By Jodie Martinson
So maybe you’ve heard. In Vancouver, it rains…a lot…especially recently.
That’s what I was thinking the other day when I headed out to find a good umbrella. I was going to splurge, spend a little more this time. After all, it would be either over my head or in my backpack almost every day of winter.
I visited The Umbrella Shop, a boutique crammed to the ceiling with umbrellas. I met Michelle King there, who has worked at The Umbrella Shop for a few years. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say she got excited to show me around the shop and in-site factory.
We went upstairs where they make the “stick” umbrellas—the non-folding ones that look more classical. There I found a cramped room with piles of fabric, vintage sewing machines, Michelle’s two little girls, and a few of her co-workers. A family shop.
“We’ve been making the same umbrella since 1935, using the same machines. You can see that they’re all really, really [customized] old Singer sewing machines,” Michelle said as we moved around the room.
Michelle walked us through the process of making an umbrella: cloth triangles get sewn together, then a circular thingamabob is sewn onto the top and little cylindrical thingies for the ribs of the umbrella to fit into are affixed to each point. Then, the ribs of the umbrella are sown to the cloth through a quick little stitch halfway down each rib. Then the finishing is done.
“Woosh,” is the sound the umbrella makes as Michelle opens it. “So each of these little pieces is hand-done…And that’s how the umbrella fits together.”
I’ve been noticing how rain fashion is so ‘in vogue’ in Vancouver. Not just raincoats, but funky gumboots and matching umbrellas. Of course, it’s functional in a city with so much rain. But it seems somewhat frivolous too.
Let me explain: gumboots come in all sorts of colours and designs. They’re pricey, many easily costing over $100. They’re worn proudly, pant legs tucked in, to more formal places than you would expect.
When I lived in Montreal, they were somewhat fashionable at my university for a year. I remember the Art History girls slosh-sloshing in them around McGill.
“Oh brother!” I thought at the time. “What a wasteful pair of shoes to have in Montreal.” I was studying environmental studies. I assumed that rain specific fashion items were uncomfortable, cold, and non-functional.
Recently though, after too many days with wet feet from my used and abused leather shoes that have become too permeable for the rain, I’ve been thinking about trying out a pair of galoshes. My friend Rebecca bought some. When I commented on them, she gave me a sales pitch: made in Canada from recycled plastic, cheaper than most fashionable boots, and made to fit like a shoe.
I’m environmentally conscious at The Umbrella Shop too. That’s why I perk up when Michelle says:
“We get women coming in here after twenty years,” Michelle imitates a squeaky old woman voice. “I need a little tip replacement done.”
It’s an old fashioned ideal about durability that The Umbrella Shop seems to have enshrined into their business model.
Michelle shares an umbrella sales pitch she overheard once at the night market:
“Three for five dollars,” she heard the sales woman say.
The shopper said she only needed one. To which the sales lady replied:
“No you need three, they break.”
Michelle thinks that’s silly.
“They’re not disposable items…It’s quality versus quantity.”