Umbrellas are like pens. They can just drift in and out of your life. You have no idea where they come from or where they go. You can't remember the last time you had to buy one, but there always seems to be one around. Usually with some insurance company’s logo on it. They’re a low quality, low care item with a built-in obsolescence, so when one cheap umbrella breaks, another cheap umbrella is bought. Or found. Or taken. Blunt Umbrellas, a small, tight-knit company based in Auckland, is trying to change all that. Blunt want to alter the way we think about umbrellas by making one that isn’t just stronger, but better.
Umbrellas are like pens. They can just drift in and out of your life. You have no idea where they come from or where they go. You can’t remember the last time you had to buy one, but there always seems to be one around. Usually with some insurance company’s logo on it. They’re a low quality, low care item with a built-in obsolescence, so when one cheap umbrella breaks, another cheap umbrella is bought. Or found. Or taken. Blunt Umbrellas, a small, tight-knit company based in Auckland, is trying to change all that. Blunt want to alter the way we think about umbrellas by making one that isn’t just stronger, but better.
In the late-’90s, New Zealand engineer Greig Brebner was on his OE in London, a city with its fair share of rain. When it rained, Brebner, over six feet tall, would find himself at eye level with the sharp tips of hundreds of umbrellas, bobbing and spinning around his head. On windy days, the streets would be lined with discarded umbrellas, broken and torn. Brebner was working for Adaptive Broadband, a UK-based tech company, designing wireless networking devices. He had come up with hundreds of product ideas in his own time, but none had come to fruition. Inspired by James Dyson’s autobiography Against the Odds, he decided to focus on one product and stick with it, rather than continuously repeating the early stages of invention. Thinking he could “do anything”, he set himself a goal: to redesign the umbrella, an iconic product that had been largely unchanged for a century. “I had lots of prototypes,” he says, “lots of rubbish. I went too radical to start with, trying to reinvent everything about the way an umbrella works. I’m like a lot of people, I try a bit too hard when I invent things.” Thinking too far outside the box, he struggled to come up with a design that would even stay up. It took recognising the strengths of the traditional umbrella for him to realise where innovation was necessary. “It was when I looked at the existing umbrella and realised that a lot of it was still okay that I got somewhere,” he says. “Because if you go too radical, you just get nowhere really.”
Umbrellas have remained the same for a reason. “As a design, it’s super restrictive,” Brebner continues. “There’s not a lot of room for movement because everything has to be really compact when it’s down and it has to be easy to put up. You can’t just put silicon chips in it to make it better.” Brebner’s umbrella has two subtle but important innovations. The first is an additional lever that transfers force of the spokes from the vertical (tightening the umbrellas canopy from the centre to the tip of each spoke) to the horizontal (making the fabric tight across the canopy). The second is a patented plastic mechanism at the end of each spoke, making the umbrella safer by rounding the end points, and stronger by tightening the fabric as much as possible at the point of maximum wind exposure. The cumulative effect is that the canopy is as taut as possible. “The big thing was working out that the fabric had to be tight to be strong,” he says. “A wing instead of a big floppy sail.”
When Brebner came back to New Zealand, he got a prototype made at his father’s plastics factory and started the long process of patenting his invention. But like many inventors, he had no idea how to commercialise his idea. He met Scott Kington, now managing director, in the early 2000s when Kington was working for a company that made products at Brebner’s father’s factory. Kington, who has a Masters in Marine Biology, wanted to produce an oyster tray for the aquaculture industry and was looking for a product designer.
He was introduced to Brebner who soon showed him his umbrella design, and the two clicked.Kington saw Brebner’s design as a novel solution to an old problem and a rare opportunity to develop a high-end, cutting-edge product. The two spent the next five years getting the first Blunt umbrella into production. That major hurdle overcome, the last five years have been about taking it to the world. Currently in 1500 stores in 30 countries, there have been some tough lessons learnt about taking an innovative product into an established global market. Initially, Blunt were so enthusiastic about the performance of their umbrella, they thought all they had to do was show a few distributors how it works and they’d be on the way to world domination. But such an trajectory is impossibly rare. Accessing markets has meant spending time finding the right people in the right places, cultivating relationships with distributors and building a customer base, one umbrella at a time.“It’s better for people to find it and see you and come to you wanting something versus you going and tapping on people’s shoulders,” Kington says. “You could define what a perfect distributer for us is, but even if you went over and knocked on their door if they’re not ready for it you’re going to be really struggling to sell your story. We had some advice pretty early on that you just make noise. You make noise and you get people talking about it.”
I visited core of the Blunt team – Brebner, Kington and brand manager Josh Page – at their headquarters in Newmarket. The offices are a cross between a tech start-up and a ‘70s man-cave, with vintage couches, lamps and stereo equipment. It’s a space where drinking craft beer and listening to records would be as appropriate as coding an app. A small TV silently plays a short brand documentary on repeat.
The documentary shows Blunt umbrellas tested in wind tunnels, on the top of Mount Eden, dropped from rooftops with weights tied to them. It’s mesmerising. In a clip from National Geographic’s TV show Showdown of the Unbeatables, where two groundbreaking products are put to the test against one another, a Blunt umbrella is put up against a jet powered wind turbine, designed for clearing trees off golf courses. We see a man holding a blunt umbrella, struggling as the force of the wind increases. Soon, the man starts losing his footing. He repositions, crouching to consolidate, but the turbine proves too much. He starts sliding backwards – but the Blunt umbrella holds steady against the epic wind, able to withstand what the man cannot. This kind of performance started gathering the some serious attention. Wired magazine compared the structural integrity of a Blunt umbrella to the dome of St Peter’s Cathedral. The Wall Street Journal described it as a combination of a suspension bridge and a NASA space probe. Golf giant Titleist tested hundreds of umbrellas and Blunt rated best in almost every category. Blunt now make Titleist’s top of the line golf umbrella. They get emails from adventurous customers from around the world hoping for bad weather just to get a chance to put their umbrella to the test. Blunt umbrellas are made in Shaman, China, in a factory set up by a New Zealander who opened it at age 23. According to Kington, Made in China gets a bad rap in New Zealand. “People lump it into this one thing – cheap labour,” he says. “You go to there for two reasons – you go there for quality or you go there for price. We’ve gone there for quality. That’s where the expertise is. They make the best umbrellas in the world.” Brebner agrees: “Typically, companies from New Zealand go to China to get off the shelf stuff and there’s like ten
factories making exactly the same shit – so they’re always bargaining on price. But we’re there for the partnership. We had to develop this thing, so we had that R&D requirement as well.” It’s the off the shelf manufacturing model that Brebner says contributed to the stalling of innovation in umbrella design. Umbrellas used to be a product designed by umbrella brands, but for the last few decades, the umbrella has transitioned into a product that brands choose from a range of samples and get their logo printed on the side. This has disincentivised innovation in favour of price. No one cared if the quality of umbrellas dropped as long as the price did too.
By making an expensive umbrella that can withstand years of use in harsh conditions, Blunt is is part of the revival of the ‘buy once, buy right’ mindset, encouraging consumers to invest in products that are built to last, rather than the fast consumerism of cheap, disposable goods which held sway for much of the past quarter century or so. “One of our underlying philosophies is that if you create a product that’s better, you’re not going to have so much wasted resources down the track,” Kington says. “People are buying all these crappy umbrellas when they could buy the one decent umbrella, have it for longer and get a better experience. So it just stacks up.” The durability of the product has alienated some distributors that would rather sell ten umbrellas than one better, more expensive, umbrella. “An umbrella really is a poster child for the whole throwaway industry. So it’s a challenge when everyone’s mindset is ‘Why pay money for something that doesn’t work?’. That’s what it’s been over the last 20 or 30 years. And that’s part of the whole process that takes time in the market. It’s a word of mouth thing because once you’ve used one of these you’re going to hate the experience of a typical umbrella.”
I left Blunt HQ with an umbrella under my arm and, like Blunt’s biggest fans, started hoping for a rainy day to put it to the test. But due to the abrupt arrival of spring, Auckland has had the driest week in months. Tired of waiting for the rain, I decided wind would have to do. I walked along the Eastern bays, my Blunt aloft against the gail. And it works. When the wind hits it, the tautness of the canopy keeps the umbrella stable, handleable. The umbrella works with you, not against you. It’s not a fight. I had to actually try to get it to turn inside out, and when it did, it just snapped back into place with nothing broken or even strained. It left me in a strange position – though one Blunt knows well – an Aucklander praying for rain.