- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

You’ve got the killer outfit, the perfect shoes, even a chic designer handbag. But when the rain starts to fall, do you reach for a flimsy black umbrella bought in haste during the last rainstorm — or, worse, a bulky golf umbrella that came free with your checking account?

If so, it’s time to go shopping.

“Umbrellas are becoming the new accessory,” says stylist Felix Mercado, a celebrity style expert for Fox News Channel. He says some of his high-profile clients have been calling this month requesting trendy umbrellas.

“You’re going to see a lot of the fashionistas playing it up with interesting umbrellas,” he says.

The interest in the decidedly utilitarian item is driving manufacturers to come up with new and prettier designs that repel rain but attract compliments.

ShedRain, for example, which produces both high-end and lower-priced umbrellas, is selling a line of luxury umbrellas designed by the Italian company Ombrelli that are retailing for $195. The handle and shaft are made from a single hand-carved piece of wood, and the canopy is covered with Italian twill polyester in a variety of prints, including plaids, florals and a Tibetan-inspired stripe.

“If people are paying $195 for an umbrella, they’re seeing it as a fashion accessory,” says Jeff Blauer, ShedRain’s executive vice president of business development.

Seattle-based Pare Umbrellas this season is offering several lingerie-inspired designs, a style that’s become popular on both sides of the Atlantic. “When it is closed, it looks like an old-styled bloomer,” says owner Satoko Kobayashi of the company’s frilly Mary Poppins model.

French lingerie designer Chantal Thomass offers seven new umbrella designs adorned with a similarly sexy mix of lace, bows and Swarovski crystals.

Mr. Mercado recently ordered Miss Thomass’ Pom-Pom model for a client. “Women are saying, ‘I’m going to have fun with this,’ ” he says. “It’s like an extension of your personality.”

High-fashion umbrellas are being marketed to men as well as to women.

“It’s an accessory as important as your briefcase,” says David Kahng, chief executive of Davek, which sells men’s umbrellas for $95 at stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Mr. Kahng, a mechanical engineer, designed his umbrellas with a solid steel shaft and a flexible carbon polymer frame. The company offers a lifetime guarantee against breakage.

Mr. Kahng, though, says fashion also is a priority for customers, and he sells black umbrellas with one contrasting panel, either pale blue or wasabi green.

“Until now, with a handbag or shoes or sunglasses, there was that expectation, but until recently, umbrellas didn’t have that fashion clout,” he says.

Some people also are adopting the habit of using umbrellas for sun protection.

“You don’t see so many people walking around with umbrellas in the sun yet, but you see more than you did a few years ago,” says Ann Headley, director of rain-product development at Totes. “You do see them in Manhattan in the heat of the summer.”

Totes has created light-colored umbrellas with specially treated fabric offering a sun-protection factor of 50. “A black umbrella does about the same thing,” Miss Headley says, “but in the sun in the summer, you don’t want a black umbrella.”

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