For more than a century, the Wallach store in Munich was one of the leading retailers of folk art inspired fashion, costumes and homewares in Germany. Wallach customers included national and international fashion houses, architects, painters, writers and performers, industry magnates, and even royalty. When the store closed its doors in 2004, the press declared the “end of a legend.”
1900 – From courtyard studio to Wallach Workshops, Inc.
On the 9th of November 1900, the “Speciality Store for Regional Dress” opened in Munich. The business was owned by Julius and Moritz Wallach, sons of Jewish grain merchant Heinemann Wallach and his wife Julie.
Julius’ love of folk art and crafts had begun early. On his regular travels through Europe he had become fascinated with local art and design, buying clothing and artefacts wherever he went. This collection became the inspiration for the Wallach brothers’ early creations, which would soon be seen in salons, on the stage, in the ballroom, and at carnivals.
The store had its own tailor’s workshop in the back courtyard and among its early creations was a festive silk dirndl dress for the wife of Prince Joachim of Prussia. The dress caused such a sensation when she wore it at a Paris ball, that virtually overnight the Wallach name became known internationally. In 1908, the Wallachs presented a collection of costumes at the prestigious national Exhibition for Arts and Crafts, which gained them further international attention. Soon, Paris fashion houses—Paul Poiret, Rodier, Madame Lanvin—were placing “major orders” for handblocked fabrics and brocades, with further commissions pouring in from London, Amsterdam, and New York.
In 1910, the city of Munich celebrated the centennial of its “Oktoberfest”, and the Wallach brothers fitted out the entire regional heritage parade. Their designs made the rurally inspired dirndl dress fashionable for the first time and it was swiftly adopted by Munich’s urban elites. Julius Wallach was appointed Purveyor to the Royal Court and Wallach dirndls and costumes became ever more popular throughout Germany and beyond.
Encouraged by this success, the Wallach brothers developed their own unique style, using bespoke textile design and manufacture to create an unmistakable “Wallach look”. Yarns were dyed to their specifications, and designs were commissioned from carefully selected artisans.
Soon, they were able to acquire an old Cardboard Factory in Dachau, just outside Munich, and together with their brother Max Wallach, established the Wallach Workshops, Inc. Max, who had been an engineer in China and Latin America for the previous twenty years, was appointed Technical Director of the Workshops’ operations, and over time the business expanded to include 120 employees.
1920 – The House of Folk Art
By 1920, the brothers were in a position to open their very own House of Folk Art, a vast emporium across five floors, filled with installations and displays selling regional costumes and objects from across Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Sweden and the Slavic countries. Wallach’s own textiles were at the heart of the collection, but there was also furniture (cupboards, chairs, and trunks), and ceramics (tankards, plates, pitchers, bowls, wall and floor tiles, stove tiles, and decorative plates).
Rooms in the Wallach House of Folk Art, Ludwigstraße 7, Munich, 1920–26
Cat. no. 16
Spectacular commissions followed, including the decoration of the hunting lodge of the President of the German Reich and of two rooms on the Hapag Steamer Germany on the Hamburg-America line in 1921.
But the good times were not to last. The world economic crisis of the 1920’s had a ruinous effect on the emporium and in 1926, two-thirds of the folk art collection had to be auctioned off, and the building was sold. As a reporter of the Frankfurter Zeitung remarked with regret, “Munich had lost a centre of attraction that was unique in all of Europe.”
Julius blamed the store’s demise on the dramatic changes in political circumstances and public taste, writing that “an artistic city must first and foremost be tolerant, hospitable and cheerful, but these 3 traits have disappeared, and Hitler’s mischief continues to be tolerated silently. Political fools stay, but good art goes.” Julius left the business, and together with his two children, moved to Lake Constance where he established a small folk art shop at the Obermarkt.
1927 – New directions for Wallach textiles
Moritz was determined to carry on, and with his brother Max still running the company’s successful textiles workshops in Dachau, he established the new Wallach House for Folk Art and Regional Costume. This new store specialized in textiles and traditional costumes, but Moritz also took the printing works in a new direction.
He organized special exhibitions with contemporary artists including the Bauhaus and produced silk fabrics with art deco patterns, as well as the figurative patterns that became signature Wallach products. As before, the company enjoyed extraordinary success, with costumes commissioned across Germany for the stage and film.
1933 – National Socialism, Aryanization, and Expulsion
In 1933 the National Socialist Party seized power in Germany. Initially, the business continued. Dirndls and folk waistcoats were in high demand, as were the Wallach fabrics that satisfied a new penchant for rustic styles. They even appealed to the new Nazi leadership, with customers including Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler, whose holiday home in the Bavarian Alps sported Wallach curtains.
But while their business thrived, the Wallach family was increasingly subject to anti-Semitic assaults. This culminated in the annexation of the business in 1937, under the “Aryanization” directive. The Reich Chamber of Fine Arts cited Moritz’s religion as the reason, stating that he lacked the “suitability and dependability required to participate in fostering German culture, in responsibility towards the people and the Reich”. They ordered Moritz to sell the business to the chamber’s head administrator – an art dealer by the name of Otto Witte, with a sales contract that only just covered half the business’s net worth. Moritz refused to sign, but was nevertheless forced to hand over the keys on August 1, 1938.
On November 11, 1938, following the Kristallnacht pogroms, Max and his family were expelled from Dachau. Six days later, Gestapo agents, members of the SS (“Protection Squad”) and the SD (“Security Service”), accompanied by two art advisors, forced their way into the apartment of Moritz and Meta in Munich and confiscated “objects of German cultural interest.”
Soon after, Moritz was finally forced to sign over the title of the business, and emigrated on board the Manhattan, heading to New York City. Max and his wife Melly stayed with relatives in Paderborn until about 1940. Unable to leave Germany, they were deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt and onward to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Julius, after fleeing through Europe for several years, arrived in Canada completely penniless, settling in Pennsylvania in 1945.
1945 – Rebuilding after World War II
When Moritz and Meta arrived in New York, they owned nothing except the furnishings from their former apartment, a few books, pattern design drawings, and printing blocks. Moritz began producing handblocked fabrics once again, carving his own printing blocks to fit the taste and demands of the American market. Over time, he built up a new business and in 1947 he was able to open the Hand Craft Studio.
That same year, the Wallach business in Germany was confiscated from Otto Witte and placed under the custodianship of a textile merchant, Max Sedlmayer, who succeeded in renewing the Wallach trade license for folk art and artisanal objects. The store and factory in Germany were later returned to Moritz in 1949 and so began a longstanding collaboration between the two men, with Sedlmayer supervising the company’s operations in Munich.
Moritz died in 1964 at the age of eighty-five, and Max Sedlmayer continued to manage the business on behalf of the Wallach descendents. The Dachau workshops, whose products had significantly shaped the Wallach style, closed in 1983, and shortly afterwards the Munich business was sold to the Loden-Frey department store. The Wallach store continued under Loden-Frey’s ownership until 2004, when its doors finally closed.
Until 2022, select Wallach textile designs continued to be produced by Josef Fromholzer from his workshop in Ruhmannsfelden in northern Bavaria. Josef, whose father first started working with the Wallach brothers in the 1910’s, joined the family business at the age of 12 and continued to produce woodblock and screen printed fabrics well into his 90’s. Josef died in March, 2023.