood (virtually indestructible) and is covered in the famous Burberry plaid, sewn to form perfect concentric circles . All the panel members gasped at the price even as they admired the workmanship. Shelley Grobler especially coveted the Burbrolly; she said she had enjoyed using it and even found its name appealing. Jonathan Wardle said the great thing about an umbrella made of one piece of wood is that you can lean on it, but declined to comment on whether the Burbrolly was overpriced. I thought the metal logo plaque tacky and wondered whether I would like to pay so much to advertise somebody's store for them. Jeremy Spooner was unequivocal: "This is a very nicely made object, but it is strictly for Japanese tourists."

*****JAMES SMITH & SONS COUNTRY STYLE

pounds 54.50

Though this comes from our expert adviser's firm, he did not influence our choice in any way. None the less, it was our absolute favourite; a slim, elegant, yet sturdy walking-length umbrella covered in polyester cotton plaid (which wears better than cotton), with a nicely rounded, malacca cane handle. It has many of the features of the much more expensive Burbrolly, including a plaid rosette (to cover where the ribs are joined to the runner) and a nicer logo plaque. Even its weight couldn't deter me from carrying it about for a week. Both sexes could use it, and the price was thought fair. As Jonathan Wardle said with regard to leaving umbrellas on the bus, "Paying slightly more concentrates the mind wonderfully."

**SIMON DREW GOLF-STYLE

pounds 19.95

Chosen as representative of golf umbrella styles, only more amusing, this large, light model is decorated with fish and the inscription "Cod moves in mysterious ways" by the cartoonist Simon Drew. Jonathan Wardle says the depth of golf umbrellas makes them harder for the wind to invert, but their size makes them more vulnerable to wind damage overall. This was disappointing, since you felt that if only you could find a gust strong enough, with this brolly you could take off and be in Australia the next day. Shelley Grobler found the construction flimsier than that of the average golf umbrella. "It rattles as you carry it, and there's no spring to hold the tips in the metal ring." We women liked being able to see the pattern through the fabric, but Jeremy Spooner pooh-poohed this potential benefit. "The purpose of a pattern is make other people look at the umbrella; I would judge the possibilities for amusement from looking at the pattern yourself to be strictly limited. I don't like the pattern anyway, but then I'm a solicitor so you wouldn't expect me to."

ANONYMOUS MARKET-STALL AUTOMATIC

pounds 3.50

I left this black, spring-loaded, Chinese-made umbrella in a restaurant two hours after I had bought it - a waitress ran after me down the street with it - which proves that, consciously or otherwise, we don't value cheap things. All the panellists reported erratic working of the auto- mechanism, which tended to explode unprompted or require shaking to achieve full opening. The covering was described as "horrid and papery, like a shower curtain" by Shelley Grobler, and Jeremy Spooner said the whole thing was flimsy, "but if the purpose of an umbrella is to keep the rain off you, then this is fine and would last a few weeks". I said I would rather get wet. Jonathan Wardle maintained tactfully that many cheap umbrellas "are designed to be disposable, really".

***GRANT BARNETT ULTRA-MINI

pounds 9.95

Just eight inches long in its cover-matching case and opening out to three feet in diameter, this floral telescopic umbrella was hailed as "extremely neat" and "pretty" by all panel members. Jonathan Wardle denied our prejudice that collapsible brollies are inclined to collapse precisely at the joints and are the ones to be seen all over the pavements after a storm, like broken birds. It all depends, yet again, on the quality of the frame (check the price and country of origin - Britain or Germany are best). Shelley said she owned one like this and it was the only one she hadn't lost, but that was probably because she could never be bothered to get it out from the bottom of her bag. We all agreed that the price was excellent but that getting it up and down was "a terrible fiddle-faddle". It certainly does put you in ill humour to struggle with this spiky puffball as you are getting soaked. Perhaps this umbrella would be best bought as a gift for someone else.

STOCKISTS

Totes Automatic: John Lewis Part-nership Victoria & Albert Museum J G Crace umbrella: V&A shop or mail order (0181 729 3000); Simon Drew golf- style: Museum Stores, London, or mail order (0171 240 5760); Keith Haring design: Museum Stores (as above); Grant Barnett Ultra-mini: John Lewis Partnership; Burbrolly: Burberry's; James Smith Country: James Smith & Sons, London WC1, or mail order (0171 836 4731); Anonymous Automatic: souvenir shops and market stalls everywhere.

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