“To me, there is great beauty in being able to bring energy from other countries back home. It allows us to do things in an interesting way and have it adapted to our own culture so people can become acquainted to it in a familiar environment. It is also nice to know people in different cities that can take you out to discover the local gems. I believe it is the best way to explore a new destination.”
Founder of London Undercover
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
My name is Jamie Milestone, and I am the Founder of London Undercover, a British umbrella brand in London. We make traditional handcrafted umbrellas with a modern aesthetic and with an environmental approach. We have two stores in London, one in Spitalfields and one in Bloomsbury. We supply our products to the likes of Liberty, Mr. Porter and the Conran Shop.
What inspired you to start London Undercover?
I first had the idea at the age of 17 when I was at school. It was a very simple idea. I didn’t feel that there were modern umbrellas out there that were appealing enough to own, particularly for the sort of younger gentleman. It was a thought that I had in the back of my head for many years. It came to a point 8 years later where it still didn’t exist, so I left my job as a brand consultant and graphic designer and made it happen in 2008. I just started the business from there really.
You previously made the comparison that Umbrellas to Britain is like Hamburgers to America to show how umbrellas are quintessentially British. In what ways do you think that is?
It was a tongue-in-cheek comparison, but I guess it is similar to cups of tea, bowler hats, Mary Poppins; sort of like a caricature of Britain, in the same way as Uncle Sam and a bald-headed eagle is for America. It’s basically cartoon propaganda; it is charming, ridiculous and insulting in equal measure. If you were to tell a child to draw England, I think they would draw umbrellas, bowler hats and clouds. That is just what we are known for and we try to have a little bit of fun with that idea. I guess that is what it means to be British a lot of the time. We like to have a laugh at ourselves!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
One of the reasons why I quit the design world was because a lot of the time was design by committee and a lot of decisions had to be made through various people with a lot of changes and opinions. This was quite frustrating as a designer, so what I love most is having that creative freedom and having the final say on things. There are no restrictions with London Undercover; much of it is about curation, especially with the stores. It is very satisfying to design what we want, sell what we want, sell other brands. When it comes to retail stores, we collaborate with people we admire. I like being behind the scenes because it is a wonderful world with wonderful people. We obviously don’t just sell to men within the menswear arena. Above all, the most satisfying thing is walking down street and seeing people with your product, and that is something that never gets boring. All the hard work is well worth it when you see that. We are at a stage now that when it rains you can go down the street and there are London Undercover umbrellas everywhere and that is the most satisfying thing for me.
Fashion In The Rain
London Undercover has really turned umbrellas into a fashion statement and lifestyle accessory that is more than just a mere companion for a rainy day. What inspires you to continuously come up with new styles?
I think the whole point of umbrellas and our reason for existing is that umbrellas are not just a last-minute afterthought. You don’t just say “Oh it’s raining, I better head out and grab a cheap umbrella.” It should be part of the whole look. There is a saying that “A man or woman should always dress from the feet upwards.” With this in mind, one should take as much pride and consideration in your bag or umbrella as the rest of your outfit. We do observe trends and carefully consider if there is relevance for us to cohesively include these within our design and ethos, but on the whole, the prints and designs are based around our own instincts and interests. We work in a very traditional way like any fashion brand would. We come up with concepts, and we will think of a design theme as a starting point because that allows you to have a focus. There will be ideas throughout the year that you might get from customer feedback or the London Undercover team, or things that you might think of in the middle of the night and so I need to get all this inspiration down on paper and try to find a route for it so I can piece it all together. I take bits from everywhere and come up with a cohesive plan; design, pattern, and colour that feels very now. British people can be quite reserved in a certain way; however, they like that little bit of eccentricity. A perfect example is one of our umbrella designs which is plain black on the outside with a vintage map printed underneath it so there is a special design hidden inside. That is the kind of style a more introverted type may use. However, when we supply to the stores in Japan, they would ask us to do the opposite because Japan has a culture that is a bit more extrovert with their trends, whereas I think the British really like the idea that there is a bit more going on within the reverse. It’s slightly more subtle and understated, much like catching a glimpse of the beautiful inner lining of a suit. I think what people love about London Undercover is that we closely observe different cultures and take a global approach to our design to make sure there is something for everyone.
Do you have a specific customer in mind that you design for?
We do not have a specific customer we sell to. In a recent interview I did, I have said that in one week, we have sold to artist Mos Def and to politician Michael Portillo, which sums up nicely that we are here for everyone. We sell to teenagers and to men in their 20s and 30s and we will sell to women in their 80s, so it is quite incredible to have this broad spectrum of people we design for. We have to cater our products to all these different customers which is difficult to do “under one umbrella”, for lack of a better word. This drives us to be more creative, and that is what London is. Our umbrellas are modern, functional everyday items and one has to feel comfortable using it so the range is fairly broad, and we maintain our identity through that.
The artisanal craftsmanship behind your coveted umbrellas run in the family. Can you tell us more about it?
This was actually something we sort of found out by mistake when we were looking at family history. I have a lot of family from East London, at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century there were members of the family that were listed as umbrella makers. It is quite funny that it has come full circle! My grandparents on my mother’s side were dressmakers, and my earliest memories were going to their showroom on Wells Street and recalling my mother pushing me in the pram. I still remember going into the showroom, looking down into the basement and there being a large cutting desk and people lugging rolls of fabric around. It is funny to reflect on the similarities of our shops and theirs. These are very fond memories for me! My grandfather on my father’s side was a bespoke tailor as well, so I really think that fashion business and creativity is there and obviously followed on.
In the face of the epidemic that the world is currently up against, how do you think your vision for the brand has changed moving forward? And what measures have the company taken during this difficult time?
My vision for the brand has not changed really. I say that because I started the company in a recession. I think it worked to our advantage because people wanted quality items in times of uncertainty. They are prepared to invest in something that is going to last a long time. It’s not about fast fashion. It is about investment. It is about something that will make someone feel safe. So, we took our first steps during those difficult times and that was the foundation of our being. We have already had a couple of very hard years, post Brexit. That said, things are good at the moment with our second store having opened the end of last September. Things have been better than they have ever been, so I remain positive of the current situation. We obviously cannot go on like this forever, but we can survive the Lockdown. We decided to close the stores before we were forced to. I did not feel comfortable having staff coming in to work, putting them at risk, especially having them come in on public transport. Basically, I told everyone not to come in. During this time, we have gone back to basics. I have been going into the stores myself and filtering online orders personally while my partner Danielle has been helping me which has been amazing. It is very much like when we first started without any staff, but I do not mind it because it gets me out of the house. When you run a business, your mind is always working and ticking. You need to be doing something. I’m terrible if I go on a sort of relaxing holiday because I cannot sit on the beach for too long. Our back-to-basics approach is keeping things running, and I feel much better if I am working than sitting on my sofa all day.
Are the umbrellas created in the shop or in a factory?
We do not manufacture in store but we do repairs. All production is done at the factory. We have both London production and Chinese production. If there are certain products that we cannot manufacture here in the UK like a telescopic umbrella, since we do not have the facilities to do so, we will manufacture there. This also helps keep a lower price point for our entry level items. And out of London, production is effectively closed down at the moment, but China is slowly coming out of it so we are still able to produce there at the moment, albeit at a slightly slower rate.
As someone living in London, how do you feel the city has evolved over your lifetime?
In the last few years, there seems to be 10 times the amount of people on the tube every day which always amazes me. There are no longer slow operating times; the trains are always packed. On a more positive note, I think London has gotten much more exciting. There is far more to do and see, and places to eat and drink. I do not remember London being as sophisticated as it is now, with so much inspiration from other parts of the world. Many parts of London have seen significant gentrification. With regards to shops and galleries, it feels very ‘internet age’. A lot of ideas that might have just been a website are now occupying physical spaces. There is that entrepreneurial spirit, with people being very supportive of new ideas. Growing up, I have a memory of London being fairly grey and fairly stale in a way and going into town was not that exciting. You used to have your key elements, but I guess as a child you went to Trafalgar Square or the Natural History Museum and never really discovering the speakeasies in Soho, but now I think it is significantly more hectic, but in a good way.
Do you have a London influencer, artist, writer, photographer, notable person who you most admire?
From an artistic front, I really admire people like Peter Blake, Martin Parr, and David Hockney. They are your three key British influencers from that point, particularly Martin Parr. I think how he showcased Britain in his caricature observations, expressing irony and stereotypes, is very thought-provoking and has been the most influential for me. Various photographers, who are not necessarily from London but the work they’ve done in London is so incredible, such as Robert Frank has done some amazing work depicting what London is. For entertainment purposes, I have always admired what British rapper Kano is doing in music. It is a great soundtrack to London and I think it is very relevant. He has matured well as an artist. I also enjoy listening to all the best British bands, and London bands in particular, that have existed; from the Kinks, The Jam and Brit Pop Blur to Rolling Stones and David Bowie. I mean all these people! Music has always been an inspiration for designers and fashion. All those artists play a significant part in the birth of British brands and the design behind it. People are drawn to London as a place for their expression. Some of the best influencers come from other parts of the country and abroad, and that is why you get such a rich mix of fashion, art, design and music going on here. That is why it is so energetic.
How often do you travel? Do you travel more for work or pleasure?
When it comes to traveling, I go through stages from traveling a lot to not traveling at all. I travelled all over last year, and for obvious reasons, travel has been and will continue to be minimal for the foreseeable. That said, a great aspect of my job is that I get to travel a lot. I spent some time in Japan, China, and New York for work, which are the cities I regularly visit. I will also do city breaks throughout the year with my partner Danielle. We went to Berlin and Reykjavik recently which was fantastic. Weekend breaks are also great. You may get tired on your feet, but it is a great thing to be able to do. If we are not travelling abroad, we like to jump in the car and head to somewhere not too far away like the Cotswolds, Oxford, Bath or even the opposite direction toward the coast. There is a lot of amazing seafood to try in the UK. We went to a place called West Mersea recently, which is not the most exciting of places, but they have unbelievable seafood there and somewhere great to pause. Likewise, I also really enjoy Folkestone, Dorset, Devon. Devon is a long way away, so you have to put in the travel time, but it is important and refreshing to get out of the city at least once a month or so.
During this time, everyone is having wanderlust and the itch to make a getaway. Where does your inspiration for travel come from?
Funny as it may sound, I do have a bit of an obsession with retail and often that leads me to deciding on travel destinations if I hear that there are exciting things happening globally. There are so many amazing stores out there in the word and I find it very inspiring to see people doing things in their own way. To me, there is great beauty in being able to bring energy from other countries back home. It allows us to do things in an interesting way and have it adapted to our own culture so people can become acquainted to it in a familiar environment. I also enjoy a delicious meal as much as the next person, and that can often be the starting point of where my partner and I decide where to explore! Over the last 12 years of building London Undercover, I have been lucky enough to meet the most amazing people from all over the globe and it is always wonderful to touch base and meet up with people in different cities that can take you out to discover the local gems. I believe it is the best way to explore a new destination. That said, the downside is that I rarely remember where I have been because you just go with the flow. I have learned it is a good idea to pinpoint these places in your maps so when you return next time or need to give recommendations, you can revert back to these places easily. An immensely useful city guide I use is superfuture. This company creates these retail guides I love because they recommend you the hippest and coolest places to visit. I was in Seoul, Korea last year and it was very helpful in helping me find stores in the area that I could plan my day around to visit.
What destinations are on your bucket list?
I was actually supposed to get married this year, and we had plans to go away, but it is now on hold due to the current situation. I’d like to travel much more of Japan because I have really only seen Tokyo. That was something we were planning to do after our wedding, and maybe enjoy some relaxing time in Bali whilst over on that side of the world. I almost wanted to convince myself that I can actually relax. Taipei is somewhere that I am keen to visit next. I am a big fan of Taiwanese food and the people that I know from Taiwan are amazing and have great character. Taiwan has an incredible background and history, and the people that have actually built Taipei are quite fascinating. I think it really shines through! Taiwan has had similar economic growth there as it has in China, and that is a very interesting thing to see. Canada is another place I have never been and would like to explore. So many places!
You have collaborated with numerous brands around the globe, from A Bathing Ape, Carhartt and Fred Perry to Monocle & Vans. Who would you love to collaborate with next?
We are very lucky in the sense that we do get approached by lots of brands. I tend not to reach out so much as I guess I am afraid of rejection, but if you ask me, I am a huge trainer person so I have been a collector for many years. It’s actually a bit of an unhealthy obsession! If I could choose to work with any other brand, I would really like to collaborate with Adidas or Nike. There is something to be said, particularly from the water-proof angle, and that is something we did with Vans. In our collaboration together, we actually partnered up to create trainers using umbrella fabric. You have to think of your feet in wet weather as much as you do when you cover yourself from rain as you do not want to turn up to wherever you are going with soaking wet socks. You want to be comfortable, so I think there is definitely an angle there with a renowned brand like that. It is amazing to work with large companies like Vans because they can make things happen very quickly!
In world where there is no epidemic, which area in London would you recommend first-time visitors to explore for a nice city walk?
City walking-wise, I would like to start in Marylebone. You can get out of Baker Street, walk all the way through Marylebone, have a little wander through there and go through on the side of Oxford Street to Mayfair through Piccadilly which has so much around there. Hit St. James, St. Germans Street, carry on walking through to Soho, and Covent Garden. Right there is a good half a day. There is enough to see to keep you busy during the day, but do not just blind walk; you want to follow the traffic. You may want to visit the Bloomsbury area and Russell Square as there is a lot going on with so much rich history, all the way up to Kings Cross. Even though you are in the centre of London, there is still very much a neighbourhood feel. You have all your local characters there, like something from out of a book.
What must-have items do you carry with you when you go exploring in London?
I always take a camera; I know you always have it on your phone but a proper camera if you are that way inclined. Google maps is absolutely imperative and an umbrella.
In a hectic, busy city, where do you go to relax and find some peace?
The most relaxing thing for me is exercise. Obviously, I can’t do that at the moment with the gym, but I run around Regent’s park at the moment which I’ve been doing a lot of recently. I don’t cycle but I do spin classes, either at the gym or house cycle at Shoreditch House. But sometimes, just to get away from it all, my sofa is better than anywhere else. Sometimes it’s nice to go somewhere like the Curzon. It’s kind of like an underground bunker there and you are completely out of it. It’s quite surreal when you get out of it especially having been heavily involved in a film. Somewhere like that where you get cut out of it, that’s kind of nice. Cinemas are very good for that. You sit, have a drink and a bit of food. The Everyman Kings Cross is very good for that. It’s an amazing place. I’m not a massive cinema goer but it does force you to sit still and take some time out. I’m also a Tottenham Fan as well, I have a season ticket, so it’s good to switch off as well. You feel part of something bigger and you come away more stressed out then you got there. But I love doing that. I go with my dad. It’s great for us to have the time to ourselves to chat and catch up. It’s nice!
Being a London local, can you tell us 3 restaurants you think embody the city and really offer something different to the big-name restaurants?
Parsons, a small unassuming British Fish restaurant in Covent Garden, is really delicious, really fresh, really intimate. I also enjoy dining at Evelyn’s Table, a hidden gem in the cellar of Blue Post, which is an 18th century pub on the corner of Rupert street. They serve excellent European food. I am not usually one for having a chef come up to the table to explain each dish, but is done with such a modest way that it is simply delightful. The food is just outstanding and it is a nice intimate experience there. It is definitely one of my favourites! There are so many amazing restaurants but I have a soft spot for Phoenix Palace, which is a Chinese restaurant on Baker Street that serves delectable dim sum. It is rude and charming in equal measures, but it is my guilty pleasure!
I spend a lot more time in Pubs these days. I am at that stage in my life! When you are young and single, going out and having rowdy nights out, I think bars are certainly where you would be. That said, the bar scene moves very quickly. I prefer the American Bar at the Beaumont Hotel. It is a very nice place to go for a drink, especially when you are out in that part of town on the way home and grabbing a bus on Bond Street. It is a great late-night drink! I also enjoy the award-winning restaurant and bar Noble Rot, just opposite of London Undercover on Lamb’s Conduit Street. It is a very nice place to go if you can even get a seat, so it is always good to go early. You can sit there and go through a couple bottles of red. What I like about this place is that it is not trying to be anything more than what it is.
Favourite shopping street?
It most certainly has to be Lamb’s Conduit Street. For a gentleman, it has everything you need like London Undercover, Oliver Spencer, YMC, Universal Works, Grenson, and Aesop. La Fromagerie, Noble Rot and The Lamb are really good drinking spots on this street. If you are into these things, you could easily spend the afternoon there!
The best markets to explore?
One of the best markets to explore is Spitalfields Market on a Thursday. They have really great antiques there, and I always pick up silly things that I don’t necessarily need. You need to get there early for all the best vintage items. You will get all the fashion designers there pinching ideas from old vintage clothing that they put out. They also have an excellent food selection there. Another market worth visiting is Maltby Street Market on a Friday evening. It is the perfect place to grab some food after going to the pub. Borough Market is a good option throughout the week for some great food selections, but be sure to go early to avoid the crowds!
Favourite place for a Saturday morning stroll?
I live in South Hampstead, which is within walking distance of Hampstead Heath. For a Saturday morning stroll, I would make a round in Regent’s Park.
Where to go to find something a little different?
To find something a little different, I would visit the London Transport Museum. I am a bit of a London transport geek so the London Underground has been an influence for our brand, which is quite visible in our brand identity as well if you look closely. In fact, we have worked with them many times. To me, the London Underground really is the epicentre of the city with such rich history in terms of design and advertising. It is something that the majority of Londoners feel a part of everyday. With that in mind, this museum is an amazing place for visitors to learn about the history of London. Be sure to choose your time wisely as there can be a lot of children at certain hours of the day. They also have an Acton Depot which they open up 3 times a year, which displays an array of old paraphernalia. They also have a mini London Underground as well with small scale trains which is quite fun. Here, you can also find old signages, posters, advertisements and knick-knacks like lightboxes. For something unique in the city, Richmond Park is a great place to visit. It is the closest you will get to a safari in London! From an urban perspective, going bowling at Rowans in Finsbury Park is a mad culture clash. Definitely a great find and an experience you will remember!