When Jamie Milestone launched umbrella brand London Undercover in 2009, he wanted to give the market a durable product with amazing design principles. But by pursuing quality over quantity he is also helping to solve an ecological problem – a problem we may not even know existed.
The 18th-century American politician Benjamin Franklin said in this world only death and taxes are certain, but today one could easily add to that climate change. In the UK, Met Office studies have shown that our wetter weather is increasingly more likely to be due to human-induced climate change. Yet the tool we so often employ to protect ourselves against the weather is also contributing to the climate crisis.
The humble waterproof umbrella, first developed in 11th century China, is a staple global accessory. Its role as a shield against wind and rain means that inevitably it is also one of the most disposed of items. The number of umbrellas stuffed into urban bins following a heavy downpour, broken and useless, is a testament to their fragility.
It’s highly doubtful, however, that you would find a London Undercover brolly in one of those receptacles. It’s not the higher price point that deters owners from trashing them, more a testament to how the product lives up to its remit of being built to last a very long time.
When Milestone launched his umbrella brand the intention had been to bring to the market not just a beautifully designed object but one that was of such high quality it could withstand the onslaught of British weather for many years. Then, should it succumb, it would be repairable.
"The idea really came together after I started visiting factories and would come across cheap, rubbish products with materials that were not going to last,” explains Milestone, who hails from a graphic design and branding background. “I didn’t want to get into this with a product that would fall apart, I wanted to offer the market an umbrella that people could take pride in."
With longevity in mind, the umbrellas are crafted in an East London factory from sustainably sourced materials. During the research and development process Milestone decided that if he was going to bring innovation to what was then a stale market, he would go all in and offer recycled materials where he could.
The canopies for the standard and telescopic umbrellas are made from 100 percent recycled PET fabric and over the next year the City Gent range will also shift over to the recycled material. It may seem an innocuous product, but the majority of umbrellas have a canopy made from petrochemical-derived polyester. This fabric is notorious for lingering in landfills, taking over 100 years to degrade.
Research conducted by the Italian eco-umbrella brand Ginkgo showed that around one billion umbrellas are put out of action each year. According to one of its co-founders, Federico Venturi, the team started with figures from the Italian umbrellas’ manufacturers association, which claims China manufactures 90 percent of the world’s umbrellas. They then looked at data published in the Italian magazine Focus, claiming that China exports 900 million brollies each year.
"We assumed then that one billion umbrellas per year are manufactured," says Venturi, "and so under the hypothesis that when one umbrella enters the market, another one exits, then every year one billion umbrellas are lost or broken."
While one should view these figures as ballpark only, it does give an idea of the scale of production. As a society, we have become accustomed to treating umbrellas as disposable as plastic bottles, especially when you can buy a replacement for as little as £1 in discount stores.
"People’s perception of an umbrella is that it’s a boring, disposable item," agrees Milestone. "For a long time, I had the idea of making an umbrella that people would be proud to own. Then around 2008, when the recession hit, people started getting interested in the heritage scene, and brands such as Grenson shoes opened themselves up to the younger market. People want something solid in times of uncertainty."
It was also around this time that Milestone left a full-time job to pursue his idea, taking freelance gigs to pay the bills. In 2009, following a successful pitch to Liberty, the first batch of London Undercover umbrellas went on sale in the London department store.
With such a prestigious backing, store orders quickly followed, as have many collaborations with brands such as Monocle and Vans. A collaboration with The Beatles, producing umbrellas featuring the iconic designs from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, is yet more evidence of London Undercover’s mission to inject not just quality but fun into the accessory.
Milestone has succeeded in reviving a classic British accessory but with a contemporary aesthetic, sought after by a broad range of customers. He reveals how in the space of one week the rapper Mos Def purchased an umbrella as well as the former politician and broadcaster Michael Portillo.
The brand’s success in driving interest in the product has also led to reviving the defunct art of umbrella repairs. London Undercover offers a one-year warranty and after that, a repair service.
"There was a time when umbrella repair services were on most street corners, it was the same as having your shoes repaired. It is quite a delicate item no matter how strong you make it," says Milestone. "You may be paying upwards of £75 for the [London Undercover] umbrella but should anything happen to it, we will repair it. We’re working in an old school way, and people really like that"
Milestone adds that this area of the business is one that will require careful planning going forward given that sales are growing year on year. The company now has two shops, as well as operating a wholesale arm. They are also seeing an increase in online sales, with Christmas being a peak time not just due to the weather but because the product is a popular gift item especially as they offer personalisation.
"We’re always going to be a small, independent company, and there’s a lot of learning to do at the moment around the circular economy and customer behaviour," adds Milestone, referring to the repairs service.
"We’re never going to be a massive company, so people cannot expect the business to act like Amazon. Our practices are by nature sustainable, we’re not fast fashion, we don’t do seasonal ranges where if they’re not sold we’ve got to get them out. We know what we’re making, we make them in small amounts, and we keep our materials down to a minimum."
Although Milestone did not set out to tackle an ecological problem, his own sense of not wanting to increase waste in the world has resulted in extending the brand’s sustainability practices by using any off-cuts or leftover umbrella fabric as lining in its range of accessories, from jackets to washbags. And his interest in impeccable design and innovation will soon see the debut of umbrellas with canopies made from recycled coffee beans. The coffee dregs are mixed with recycled bottles in the same process that produces the recycled PET fabric that London Undercover uses.
"An advantage of this is that it gives much higher UV protection,” he explains. "[We’re thinking] to try to put them in coffee shops that fit with our values, somewhere like Redemption Roasters. It’s another place where we can talk to people, show them what we’re doing and engage with people. It’s very clear that people are more concerned, there’s a lot of sustainable brands coming into existence. There are interesting things happening."
With the daily news cycle of climate devastation, now is the time for more businesses to emulate London Undercover, where thought is put into the potential impact of every element of the company’s output, including its packaging.
"[We have] put off giving a booklet away with each umbrella giving care instructions because we don’t want to send out unnecessary packaging,” he says. “It might save a few more umbrellas, but then you’re adding to waste and so we would prefer people went to our website for the information."