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Fashion History I The story of... Abraham Switzerland Silk

While digging the world's archives for the most beautiful fabrics, we often stumble across stories; of artists, visionaries and creators who changed the course of fashion history. Sometimes we are lucky enough to bring these home to you. Fashion History is a series exploring how each piece of fabric connects us to the world.
Gustav Zumsteg of Abraham Switzerland Silk

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to learn that we here at Drapers have the ultimate soft-spot for silk. While we love all fabrics equally, the Queen of the fibres has us definitively under her spell. 

One man who most assuredly felt the same was Gustav Zumsteg - a name I am sure not many of you will be familiar with. Don’t worry, we here at Drapers hadn’t heard of him either… not until earlier this month when sorting (and admiring) our scrumptious new drop of Italian silks and noticing a name popping up on some selvedges: Abraham Switzerland.

As is the case with quality silks milled in France or Italy, seta pura or vera seta (‘real silk’) runs proudly along the selvedge. Emblazoned in a romantic cursive, the name Abraham Switzerland sits similarly along the selvages of some of our silks, the buttery gold of the ink denoting both the quality and kind of fabric produced by this 20th Century textile titan. While not necessarily a household name, Abraham Switzerland and its creative director Gustav Zumsteg, were inimitable legends to those in the know. 

Starting at Abraham Switzerland as an apprentice in the 30s, Zumsteg was a star whose ascent could not be slowed. After living in Paris during the latter half of the decade, managing Abraham Switzerland’s Paris subsidiary, and meeting artists and couturiers, he became the chief designer and director in 1943. Under his deft creative direction the company became world-renowned; synonymous with style, quality, and the lush world of Haute Couture until it’s bankruptcy in 2003.

Zumsteg was known to be exacting in his vision and direction. As one notorious story alleges, he sent an employee from their offices in Zurich all the way to Marrakesh and into the garden of Yves Saint Laurent’s holiday home, so as to more faithfully capture the details of the flowers which had inspired a then-upcoming collection. It was this sharp focus, borne from a genuine and life-long love of art and fashion, which drove his design and creative direction. 

Zumsteg was an avid art collector and a lover of French modernism in particular. Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandisnky, and Joan Miró were but a few of the artists whose works populated his collection. The inspiration which these artists held for Zumsteg is patently evident. His designs speaking to the playful, evocative use of colour, and the sensuous and often abstracted forms of his favourite artists.

It is his decades-long friendship and partnership with Yves Saint Laurent which most clearly reveals his central role as creative force within the Haute Couture and, later, Pret-a-porter markets/worlds. The pair met in 1957 at the funeral of mutual friend Christian Dior. Later, Zumsteg would describe their inauspicious first meeting as a coupe de foudre - love at first sight. Talking on the phone every Sunday, Zumsteg and Saint Laurent would discuss music, books, art, and, of course, fashion. Their professional partnership would be etched in the annals of fashion history, and would last until 2002 with the bankruptcy of Abraham Switzerland and Yves Saint Laurent’s last couture collection. Upon Zumsteg’s death in 2005, Saint Laurent said this of him. 

“Gustav Zumsteg was my ally, my friend, and my collaborator for some 45 years; I used his fabric in my most beautiful dresses. His talent was a never-ending source of inspiration. I owe him many unforgettable moments.” 

Channelling the company’s focus toward the manifold avenues of print design, Zumsteg ensured the fine-tuning of technical prowess and maintenance of quality. The production of the textiles themselves were outsourced to a select number of trusted mills in France and Italy in order to maintain this focus on print technology. The company was renowned for the sharpness of their images, vividness of colour, and ability to produce prints of a large size without compromising their crispness. Animal prints, romantic florals, tartans and plaids, spots, stripes, and abstracted painterly forms abound through Abraham Switzerland’s extensive back catalogue. 

However, this focus on printing did in no way mean the quality of the fibres themselves were given any less attention. The most well-kept secret of the company was the Ratti mill in Como, Italy. Since the renaissance, Lake Como has remained the place for silk production; the quality of their product unimpeachable. (Long-time Drapers customers may recognise this location as that which we source a majority of our silk from). For almost 30 years, Zumsteg would make a weekly trip to Como to visit mill owner, Antonio Ratti. His daughter, Donatelli remembers Zumsteg as exacting but endlessly passionate. “His gaze was penetrating, and his eyes were a brilliant shade of blue… He would cry when moved - when he came in contact with something that was exceptionally beautiful.” 

Who hasn’t seen a gorgeous fabric you can’t bear to part with but have absolutely no need for? That’s the power of a beautiful textile. Whatever it is that calls out to you - an incredible print, an intense depth of colour, a rich lustre or sumptuous handle - we all know what it’s like when the fabric speaks first. Zumsteg understood this call implicitly. He took his role as artist and interlocutor seriously and the passion he had for art, for fashion, and for his work is reflected in the fastidious records he kept and the tenacious verve with which he approached the textile and fashion industries. His entire career speaks to a life-long love with fabric as not just a means-to-an-end but an art in and of itself. Under Zumsteg’s direction, Abraham Switzerland became not only inimitable but indispensable to the fashion industry of the 20th Century. His designs and textiles could not help but shape the collections they were used in; his fabrics were not mere vessels, Zumsteg’s creations were the spectacle.

Written by Chani Balmer, Drapers General Manager

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