It’s truly heartbreaking news when a monumentally talented person passes away. French designer Sonia Rykiel died on the morning of August 25th at her home in Paris from the effects of Parkinson’ Disease. She was 86 years old. She’d been battling with her illness for almost two decades, but it’s still shocking news for me to digest. You just can’t imagine someone like her dying. She was a woman who was always appeared happy, emblematic and full of energy- someone bursting with life- and it’s quite hard to imagine the fashion world without her.
Sonia Rykiel was born Sonia Fils in Neuilly-sur-Seine on 25 May 1930. She was raised in a mixed Romanian- Russian Jewish household, and was the eldest of five sisters. She started working in fashion in her teens, when she was hired to dress the windows of a Parisian textile store at the age of 17. In her early 20s, she married Parisian boutique owner Sam Rykiel, with whom she had two children, Nathalie and Jean-Philippe.
While pregnant in 1962, Mrs. Rykiel was unable to find fashionable maternity garments, and resorted to making her own clothes in an attractive style: a long sleeved, slim fitting dress and sweater in knitted jersey that clung to the body like a second skin. Practical and modern, her knits were sexy, stylish, and extremely comfortable, and became an instant hit among her friends. Known as the ‘Poor Boy’ sweater, she began receiving commissions for her designs and soon garnered such interest that her husband began selling her clothes in his shop.
Mrs. Rykiel designed all kinds of knitwear between 1962 and 1968: playing with shapes, textures, bright colours and motifs to create daring new looks. She was the first modern designer to incorporate stripes into her designs, a pattern that became one of her signatures because “…on clothing they follow a woman’s movements.” At the time stripes were considered dated and dowdy, but she reinvented them for a younger, more fashionable set by pairing them with modern silhouettes and colouring them in bright rainbow shades. Everything she ever did was about enhancing the beauty of the body in motion, and she was always interested with how unusual fabrics — fur, wool, feathers, etc. — moved with women as they walked.
In December 1963 Mrs. Rykiel made history when Elle magazine featured one of her famous jumpers on it’s cover. It was the first time that a women’s magazine or fashion journal had ever featured prêt-à-porter on it’s cover, and as such it was a big sensation. It was the beginning of the Swinging 60s and the Parisian youth were entranced by the new style that was taking London by storm. The demand for Ms. Rykiel’s designs spread like wildfire across Paris and a younger, more modern clientele began flocking to Sam Rykiel’s boutique. Almost immediately Audrey Hepburn visited the shop and purchased fourteen sweaters in every colour, Brigitte Bardot and Sylvie Vartan were photographed wearing Sonia Rykiel jumpers, and icons like Anouk Aimée, Francoise Hardy, Catherine Deneuve and Lauren Bacall began collecting her work.
Demand for her garments grew so strong that she founded her own fashion house, the Sonia Rykiel Company, in 1965, and opened her first boutique on Paris’ Left Bank in 1968 (the same year that she divorced her husband). Further success followed and her business grew quickly. In 1969 she opened an in-store shop at Galeries Lafayette, and her clothes were soon picked up by Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel in New York.
In 1972 Ms. Rykiel was dubbed the “Queen of Knits” by Women’s Wear Daily, a title that was used throughout her career. She was one of the first designers to join the Chambre Syndicale as an exclusively ready- to- wear house and stage prêt-à-porter fashion shows. She was also the first luxury ready-to-wear designer to collaborate with mail order firms, partnering with French company 3 Suisses for a capsule collection in 1977. In time, she went on to collaborate with La Redoute and H&M, and was one of the first major designers to explore the idea of ‘affordable luxury.’
Over the next few years, she continued to work with knitwear, developing new techniques like inside-out stitching, no-hem finishings and unlined knits. She started trends that have endured to this very day, like printed slogan sweaters, quilted jackets and cropped knits. She has also been credited with the popularization of wearing black, a colour that she wore everyday. “My color is black,” she once told an American fashion editor, “And black, if it’s worn right, is a scandal…it’s indecent when well worn, intense and disturbing, striking and stops the eye.”
Ms. Rykiel remained creative director of her company until her retirement in 2009. Although her daughter Nathalie replaced her as the company’s director and Julie de Libran became the head designer, Ms. Rykiel maintained an active part of the brand even after her retirement.
Throughout her career, Ms. Rykiel experimented with every type of design- branching out into other ventures including children’s clothing, menswear, lingerie, accessories, fragrances, chinaware and chocolates. Along the way she also tried her hand at costume design and interior decorating. She published several books, many about fashion, but also wrote a collection of children’s stories and several novels that explored her thoughts on erotica, philosophy, feminism and life in general.
Sonia Rykiel was awarded many honours during her lifetime, including being appointed a Commandeur of the Légion d’honneur, a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and a Grand Officer of the National Order of Merit.
In 2012 Ms. Rykiel revealed that for the previous 15 years, she had been battling Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder. She had kept her illness a secret- even from her family, until she could no longer hide the symptoms. Her death was directly caused by complications of the disease.
Throughout her career Sonia Rykiel was likened to the great Coco Chanel because of her ability to liberate women from the constraints of traditional fashion. Just as Mademoiselle Coco eschewed corsets, high necks and uncomfortable clothing, Ms. Rykiel avoided the restrictive “New Look” style that had become the norm during the 1950s. Lean and sensuous, her garments placed great emphasis on the allure of the female form, bringing attention to natural curves without any excess paddings, linings or fuss. Her designs were practical, but sexy, and were meant to be lived in and worn numerous times. She was one of the few designers who actually understood how women wanted to dress and saw her garments as what they were meant to be- tools that service a woman’s life, not things that defined her. She never took design too seriously, and simply made clothes that she liked and wanted, garments that reflected her daily moods and her ever changing needs.
Sonia Rykel reshaped women’s perception of luxury and freedom, and introduced an edgier approach to style that was unlike anything ever seen before. Before her, knitwear was usually homemade and was an ugly, chunky, unsexy affair. She introduced the notion of machine produced luxury knits in jersey, lurex and tinsel- blended knits, and she single-handedly transformed them into the fitted, feminine wardrobe staples we know (and love) today.
“First I made a dress because I was pregnant and I wanted to be the most beautiful pregnant woman. Then I made a sweater because I wanted to have one that wasn’t like anyone else’s,” she told an interviewer in 2006s. “I don’t know if I’m perceived as being provocative, I suppose it’s an attitude that I’ve had since Day One. I am not swayed by anybody else. Who cares what they think?…I’m a fashion fraude. I never studied couture, I don’t know how to knit and still I became the queen of knitwear.”
She was a true individual, and and a living faunt of high design. She will be deeply missed.
Xx – Ana