In the 1960s, Jacques Demy directed Catherine Deneuve in two wonderful musical confections, The Young Girls of Rochefort (with her sister Françoise Dorléac) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. To my knowledge, only the latter film inspired a new luxury handcrafted goods company decades later.
It is very easy to sound discouraged when writing about makers of quality clothing and accessories. There seem to be fewer and fewer of them and the ones that exist often have had to compromise their standards or come to terms with a present where most people don’t care about the care such makers put into their work or don’t know enough to seek them out. And, of course, competitors making cheaper versions of their offerings can undercut them and spend the difference on better marketing. Making something with care takes time, practice and skill, along with interested purchasers who care about such details and can afford them. Thus, there aren’t many new enterprises making things from the ground up, as opposed to new businesses trying to sell the idea of custom or heritage by opening a storefront at an expensive address and being coy about product. It is refreshing to come in from the rain and discover a new company that does offer quality without pretension.
Let us return to Cherbourg, that rainy town in Normandy associated with transatlantic crossings and Demy’s plangent operetta sung so blithely. Even with their singing voices dubbed, Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo brought an innocence, a genuineness to a sad little story of true love. To avoid spoilers and wordiness, I’ll sum it up as boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Girl loses innocence. Each eventually gains maturity and an acceptance of how fate has separated them.
Thirty-three years after The Umbrellas of Cherbourg came out, a man named Jean-Pierre Yvon founded Le Véritable Parapluie de Cherbourg (literally, the genuine umbrella of Cherbourg), taking inspiration from the title of the film (umbrellas do not, to my recollection, play a pivotal role in its plot). True to its name, each Véritable Cherbourg umbrella is made in Cherbourg, France and intended to stand that area’s very active “wind and tide” according to its brochure. Canopies are tested for wind resistance in windtunnels in St-Cyr and feature overlocked stitching for water resistance, with carbon steel ribs in certain of the top-line umbrellas.
True to the film, the Véritable Cherbourg line features a certain degree of whimsy – canopies are available in, felicitously, a rainbow of colors (including the mauve I chose). The brand’s amusing coat of arms (crossed umbrellas over the arms of the city of Cherbourg, which include three bezants or gold balls) can be embroidered there in full color or tone on tone.
Le Véritable Cherbourg has a number of different models, from lighter models up to a doorman-size umbrella for two people to shelter under in a gale (or so they claim). Handles range from chestnut and maple to old-growth Malacca on the luxury models, which also have handsewn lambskin rosettes (the fabric-covered ring that slides along the umbrella shaft and connects to the ribs). All models have a little collar proclaiming they are the genuine article – in brass, gold plate or gunmetal. I chose a portable folding umbrella for when the fancy takes me, with a maple handle and the coat of arms embroidered tone on tone. No need to stick out. It performs well – more substantial in feel than other folding umbrellas I’ve owned and as yet not even the hint of flipping inside out.
Le Véritable Cherbourg has also done special umbrellas, including a commemorative of the Normandy landings. However, its range generally focuses on practical models with a fairly limited set of handle choices and other options. I imagine it’s probably necessary given their small size and niche. In that regard, more Internet-famous umbrella makers like Brigg of London and Mario Talarico can sleep easy knowing that Le Véritable Cherbourg can’t fulfill every daydream: no solid-stick umbrellas (that is, where the handle and shaft are made of one piece of wood like a walking stick) or silk canopies, which, pace those who romanticize them, aren’t quite as good at keeping the rain out. There are no whimsical handles like oxhorn or solid silver either. A few other umbrella makers in France might offer such extravagances, in particular the beautiful Alexandra Sojfer at Madeleine Gély, a magical little shop where she turns out gorgeously unaffordable creations. Another maker, Fayet, makes a whangee-handled sword umbrella – catnip to those of us who keep a perfectly curled Herbert Johnson bowler hidden away, but the blade is dull and the umbrella flimsy for the steep price.
Instead, the fancy of Le Véritable Cherbourg is limited to the twinge of recognition at its name and the way its umbrellas, like the songs of the film, allow us to glide through and over a sordid reality until we, too, can come to terms with it. Until then, Le Véritable Cherbourg can be our artificial shelter in that grey rain.
While its website lists a limited number of resellers in some random places (including Naples, Florida and Knokke-le-Zoute), Le Véritable Cherbourg is not widely available outside France. But its umbrellas can be ordered direct from the makers with little fuss.
-Text and photos by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans