ZIKA ASCHER was the man who first supplied the fashion world with the shaggy mohairs, cheesecloths and romantic lacy fabrics that so characterised the European catwalks of the late Fifties, mid-Sixties and early Seventies. He was also the man who, from 1945, persuaded European artists including Matisse, Moore, Cocteau, Topolski, Derain, Piper, Laurencin and Sutherland to design a stunning sequence of 3ft silk squares which have served as glamorous scarves, turbans, wraps and skirts ever since. These have also been used as wall-hangings and featured in many exhibitions from 'Britain Can Make It', at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1946, to the major retrospective of Ascher's work held, again at the V & A, in 1987.
Ascher's artists' squares were described by Sacheverell Sitwell, 45 years ago, as 'a revolution in industrial design' and by Australian newspapers of the same time as 'weird distortions . . . fit only to be worshipped by art devotees'. The Aschers' own designs were taken up enthusiastically by the leading couturiers of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, by Dior and Schiaparelli, Givenchy and Lanvin, Yves Saint Laurent and Mary Quant. While his wife, Lida, designed, Zika printed the fabrics, his eye as a colourist hardly dimmed even after a stroke which effectively blinded him in one eye in recent years.
Elizabeth Morris, of the Scotsman, neatly summed up the impression that Zika and Lida Ascher made on the catwalks of post-war Paris, Milan and London; 'There seems no limit,' she wrote in 1967, 'to the inventiveness of this withdrawn, sensitive man who does so much and says so little.' In one month alone, no fewer than eight covers of Vogue around the world featured Ascher fabrics.
Working until his death, Ascher was never happier than when active and discussing new ideas with the best new fashion designers, journalists and trusted old friends. A champion skier in his native Czechoslovakia, he had until his very last years been fit and energetic. He was a tall and handsome man, but remarkably shy; this shyness, however, barely concealed a mix of charm and fierce determination to get things done and get things right. In everything he did, Ascher was a perfectionist, a crusader against mediocrity in design as in life.
With Lida, Zika Ascher began experimenting with fabric design and new types of couture fabrics when they set up Ascher (London) Ltd in 1942. The couple had settled in London after a honeymoon skiiing in Norway in 1939. Learning, while they were away, that Czechoslovakia had been annexed, they decided to head straight for England. While Zika served in the British army, Lida began designing fabrics.
In Paris in 1945, Zika telephoned the greatest artists of the day including Braque and Picasso from a telephone in the Cafe du Rond Pont des Champs- Elysees; all were intrigued by the idea of making designs for fabrics, although the most famous wanted lavish fees. Ascher, however, built up a remarkable relationship with many of the artists he commissioned. All were deeply impressed by his ability to match their designs on silk exactly.
Some of the designs - Ivon Hitchens' soft flowers, for example - demanded as many as 20 screens to print. 'Not a few of these Ascher scarves', Sitwell wrote in 1947, 'will be framed upon walls a hundred years from now, for they are among the best and most characteristic products of our day.' They still are and, thankfully, you can still buy them - if you make enough fuss - at Harrods.
The fashion houses looked to the Aschers for inspiration for at least three decades. Only occasionally did designers shy at their work as, for example, with the launch of neon-coloured shaggy mohairs for the autumn and winter season of 1957. There was initial disbelief - who would wear such a bizarre material, described by American Vogue as 'soft, thick, weightless as a moth's wing, spun together out of mohair, nylon and wool' - before Castillo designed an inspiring collection of coats that were instantly aped throughout the industry.
The Aschers continued to experiment during the Sixties and Seventies, with dress- and coat-weight chenilles, with plastic-coated printed cotton fabrics and cheesecloths. Lida died in 1983 and Zika, working from his romantic house on the edge of Hampstead Heath, concentrated on his silk squares and fabric designs to order.
The impressive V & A retrospective in 1987 brought his and Lida's names to a younger audience and over the past two years Ascher made many new young friends in the worlds of fashion and decoration. Despite illness - and some disability - he was tearing around Paris with glamorous young women a few weeks ago and his circle of friends as well as admirers grew rather than diminished.