Ascher Scarves: A London Company’s Devotion to Fine Art and Fashion Dates to 1940s

Katherine Arcano
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In dream-like sequence, a gossamer stream of vintage Ascher scarves glides by, rippling, hypnotic and weightless, to the table…silken reminders of an earlier, elegant era…each unique and even more stunning than the last, in color, design and flow. They are simultaneously quite delicate and bold…perhaps reflecting their complex genesis…. 

This tale is, aptly, a tapestry of sorts, as Peter and Sam Ascher told me recently, replete with armies and battles fought, fair maidens, heroes, great houses and even slain “dragons”— all hieroglyphs woven throughout their family saga. 

Left: Antoni Clave, Combat de Coqs (1947), screen-printed on silk crepe (1947).  Find the framed image in the vintage publicity photo, below. All photos courtesy of Ascher family fine arts magazine 

Visionaries, Lida & Zika Ascher, 1946

 It began in 1939 when Zika and Lida Ascher, honeymooning in Norway, learned of the German war machine’s conquest of their beloved Czech homeland. That dramatic turn of events resulted in the Aschers’ immediate relocation to London, where they established a modest textile center, catering to fashion houses, while reinforcing their commitment to artful, exquisite design and print work. 

When Zika finished his military service with British forces, his and Lida’s collaborative venture became a thriving enterprise, renowned for its innovative fabric design, technology and highest- quality product. It was no wonder, then, that the name “Ascher” was on the well-polished lips of ‘les plus hautes’ of the fashion industry! Their trademark was a distinctive combination of sometimes playful, but just as often, important, graphics and art, coupled with fine fabrics for couture design. The houses of Dior, Schiaparelli, Cardin and Lanvin were among their well-heeled clients, and the phrase “fabric by Ascher” became de rigueur for denizens of stylish circles! 

Felix Topolski, London, 1944, screen-printed rayon crepe. The first in the series on rayon, with silk is short supply bacause of the war.

 “My father had an incredible eye for pattern and design,” Zika’s son Peter recalled. “Moreover, he was able to envision exactly which forms, colors and textures would work effectively together, often in repetition, for a given creation.” 

And create they did! Amid London’s rampant patriotism and energy following the war, the innovative husband-wife team embraced the already- popular “commemorative” head scarf—a very practical, even hygienic, consideration for the legion of women then working in previously male-populated industries– making it their own by coupling their already- proven textile production with the burgeoning work of then-quite-accessible contemporary artists. The results were electrifying! A list of project contributors was a virtual Who’s Who of important mid-20th Century talent, including artists Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Alexander Calder, Andre Derain and others.  Feliks Topolski was the first to produce a “square” for the Aschers, aptly depicting a colorful post-war scene, ‘London,1944’, in nostalgic, patriotic fashion. 

Henry Moore, Standing Figures (1946), screen printed silk twill

 Since the war had finally ended, Zika was able to approach members of the French art community for their involvement in the scarf project, but was disappointed with their initial disdain toward his proposal. Quiet by nature, but ever- enterprising, he personally phoned, then met with, Messrs. Matisse, Braque, Berard, Picasso and Derain, all of whom responded favorably. Though, according to the Aschers, a scarf design was never directly procured from Picasso, that artist’s companion, Francoise Gilot, submitted one titled, “Quatre Oiseaux” (below), bearing an uncanny resemblance to her lover’s unmistakable style! Eh bien, d’accord….. YOU decide! 

As for set and costume designer , Denis Malcles, who conjured and contributed the image, “Nocturne”, for Ascher, [producing a] “design of lines, forms and colours…opens new possibilities of creative pleasures…To design a square gives the same pleasure.” So effective was he in evoking a dramatic moment from “La Fiancee du Diable,” on silk crepe, that Sam Ascher called it his favorite of the bunch: “Malcles was able to convey the exact mood of the scene visually and stylistically…very reminiscent of the drama in theater of that era”. 

And then there was Matisse! 

Henri Matisse, Escarpe (1947), screen-printed on silk twill

 Peter and Sam kindly afforded me an up-close glimpse of the Aschers’ copious correspondence with that artist, carefully preserved in a treasured portfolio. The collection comprises handwritten and typed sheets and telegrams, interspersed with business talk, sketches and jovial, light-hearted notes, revealing the close, personal nature of the relationship. In one such communication, Matisse boasts that even though his Ascher-commissioned project is, of course, very important to him, it is, no doubt, even more so, to Zika. The latter, in fact, has been credited with luring Matisse out of a vision-impaired, illness-induced slump: encouraging him to use his remaining creative abilities productively, Zika helped spawn the artist’s “large forms” phase, an integral, dynamic limb of his later body of work. 

The Ascher scarf sensation swept the fashion world, transcending mere headwear, cleverly weaving into one art, textile and haute couture. Indeed, in 1947, dozens of the creations were mounted for display on easels at Le Fevre Gallery, enthusiastically received as hang-able as well as wearable, and appreciated as fine art! The nationalistic pride and esprit de corps that the scarves bespoke and no doubt engendered, as well, only added to their allure! 

Artists' squares displayed in Chicago department store, 1948. See work by Antoni Clave, Combat de Coqs (1947), framed here, above

 In spite of, and perhaps even because of, war-time challenges in obtaining certain dear textiles, the Aschers, already long-experienced with fine wool, silk, linen and other fibers, became forerunners in innovative fabric production. Their use of nylon for domestic products, as an example, in lieu of the silk designated for export, made the scarves more readily accessible in Britain and other still-depressed economic regions; finer pieces were marked for sale internationally, allowing for higher profits from better-off markets farther abroad. 

Though the Ascher scarf saga is aesthetically and historically rich, even more exciting, perhaps, may be its chapters that are yet to be spun! Father-son team Peter and Sam are currently gathering the threads of Zika’s legacy, intending to capture the imaginations of contemporary creators—perhaps channeling the likes of Moore, Matisse, and, dare we presume, Picasso– in a reprisal of Ascher scarves! 

Francoise Gilot, Quatre Oiseaux (c.1947). Not seen since production, until here in this article

 “One of the main goals of our project is to reproduce good art and make it wearable,” confides Sam. “And the scarves will be of the highest quality.” 

No doubt. No corners cut, concessions made or compromise accepted…a true homage to the tale first lived and woven by Zika and Lida , now re-vitalized and re-worked by Peter and Sam Ascher. So, the legend continues….and the tapestry’s fabric materializes slowly, surely…..spectacularly! 

In a slipstream from the cascading silken scarves, I end my visit imbued with a nostalgic glow from the Aschers’ heartfelt rendering of their noble family lore…as well as with a sense of eager anticipation. If past is, indeed, prelude, then surely we are in for something quite phenomenal! 

by Katherine Arcano, Contributing Writer & Editor 

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Visit the Acsher scarf site at: www.ascherstudio.com 

Read more about another Ascher-inspired work by Henri Matisse in ARTES, http://www.artesmagazine.com/2010/03/henri-matisse-collage-wall-hanging-debuted-at-armory-show-new-york/ 

Read a museum review in which Ascher scarves were featured at: http://www.westword.com/2007-02-01/culture/fashion-art-ascher-scarves-from-post-war-england-lucienne-day-queen-of-1950s-british-textile-design/

6 Comments

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  4. david pactor August 11, 2018 12:07 am

    I have a Andre Derain head scarf (‘Boy and Girl’) and want to know more about this piece and the possibility of selling it since I am getting older and it is time to divest.
    It is a beautiful rendering and I see various comments and prices.

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