25 April 2011

Silk Pirates: Abraham & Gustav Zumsteg



Sommer  of 1971

This is one of the must have books for your library if you are serious about Textiles- Soie Pirate. The History of Abraham Ltd (volume 1) and Soie Pirate. The Fabric Designs of Abraham Ltd. (Volume 2) .The set of books covers the important  Abraham Textile archives that were donated to the Swiss Museum by the Hilda and Gustav Zumsteg Foundation  in 2007. The archives were exhibited at the Landesmuseum Zürich this winter 2011.

Abraham's bold graphics at the exhibition

from Gustav Zumsteg's Private Art Collection

Abraham Ltd. began with Jakob Abraham in 1878, but the story here is the dynamic Gustav Zumsteg-an integral part of the legendary company. Partnering with Ludwig Abraham in 1943, after serving as an apprentice, Gustav Zumsteg's innovations and artistry established the company's reputation as the premiere maker of luxe fabrics to the couture houses of Paris. His artistry is stamped in Zumsteg's painterly abstract designs, exotic florals and butterflies and graphic checks.

 from the Zumsteg  Collection

from the Abraham Archives

from the moment Christian Dior launched his New Look-Zumsteg had Abraham right there on the pulse-supplying the designer with the sumptuous fabrics of the moment.

Dior 1955, Fotograf Forlano

Zumsteg was friend and collaborator to the haute couture designers-Balenciaga, Dior and Givenchy and an intimate of designer Yves Saint Laurent. Imagine juggling the desires of those legends and seeing to it that each had Abraham's best-and of course That Best did not overlap. He considered his friendship with Saint Laurent a "coup de foudre" with a shared love for books and music. The two phoned every Sunday to catch up and share stories as friends do-however there was a formality to their working relationship. Their closeness did intensify the design process and their collaborations were always inventive & original.

above images from the exhibition

Zumsteg on his craft:
"I feel instinctively what is happening in fashion; it's a process that almost never stops. My work and its realization in practice, the supervision of the designers, the contact with the dyers and weavers...are a logical continuation of this process, this instinct, this vigilance, this identification of myself with everything we call Fashion."  (from the book quoted from Die Weltwoche,1955)

Pierre Balmain, Sommer 1952. Fotograf André Ostier-Heil

By the mid 1950's Zumsteg was crowned-"the eminence grise of haute couture" with Dior's collection from 1955 featuring 30 of the Abraham silks alone. Neue Zurcher Zeitung qualified this title with the following-" It is the quality of this Zurich silk that delights the great couturiers-a quality that makes the most subtly nuance & radiantly exquisite color schemes possible."

more from the Archives

from Yves Saint Laurent upon Zumsteg''s death:
"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."

scene from the exhibition in Zurich of the archives

By 1955 Abraham started cutting  four metres of their most beautiful fabrics to preserve in their archives.Fastidiously kept , the archives hold silk samples, press cuttings, and photographs pasted in scrap books.
The books have the tactile quality that Abraham silks had- pages of the scrapbooks - silk samples paired with photographs of runway shows- stars like Catherine Deneuve in YSL and Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy bring the book's pages to life.


a BONNARD painting from Gustav Zumsteg's Collection

also from the Zumsteg Collection - 
Jean Tinguely

Art was his Muse & his passion for Art  drove all of his textile designs. As well as being an artist-he collected. His art was displayed on the walls of his mother Hulda's famed Zurich restaurant-Kronenhalle.
The restaurant was a gathering place for designers and celebrity thanks to Zumsteg's client list-Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Plácido Domingo, Catherine Deneuve, and Yves Saint-Laurent.  Decorated with paintings by Chagall, Matisse, Miro, Kandinsky, Bonnard and the list goes on.

 The restaurant  reflects the elan & elegance of Gustav Zumsteg.

Chanel with company and Zumsteg dine at Kronehalle

Fine tuning was Zumsteg's secret-he was an absolute perfectionist. He would study a painting, travel to see exotic flowers just to nuance his designs-that is what set him apart. Wisely, with their concentration on design, Abraham did not produce their silks- discreetly outsourcing that aspect to other firm. One of its best-kept secrets was the Ratti Company in Como, Italy. Zumsteg travelled to Como almost every week to collaborate with owner Antonio Ratti. Their partnership thrived for more than thirty years.

of Gustav Zumsteg  Donatelli Ratti-Antonio Ratti's daughter remembers:

"His gaze was penetrating, and his eyes were a brilliant shade of blue... He would cry when moved-when he came into contact with something that was exceptionally beautiful."

Gustav Zumsteg

a George ROUAULT from the Zumsteg Art Collection


Zumsteg's collaborations with haute couture and his artistry elevated the business of textiles and the Abraham company as well. The archives serve as a validation of that and as a treasury for couture's greatest era.

Yves Saint Laurent's collaborations with Zumsteg

Sommer 1994, Yves Saint Laurent

YSL 1971

"Times have irrevocably changed, The way we once worked hasn't the same sense. It's not meaningful today." YSL

more about Zumsteg here
swiss info here

Images from the books & Images from these sites

christies Zumsteg's art


soie pirate



fashion affair.com



  1. Wow... it's not surprising what Ratti's daughter remembers about Gustav. His being was about beauty, if tears came when he saw it. Another brilliantly composed piece. Must find the Soie Pirate volumes. Lovely!

  2. And high time too. I dare say Abraham made Balenciaga's brilliance that much easier with the fabrics they created especially for him.

    If he doesn't already know, AAL will be delighted as he was curious not that long ago about the fabrics Pauline de Rothschild did for them in the 70s.

  3. I was reading this article when I realized I had been taken to his restaurant in Zurich. what a conjurer you are, I have been transported.

  4. The Zumstegs also produced Cecil Beaton fabrics as well as the marvelous prints devised by Marella Agnelli.

  5. Gorgeous, wonderful post. Makes me groan it is so beautiful between the fabrics and the designers...

  6. I am speechless-such beauty and dedication to inspiration. As always, thank you for new vision. Mary

  7. Thankyou Gaye that was a great read and loved the images too .textiles are forever fascinating fay xx

  8. Oh wow. I knew his name, because of my mother's devotion to textiles & YSL.But I had next to no knowledge of his life. This is just superb. Thanks so much. Def. bookmarking this post. Cheers.


  9. Barbara- I know you would love these volumes. The photographs, fashion the story are superb.

    HOBAC- yes when looking at the length of the Zumsteg reign and influence I agree. I remember their entry into soft furnishings and those fabrics were fantastic- apparently not the great success the couture fabrics were. I love to use my fabrics and have things made to wear.so one is a easily placed as another.

  10. Debra, the photographs of the restaurant are beautiful and his art-he was passionate about-many of the finest were sold, but apparently the restaurant is still full of them .

  11. Aesthete,I remember reading about the MA textiles from you! me thinks.there is no discussion in the book about them, though she did win the Roscoe for the designs-something to unearth. I am guessing it isn't delved into that much since they were produced for the design trade.

  12. Cat, Fay, Mary- groan-Yes & speechless too.

    Susan- I found the story of his friendship to be very beautiful- it was a grand passion they shared.

  13. Wonderful and fascinating post Gaye. There's so much to love here, i'm particularly taken with the florals and the butterfly fabric on Catherine Deneuve's dress xx



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