THE dean of Paris haute couture designers, the enigmatic Madame Gr`es, once revealed her working style: ``Before a collection, I don't have any designs in my head. It's the fabric that gives me the ideas.'' Her remark hints at the importance of the companies that design fabrics, and here one firm stands out as a trendsetter: Abraham AG, based in Zurich, Switzerland. Virtually unknown to the general public, Abraham is a company many great couturiers have depended on for more than 40 years. Designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Galanos, Valentino, Bill Blass, and Geoffrey Beene use Abraham's fabrics.
Called a ``converter'' in the fashion jargon, fabric designers such as Abraham carry the creative risk of haute couture fabrics. Abraham's 25 designers create collections of more than 300 pieces twice a year, which are then manufactured by other companies in Switzerland, Italy, and France.
The man behind Abraham's success, Gustav Zumsteg, has retired from his position as chairman and now concentrates on Abraham's French divisions. In the glass-draped, modern headquarters overlooking Lake Zurich, however, Mr. Zumsteg still wields influence over the company's future, industry sources say. Abraham has annual sales of more than $54 million, and employs 150 people worldwide.
When the conservatively dressed Zumsteg drapes his newest silk fabrics on his arm, he almost magically creates a vision of the finished dress. It becomes easy to see how the fabric and the design dictate the cut.
``We at Abraham,'' explains Zumsteg proudly, ``constantly develop collections we believe in. And then the couturiers choose.'' It is actually quite rare that couturiers suggest a design.
Gabrielle Buchaert, Yves Saint Laurent's press director, says ``Yves Saint Laurent greatly admires M. Zumsteg. He is a man who is open to new ideas, an extraordinary technician who can create without limit a fabric, a design, and a coloration.'' About 60 percent of the fabrics used in Yves Saint Laurent's collections today are from Abraham.
``Gustav Zumsteg and Yves Saint Laurent formed a super team,'' says Heidi Fischbacher of Christian Fischbacher AG, another large Swiss textile converter. ``Together, they set the tone of fashion from the '60s onward.''
Converters account for just a fifth of the $280 million turnover of the Swiss silk industry. But the Swiss business magazine Bilanz estimates that a third of the Jacquard weaving looms in Lyons (France) are kept busy by Abraham. And while Abraham's share in the $996 million French fashion market is fractional, its creative force is immense. Says C. Meile of the Swiss Textile Federation: ``Abraham has truly become an almost legendary name for fabric of the highest distinction.''
Starting as an apprentice with Ludwig Abraham's textile company in Zurich, Zumsteg soon discovered his passion for silk. He pursued this passion through studies in Paris and Lyons in 1940, and began work in Paris immediately after the war.
Postwar Paris was experiencing the fashion revolution caused by Christian Dior's ``New Look,'' and in this moment of creative dynamism, Zumsteg was able to establish contacts with leading couturiers such as Pierre Balmain and Jacques Fath. His work with Cristobal Balenciaga, however, left the strongest impression: ``Balenciaga taught me to see,'' Zumsteg says affectionately.
During these years, Zumsteg became acquainted with the art collectors Marguerite and Aim'e Maeght. This friendship changed Zumsteg's life by opening the door to the studios of this century's greatest artists: Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Marc Chagall, and Joan Mir'o.
Within his modest means, Zumsteg began to acquire some paintings. ``Today,'' Zumsteg muses, ``I regret not having had the financial means to acquire many of the paintings I saw being created in the studios of my friends.'' But what he did manage to capture permanently proved to be of tremendous value: the artist's sense of harmony and proportion, form and color. ``My relationship to art has given me the security to feel what quality really is, what a good combination is, and what taste is,'' he says.
His designs, sometimes drawing inspiration from art, remain a highly personal expression; Zumsteg refers to his collections as ``confessions.''
He became partner in Ludwig Abraham's company in 1943 and went on to become its chairman and largest shareholder.
Besides his passion for silk and art, Zumsteg also finds love for a restaurant he inherited: the ``Kronenhalle.'' It is famous for its extensive art collection, which includes works of Chagall and Mir'o.
Zumsteg's importance in the glamorous world of international haute couture has not spoiled his modest and reserved style. In his quiet but authoritative manner, Zumsteg prefers to discuss paintings and their meaning, rather than offer inside stories of the fashion industry. He speaks of silk as a seductress, not as a product. He sees his magnificent art collection as a source of inspiration, not as an investment. It is sometimes hard to remind oneself that he is also a businessman.
Unlike the artist who thrives on attention or the couturier who flourishes with celebrity status, Zumsteg is quite happy to be away from the limelight of international fashion shows. ``We don't mind being in the shadow of applause. But isn't it wonderful,'' Zumsteg asks, ``if you can make the stars of the fashion skies shine with your own creations?''