Forget being the first in your group to spread the word about the hottest clubs, the coolest restaurants, and the most hush-hush sample sales. None of that matters. If you live in Vancouver, the information you really need to know is where to hear the sound of a good umbrella. A low-decibel version of the solid reassuring clunk of a Mercedes door closing, the modest whisper of quality signifies, in an umbrella’s case, even tension. Why am I banging on about this? Because if we all sunk a bit more money into good umbrellas, two things would happen: first, we would take better care of them; and second, the city streetscape would be far less dull.
“We have a six-months rainy season here. We should enjoy the rain.” So says Jun Ogata, as he demonstrates umbrella sounds. A Vancouver resident for the past 20 years, Ogata is explaining why he opened his bumbershoot store five months ago at 2571 West Broadway. It’s called Caí§a (pronounced “casa”), which sounds like the Japanese for “umbrella”; from there, he plans to wean us off the $4.98 collapsible jobbies most of us sport by selling irresistibly attractive umbrellas from Italy and Japan. We are brolly-sloppy here, and we are also brolly-deficient. Ogata says he read somewhere that the average Japanese person owns five to seven umbrellas, although Asian people also carry them against the sun, he points out. He finds local styles boring: “Beautiful lady has broken, folding umbrella. I don’t like to see that.” He’s right. If you work in a downtown office building, look out to the street below and, instead of the dreary, noir-ish current, picture a river of constantly shifting colour and pattern. Better still, rent The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and commit the opening sequence to memory.
It’s odd. Many women happily spend hundreds on shoes and designer purses but peanuts on an umbrella, even though it’s your largest, most visible, most constant fashion accessory. (Ogata is forthright with his feelings on men’s umbrellas: “Enormous, black, boring.” So he only carries a small selection.) If you must have black, look at the one that Ogata sells, with delicate picot edging and a couple of translucent, subtly sequined flowers ($64). Classically Japanese is a beautiful black (or crimson) umbrella printed with silvery bamboo stalks that glisten like rain on a sidewalk ($64).
“Make rainy days be bright” reads a sign next to umbrella models printed with the work of Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, or Edgar Degas. The Pasotti Ombrelli collection from Italy has the glimmer of silk. One especially spectacular example features a garden of multicoloured flowers on a black background ($148). “Some people think it’s too busy. I don’t think so,” Ogata says. Umbrellas in zebra, leopard, or tiger prints ($68) are so Italian you can picture yourself leaping off a Vespa and sauntering down the Via Tornabuoni. By the way, Italian umbrellas are slightly larger than Japanese ones. It figures: pasta versus sushi.
“This is my specialty.” Ogata opens an umbrella that has 16 ribs instead of the usual eight. Its outside is glowing pink satin, and a matching tassel hangs from the handle. Open it, look overhead, and you’re in your own secret rose garden. The approach—plain exterior and patterned lining—also comes in blue and gold ($88). Styled more for sunny days (but still rainproof) are delectable vintage-looking little black brollies with, to pick just two examples, a black-edged cream “petticoat” peeking out or black-embroidered white lace trim ($84). On a practical level, double-layered umbrellas provide more protection from the elements, and definitely better aesthetics. One 16-panelled version sold here comes in dark green and is lined with panels of pink, soft green, honey, and beige. The contrasting colours appear as small scallops around the edge ($98). A square version has a black underlayer and a top of splashy flowers in vivid coral, purple, and yellow, with both layers edged in purple ($198).
Ogata is understandably passionate about the handmade Japanese brollies for women. Arched inserts of lace the colours of peacock feathers embellish the edge of one in navy satin. An indigo-coloured umbrella is shaped like a pagoda and printed with beige-winged, red-bodied butterflies; a red tassel swings from its looped bamboo handle ($288).
Vancouver women are finally starting to spend money on umbrellas, says Ogata. Could it be that the fear of leaving your umbrella on a bus has been a deterrent up until now? “Once you have a nice one, you won’t lose it,” he says.