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How Umbra Forever Changed the Business of Dressing Windows

How Umbra Forever Changed the Business of Dressing Windows

Dennis Hepworth |

At Umbra, many product ideas start with a personal need or frustration due to lack of availability in the marketplace. In the late '80s, my apartment bedroom windows had an immediate need for some sort of covering.

By that time, we no longer made our original window shades, so I went to the local DIY store and could only find very mundane solutions such as white tracks, ugly drapes, Venetians, etc. - definitely not what I was looking for. There was a local custom window shop who offered telescoping rods with standard finials for over $200 and a three-week wait. We thought, why not make it ourselves, put it in a box, and sell to our retailer base? It would be a convenient cash-and-carry solution at a fraction of the cost. 

I had already started Trans-Canada Hardware, which was involved in cutting, plating, and die-casting various metal parts. All we had to do was buy, cut, and plate tubes of steel that we could telescope and find some finials such as brass balls, or tops of gate posts and attach them along with some stamped brackets. The hardest part was designing a box that could protect and self-sell the rods. After that, it was a matter of selling it to the retailers. The rods weren’t enough, we needed drapes. We sourced and designed simple white cotton panels that were the first drapes to be sold cash-and-carry in a see-through bag. After numerous rejections, I brought the idea to Pottery Barn in San Francisco. The president at the time was intrigued, but said they had never sold window products, and it would be a tough item to display in their stores. I suggested trying a small picture in their growing catalog business. Her concern was that they had never put a product in the catalog that wasn’t in the store, but ventured a try. It took off and soon there were full pages in the catalog and displays in the stores. Noticing this success, our other customers like Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens n’ Things put in window sections.

Drapery rods became our biggest category and in the early ‘90’s I moved production to China. Although we had been an active importer from China and India for many years, we hesitated to teach an outside factory how we made our rods, or even do a joint venture partnership in case we couldn’t control copycats. There were already copies in those countries but their quality wasn’t as good. China had just started to allow WFOEs or “Wholly Foreign-Owned Enterprises” to operate. Although it wasn’t that difficult to rent or build a space, we needed someone trusted to set it up to hire and train workers. I went over and registered our WFOE and temporarily moved some of our factory and senior managers. Today ANBO, Umbra’s factory outside Shenzhen, employs over 550 workers and has local Chinese managers.

You can see and learn more about our current selection here: Umbra Curtain Rods & Accessories

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