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Couture in Colour: Abraham’s silks in Antwerp at the Fashion Museum

Silks and Prints: Couture in colour.

Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Balenciaga… you may know their haute couture designs, but how much do you know about the fabrics that give body to their creations?

On a recent visit to Antwerp’s fashion museum, I learnt a little more about the luscious fabrics that give couture its colour. The Musée de Mode’s (MoMu) latest display is ‘Silks and Prints from the Abraham Archive: Couture in Colour.’ This fashion exhibition combines beautiful fabrics hanging like works of arts, key haute couture pieces and photographs from the Abraham Archive – a Swiss silk company, whose work is intertwined with couture from the 1930s onwards.

Haute couture and Abraham Ltd

Abraham Ltd meant nothing to me before attending the exhibition. The origins of this Swiss silk company can be traced to 1878, but it was not until after World War II that it became an international fashion heavyweight. In the 1930s, Abraham was run by Gustav Zumsteg, who mingled in the artistic environment of 1930s Paris with the likes of Georges Braque, Marc Chagall and Alberto Giacometti, and famous fashion designers, including Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Yves Saint Laurent. This creative atmosphere influenced his designs, helping to position him as one of the top fabric suppliers to haute couture designers.

swatches of Abrahams fabric

Abraham archives interactive swatch files

Prêt-à-porter from the 1960s ushered in a new era for Abraham Ltd; as the demand for high quality silks diminished, they adapted to the high-end ready-to-wear market. In 1995, when the firm’s collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent ended, Abraham’s time was numbered. The company may have closed in 2002, but they left behind an extensive archive of textiles, sample books and fashion photographs telling a vibrant story of twentieth century extravagance and couture.

Christian Dior and Abraham partnership

Dior’s New Look, with its luxurious and excessive fabric contrasting with war-time austerity, was a perfect match for Abraham’s high quality silks, and thus an important fashion partnership was born in the 1950s.

Dior exhibit Fashion Museum Antwerp

This sweet, but nonetheless grown-up, Dior cocktail dress exemplifies the 1950s silhouette and style. Abraham’s flower print, “Apricotine” could hardly be more aptly named.

Dior orange dress

Yves Saint Laurent and Abraham

Yves Saint Laurent met Gustav Zumsteg at Christian Dior’s funeral in 1957, marking the start of a working relationship and lifelong friendship. The red and black silk satin dress from 1985 was the stand-out piece for me, with its bustle and large exotic flowers spreading across the fabric.

Yves Saint Laurent dresses

Balenciaga and Abraham

Balenciaga also came to Abraham for fabric, in particular for gazar (a crisp, sheer, plain-weave silk cloth), which was a speciality of this silk manufacturer, and was perfect for Balenciaga’s sculptural creations.

Fashion Museum Antwerp Balanciaga and monochrome display

Balanciaga black dress in the centre

Balanciaga blue dress Fashion Museum Antwerp

Fabrics everywhere

Fabrics weaved throughout the exhibition providing, not just a pretty backdrop to the fashions on display, but literally the material for them. From checks and animal prints to monochrome, from matte to sheen, a wide range of Abraham textiles, textures and patterns were on show.

monochrome fabrics hanging

Monochrome fabrics

Checked fabric fashion museum Antwerp

animal prints - fashion museum

Fashion Photo from Museum of Fashion Antwerp MoMu

Luxurious fabrics hanging Fashion Museum Antwerp

Flowers, and in particular roses, were a recurrent motif in Abraham’s designs, from traditional bouquets to more abstract, larger patterns.

Roses fabrics

roses catwalk

Fabricand shadows Fashion Museum Antwerp

Luxury shines through these heavy, glittering cloths. The high production costs of such fabrics meant that they were often the preserve of haute couture.

Luxurious fabrics Fashion Museum Antwerp

Givenchy and Abraham

Givenchy, whose fashion idol was Balenciaga, also collaborated with Abraham Ltd. Givenchy has become synonymous for dressing two stars in particular: Audrey Hepburn appeared in Givenchy on screen, for instance in Sabrina (for which costume designer Edith Head won an Oscar), and Jackie O wore one of his designs to JFK’s funeral. The yellow evening dress and cape below is from 1973 in silk gazar, and the similarities in shape between it and the blue Balenciaga dress (pictured above) are apparent.

Givenchy evening dress in yellow gazar

Givenchy dress black and green

The Givenchy piece above from 1987 is made from Abraham silk in crêpe de chine falconné imprimé. Although the puffball feature would probably be best avoided by almost everybody, this dress with its 1940s silhouette stood out for me (perhaps a nostalgia trip to the 1980s and reminiscent of a dress that my Mum wore and loved).

Kronenhalle

Towards the start of the display, this sweet table-for-two tableau greeted visitors. It represents Kronenhalle restaurant, a Zurich institution with a guestbook of the big names of the time across the spectrum from politics to art. Gustav Zumsteg helped his mother, Hulda, run the business and used the restaurant to house his growing art collection. His artistic connections helped in designing the restaurant: Alberto and Diego Giacometti designed lamps and other furnishings for its bar which was designed by Robert Haussman.

Kronenhalle Zurich at Fashion Museum Antwerp

Before Pinterest…

Long before Pinterest, the pleasure of preserving memories and aspirations was played out through cutting out and sticking in scrapbooks. On display were twenty scrapbooks from between 1947 and 1996 creating a picture book history of fashion, textiles and Abraham Ltd. 

Scrapbooks at Fashion Museum Antwerp

The Abraham Textile Archive is housed at the Swiss National Museum. Abraham Ltd began archiving professionally in 1955 preserving 50 years of creativity, and I imagine this collection would be invaluable to fashion students and designers now.

Fashion Museum Antwerp Musee de Mode MoMu

I would recommend an Antwerp adventure full stop, and if you do, check out the Fashion Museum (MoMu). “Silk and Prints: From the Abraham Archive: Couture in Colour” is on until 11 August 2013.

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