On August 25th, the fashion world bid farewell to their beloved ‘Queen of Knitwear’ , Sonia Rykiel (Women’s Wear Daily, 1972). Regarded as the woman who made knitwear timelessly fashionable, Rykiel’s love affair with vibrant stripes and the female form has resulted in forever iconic styles that have become synonymous with her creative personality and brand. Rykiel (born Sonia Fils in Paris, France), passed at the age of 86 from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. She is survived by her two children, Nathalie and Jean-Philippe Rykiel.
Sonia’s fashion career was born out of practical reasons when she was pregnant with her second child and could not find any maternity clothes she liked. At the time, her then husband Sam Rykiel owned a ready-to-wear boutique called Laura. In 1962, when an Italian sales representative came to the boutique with two suitcases full of sweaters, Sonia requested the Venice-based company to make a specific jumper for her.
Rykiel was “among the rare people to understand that fashion was not made to satisfy the fantasy of designers, but to speak to women. And not only to speak to idle, rich women – but active women, everyday women.” Pierre Bergé (Vogue, 2012)
Before Sonia Rykiel came along, jumpers were mostly home-knit, thick, chunky and formless. They were worn by “people who were well off but had absolutely no style” (Marie Ricki, Director of Studio Berçot, from The Guardian, 2013). Rykiel preferred to play around with the form and style of the sweater, rather than knit the actual garment. Following her request, the Italian company made a fine-knit jersey sweater for Rykiel. At first, it was difficult for the company (or anyone at that time) to understand the style attitude of Rykiel’s jumper design, because it was just completely unique and had never been done before. According to Sonia, it took seven tries to get the jumper perfect (The Guardian, 2013).
Finally, Sonia’s search in vain for a stylish, form-fitting sweater ended with the first Poor Boy sweater. ‘Poor boy’ because it borrowed major form elements from its menswear counterparts, a short and fitted shape with long sleeves. It became an instant success, especially in 1963 when Elle magazine put French teen pop-star Françoise Hardy in a red and pink striped Rykiel knit on their cover. It was sensationally shocking for an established magazine to feature Rykiel’s more casual, anti-bourgeois design instead of the haute couture covers typical of that time. Sonia’s elegant and fluid designs were soon spotted on famous fans such as Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, and her success soared.
From 1962 to 1968, Rykiel experimented with different knitwear designs, expanding her range into childrenswear and menswear in later years. One of these designs, the vibrant French Breton stripes, became a trademark of hers, because she liked the way they followed a woman’s movement and form. In more recent times, Rykiel has expanded to create a diffusion line, Sonia By Sonia Rykiel, as well as entering collaborations with H&M and Lancome Makeup.
From the start, Rykiel always wanted to dress differently, and therefore, her designs were for a specific woman -herself, and based on her lifestyle. It was this practical sensibility which allowed her to reach out to so many women, and explains her brand’s enduring success till today. In 1968, Rykiel opened her inaugural ready-to-wear shop in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an invauluable addition to the “eccentricity and style of Paris’ Left Bank” (Fashion Magazine, 2016).
“She invented not only a style, but also an attitude, a way of living and of being.” – Francois Hollande (Business of Fashion, 2016)
Rykiel was more than just a fashion designer, the concepts surrounding her design aesthetic liberated women and female fashion. She pioneered the inside-out stitching technique and put forward the unfinished look: visible seams and frayed hems, and most importantly, showed that sweaters could be worn against the naked skin. One could argue that Rykiel’s long-lived and rapid rise to success was largely due to her huge relevance and contribution to the Swinging Sixties movement to free women’s bodies from the strict dress codes of bourgeois fashion. She formed part of the collective of revolutionary designers who introduced the miniskirt, short tunics and braless fashion.
It was Sonia Rykiel who first put the fun in fashion. The norm of a serious model strutting down the catwalk by herself became a rarity in Rykiel’s fashion shows. She would send groups of smiling and laughing models down the runway instead. Soon runway shows became all about having fun and celebrating fashion, engaging a wider audience who were compelled to watch another entertainment genre and respond to design.
Rykiel married her whimsical and artistic taste with her down-to-earth and independent mentality to make women look powerful and sexy, whilst giving them complete freedom of movement. The ‘Rykiel woman‘ resonates -then and now- with the public’s love for the Parisian style: chic, sexy and casual. It was Rykiel who freed a new female personality; independent, rebellious, intellectual, feminist.
“Her stance as a young female businesswoman broadcast feminist messages far and wide.”
Fashion Magazine (2016)
Ms. Rykiel stepped down as CEO and artistic director from her fashion house, Sonia Rykiel, in 1995. Since then, she has served as the fashion house’s honorary president until 2009 when she officially retired. Her daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, has run the fashion house as artistic director since 1998. Despite her passing, Sonia Rykiel’s legacy will undoubtedly run through many more fashion generations. Her famous ‘Rykiel allure’ -the smart and free-spirited woman- has become so well-received that it has become ingrained in the public’s collective unconscious.
For those interested, in 2012, Sonia Rykiel wrote a short piece (here) for The Guardian about her career, life with Parkinson’s and design philosophy – it is definitely worth a read!