ART GOES TO THE HEAD : ASCHER Fabric Art Fashion

Lida and Zika Ascher - google search ascher book, ascher textiles - Feliks Topolski
Feliks Topolski sits wathcing Lida ans Zika Ascher looking at designs – 1946 – Photo Lee Miller for British Vogue – from book “ASCHER – Fabric – Art – Fashion”

A ” PRINTED ” HISTORY OF THE ASCHER FABRICS

ASCHER Fabric Art Fashion is an extraordinary story of resilience, creativity and courage. It was published to coincide with the exhibition held in 1987 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that showcased the most brilliant textiles developed by the Aschers. Reading the text of this catalogue means delving into the secrets of one of the most fascinating stories of innovation in the textile industry.

Zika Ascher’s family ran one of the most prestigious luxury fabric stores in Prague. Zika and Lida Ascher were forced to flee Prague a few months after the Munich Agreement in September 1939, and just a few weeks before occupation of Czechoslovakia. Fortunately, the cople was able to find refuge in London in the same year.

Within the horrors of the second World War, the Aschers managed to start, in November 1941, a small business selling textiles . They didn’t have access to too much in those days. They were hampered by lack of yarns, workforce, machinery. The shortages of raw material, either for military necessities, export sales or because of rationing, forced Zika Ascher to learn to print on flimsy silk that was used to wrap electrical cables. He had to make do, and that he did, with what little was available at the time: some parachute silk and rayons.

MODERNIST ARTISTS APPROACH TEXTILE DESIGN

The practice to commission the design of fabrics to fine artists dates back to the mid 19thcentury with William Morris. During the first years of the 20thcentury, the boundaries between art, commerce and everyday life began to blur even more.

Artists of the times wished to connect daily life to their art, make their art accessible. Designing textiles, as well as jewelry, was a way to achieve this.  Raoul Dufy was the first artist of the 20th century to engage seriously, and successfully, in the production of textile design. 

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A SCARF MAKES

The head scarf was one of the decorative and practical accessories that became popular during the war.

In 1945 Zika Ascher’s vision of uniting fine with industrial art, coupled with concern for quality of design, led him to produce a special series of squares to be printed in limited editions of between 200 and 600 each. Prominent artists where commissioned, and the edition of each design was to be printed in only the original color way, the squares individually numbered, and the screens destroyed after printing.

Zika successfully approached the best artists which led to a successful collection of squares designed by modernist artists: Matisse, Felix Topolski, Henry Moore, Mario Nissim, Barbara Hepworth, Alexander Calder, Zao Wou Ki, Jean Atlan, André Derain, Jean Hugo, Christian Bérard, Marie Laurencin, Jean Cocteau, Francis Picabia.  He allowed them complete freedom of execution and interpretation only limited by the technical rules of production.

In 1947, the collection was displayed in picture frames alongside the original designs, in the first Ascher office in Paris, a former gallery at 13 rue de l’Abbaye. The scarves in Ascher fabrics became limited edition art pieces. The exhibition received extensive press coverage. An article commented

By showing the selection of squares in frames like pictures, the Aschers are opening many new ways in which these works of art can be used. An imaginative interior decorator has endless possibilities at his disposal to bring out the artistic value of these squares – by hanging them as pictures; using them for draperies, cushions and in many other ways.” The scarves toured all over Britain, the US, traveled to Montevideo, Sydney, Amsterdam and Cape Town. 

These unique scarves, or squares where not designed only to be worn on the head. Harper’s Bazaar reports in march 1945: 

“ Sketches of a few ideas suggested by the wide selection at Ascher’s of Regent Street showed a Spanish-looking dinner-dress of Paisley wollen squares with wide borders; gay, cottage-chintz patterns with contrasting borders used for a dirndle skirt and cap sleeved blouse; and Felix Topolki’s striking batik effect checked rayon squares -one made into a Dich Whittington shoulder bag, another worn as a high turban…”

PROMOTING THE YOUNG TALENTS

Zika was a promoter of a general improvement in the art of textile design and sought to grow the public’s awareness for the importance of fabrics, colors, and design. He worked to encourage the textile industry to invest in young talents. He frequently embarked unknown young artists and designers in his collections, letting them express their individuality.  

In 1946 he sponsored a competition “Try Your Hand” that involved textile designers, those aspiring to the profession, anyone under 25, and anyone who had been in the forces or involved in essential war work. The participants were asked to submit 6 designs each. Approximately 10.000 designs where submitted, 2 of which belonged to two seven year olds who won an award. One of the designs will become the successfull Ascher Bourec line.

LIDA ASCHER FASHION DESIGNER

Lida Ascher was a fine designer herself.  One of the initial successes of the business was due to Lida’s first fabric designs that attracted the attention of Edouard Molyneux . In 1942 Molyneux selected most of her small patterns for his export collection.  This collaboration will be the first of a series of important successes. She was not a trained artist but had “fresh and unconventional views on color combinations and fabric designs.” ( British Vogue in 1948).

 black and white tweed Pantaloons - Lida Ascher Boutique - January 1962
Lida Ascher “Pantaloons” black and white tweed- photograhper J.L. Cuégan

Times were rough in the years following the war and they were going to stay tough for a long time. Designers had to deal with continued shortage of raw materials such as silk and the limitations of a deprived home market due to the post-war rationing. Zika endlessly lookd for diversification and new materials.

The first Bourec print saw the light in 1946. Zika once again ventured in another successful quest with the production of a line for the young mass market. The “Bourec” print cotton line, a reasonably priced, but not cheap, quality cotton was a huge success due to the vision of Samuel Sherman. Sherman’s foresight for a shirtwaister style would become the trademark of the dress business he recently started: Sambo. The success of Sherman’s collection encouraged other manufacturers to buy Ascher Bourec prints.

COTTON IS NO LONGER THE CINDERELLA OF FABRICS

The Ascher’s fought a tough but winning crusade to introduce cotton to top designers of Haute Couture, still very much concentrated on silk creations.  The first to believe in the potential of Ascher’s cotton was Christiand Dior, soon followed by others. Their cottons offered a choice of abstract patterns, small crosses, dots, diamonds, bold lattices.  Cotton was established as a high fashion fabric.  

“Romantique” garden party – cotton- Christiand Dior – 1950

ZIKA ASCHER, THE TEXTILE ALCHEMIST

Ascher strongly believed that a “well-dressed women need not freeze to look chic!”.  His mohair wool, mixed with nylon, a soft, bulky but extraordinarily weightless and thick fabric offered designers a versatile fabric suitable for coats, dresses and suits. Materials such as the Kilcardie bouclé , the Aviemore and Pitlochry , the Mancha – mohair and wool –, and the double-faced mohairs and tweeds were show stoppers as well as his knitted and woven Chenille that stretched and sprang back into shape. They were employed in their collections by Balenciaga, Lanvin-Castillo, Cardin, Roberto Capucci, Dior.

The screen-printed cotton lace was one of the most fascinating experiments in the Ascher’s laboratory. Another trick out of his sleeve. The “Trevenez” was produced by Scottish mills and initially intended for curtaining. Balenciaga’s appreciation of the new cotton pathed the way to cotton-lace in haute couture.  Later, in 1967, Roger Vivier would use the “Ostorog”, coated cotton-lace in a clear shiny plastic for a “wet look” effect version, in his “Highwayman’s boots”. 

The Aschers left an indelible mark in the world of fashion textile design an in the history of British design industry. Trend setter and visionary, and tireless businessman, in 1987 Zika, who survived his wife until 1992, aged 76, declared:

“I never think of sitting back and doing nothing. Of what possible interest could that be to anyone?”.

All images are extracted from the book “Ascher fabrics art fashion”.

Title: ASCHER – FABRIC ART FASHION
Author: Valerie D. Mendes – Frances M. HINCHCLIFFE
Publisher : VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM – 1987
Pages: 262
Price: 120,00 plus shipping
Condition: used, in good condition, – no underlining

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