Life & Culture

The ‘mad silkman’ who made Britain beautiful

Before the war Zika Ascher was a star Czech skier and his family had a textile business. In 1938, Zika and his wife Lida fled to England, where their silk business became famous


This is a story of silk, skis, Picasso and Queen’s Park Rangers — and a promise made more than 20 years ago and now fulfilled.

“The day my father died in 1992”, says Peter Ascher, “I promised that one day I would bring him back to Prague”. With the publication of a magnificent book about his parents, The Mad Silkman: Zika and Lida Ascher Textiles and Fashion, and a triumphant exhibition in the Czech capital about their work, Peter Ascher has more than redeemed his promise.

The Ascher story is one not unfamiliar to Jewish readers: a family of Jews in eastern Europe — in this case pre-war Czechoslovakia — financial and social success, the advent of the Nazis, and a flight to a safer haven in the West.

But the Ascher story, if anything, became even more successful once Zika and Lida arrived in London in March 1939. Zika Ascher, once a star Czech skier, a daredevil on the slopes who was dubbed “the Mad Silkman” as a nod to his family textile business, acquired a new nickname when he came to London.

In Britain, he became “the Prince of Prints” because the Aschers, uniquely among other refugees, developed an extraordinary fashion fabric business whose calling card was the “Ascher Square”, a silk scarf with a design from the great artists of the day.

Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau and Cecil Beaton, Barbara Hepworth and Lucian Freud, designed for Ascher; and the business, based in central London’s Wigmore Street, provided top-of-the-range fashion textiles for houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Lanvin, and Pierre Cardin.

Peter Ascher, who grew up in the family business and went on to establish a successful Ascher textile business of his own in New York, has rescued all the family archives for the creation of the book, primarily written by Konstantina Hlavackova — curator of the textiles and fashion collection at Prague’s Museum of the Decorative Arts.

The Ascher family tree is a complicated one of Jews and non-Jews, because of assimilation and conversion. Anna, Zika’s mother, converted to Judaism when she married his father Gustav, and, indeed, there was a breach between two parts of the family because of that marriage, leading to not just a social split, but a business one.

Anna and Gustav had three children, Josef, Zika (born in 1910) and their sister Jirina. As Peter Ascher explains, Anna was Jewish when the children were born but she later “became disillusioned and converted back to Catholicism”.

Because of the business split, Josef and Zika received a settlement from the unconverted part of the family and used it to open their own textile shop in central Prague.

In the early 1930s, Peter says, Zika was both “a mad daredevil skier and the co-owner of a successful store.

“He competed in three world championships, in ’35, ’37 and ’38. He was also picked for the ’36 Winter Olympics in Germany, in Garmisch, but unfortunately hurt himself in the practice race, so he didn’t actually compete”.

Zika, “not the least bit religious”, was handsome, popular, with a string of girlfriends and a thriving social life in Prague. And into his shop one day in 1938 walked the beautiful and talented — and Catholic — Lida Tydlitatova.

Lida had been to finishing school in Switzerland and was herself an accomplished sportswoman, a keen swimmer and skier. “She was frustrated at the lack of decent ski-ing clothes for women and so decided to make her own outfit, and went into Josef and Zika’s store to buy the fabric”.

Zika and Lida “clicked” immediately, but Lida’s mother, in particular, was fiercely antisemitic. Despite family opposition, “it became clear that Zika and Lida were going to marry”. On December 22 1938, just a few short weeks after Kristallnacht, Zika Ascher was baptised and converted to Catholicism; and two months later the couple married and left immediately on their honeymoon.

For the rest of their lives, the Aschers swore that they had only left Czechoslovakia for a honeymoon trip, but they went first to Norway and then to Britain, landing at Newcastle with 18 trunks of belongings. They were helped to enter the UK by the Ski Club of Great Britain. By March 20 1939, they were living in London.

Josef, aided by their mother Anna, remained in Prague but secured a certificate to say that he was not Jewish, but Aryan, enabling him to survive although the shop — and all Zika’s remaining assets — were confiscated, first by the Nazis and then after the war by the Communist regime.

In Britain, the Aschers busily set out to reinvent themselves, aided by Zika’s encyclopaedic knowledge of textiles, dyes and chemicals, and Lida’s exquisite taste and willingness to approach artists and designers.

“Britain wanted to revive its moribund textile industry”, says Peter Ascher, speculating on why his parents were allowed into Britain at a time when the country had stopped taking in refugees. “The smarter people in the government realised that what the industry needed was creative blood.

The British were very good at making things, they had a lot of machinery, but unless there’s a certain amount of eye appeal… people don’t understand beauty until they’re shown beauty, and they respond to that. Zika understood that”.

In Prague, Peter Ascher says, his father had been heavily influenced by the Czech textile manufacturer Josef Sochor, who was among the first to persuade artists to design for printed fabrics. Zika took up this idea when he left Czechoslovakia and set up Ascher London in 1941.

The pages of The Mad Silkman are filled with pictures of the exclusive designs made for the Aschers, which became both the famous scarves and then printed fabric for the world’s top fashion designers.

At home in Hampstead, the family all spoke Czech as their first language, Zika retaining a heavy accent to the end of his life. Peter, aged 16, worked a summer job in the accounts department of the company, and even then noted two things: his father’s high spending on chemicals in his determination to get the exact colour necessary to reproduce artistic designs — “I knew Zika was overspending”, he says — and second, Zika’s habit of clipping a swatch off every bale of cloth in the factory, stuffing the sample in a paper bag and putting it under the factory cutting table. So there was an incredible archive resource of everything Ascher London ever made.

Aged 27, Peter, who worked with his father for a couple of years, decided to strike out on his own and moved to New York. In America he met Robin Sadek, a Jewish girl from Scarsdale, New York, whom he married and with whom he set up in business.

“I really had no religious identity at all when I was growing up”, Peter says today, although his mother was “furious” when she tried to get him into Highgate School and was told the quota was full. Instead, the Aschers sent Peter to board at Bryanston School, which he loved, and Judaism did not become an issue until he met Robin and was ready to marry. “I became committed to converting”, he says. This is where Queen’s Park Rangers became a vital element in the Ascher story.

For Robin Sadek’s family rabbi in Scarsdale recommended his rabbinical friend in London, Rabbi Albert Friedlander,at Westminster Synagogue. Both men were fanatical QPR fans, and Rabbi Friedlander had a season ticket. But home games were at 7.30 pm on a Tuesday night and clashed with the conversion classes. Instead of going to the match, the men would stand outside, hail a taxi and hand over the ticket for that evening's match to the taxi driver before returning to their studies.

Thus Peter Ascher returned to the faith of his great-grandparents and said Kaddish at the family graves in Prague during his latest visit.

Towards the end of his life, Zika Ascher’s chronic overspending caught up with him and he was obliged, despite frequent financial bale-outs from Peter and Robin, to close Ascher London.

But Sam Ascher, one of Peter and Robin’s three sons, is continuing the family passion for design and fashion, most recently having been headhunted by Nike. He has also set up an important website for everything you ever needed to know about the artists’ scarves project that Zika and Lida lovingly oversaw from Wigmore Street.

The Mad Silkman is published by Network Books, £59.99

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