To the fashion world, Sonia Rykiel was a groundbreaking designer with a gentle spirit. To Lola Rykiel, she was Mamie Sonia, Grandma. Lola, the Sonia Rykiel brand’s director of public relations for North America, is the third generation of Rykiel women to work in the company; her mother, Nathalie is a consultant.
Lola returned to New York only a few days ago from a trip to France, during which she spent a great deal of time visiting Sonia. In a conversation on Thursday, she was emotional as she prepared to return to Paris for the funeral. She took time to reminisce with WWD.
“It was very intense,” Lola said of her recent trip. “My grandmother was very sick. But at the same time, it was — I don’t know if beautiful is a good word. It was our last moment together, so it was precious.”
Sonia called Lola by the pet name “Louloute.” “She was amazing,” the granddaughter reminisced. “She was very present. My mother and she were always together, so we would spend a lot of time at her house or going to the city after school and see her doing all the fittings. At the offices, we were running around and we were making a mess, trying on the shoes that were too big, just having fun.”
Lola characterized Sonia as “the matriarch” and “the boss,” but quickly corrected herself, lest the B-word sound too bossy. “No, really more the queen than the boss, but in a really good way. In a fair and wonderful way.”
Lola is the only one of Nathalie’s three daughters involved in the business. The oldest, Tatiana, is a yoga instructor; Salome, the youngest, a student. Despite a natural affinity for fashion that revealed itself early on, Lola at first resisted a career in the business, opting to study dance at the Martha Graham School. “I was trying to find my own person,” she said. That discovery came via the Rykiel collaboration with H&M in 2009. As a student, she dressed mostly in those two brands, “because it was what was available for me, you know? And I was just fascinated to see the whole concept coming into place, and the excitement, and how I felt very close to it.” She asked if she could start working in the company, much to the delight of her mother and grandmother.
Lola grew up proud of Sonia and recognized early on that she was a “big deal.” She recalled walking with Sonia in Paris and people coming up and asking for her autograph. “They would say things of admiration, and my sister and I were just looking, and we were, like, ‘Ahh!’”
As teenagers, Lola’s friends found Sonia’s gentleness disarming. First-time visitors would arrive feeling tense and intimidated, to have their anxiety expunged on the spot. “Once they said hello and she smiled and gave them a kiss, they were, like, ‘Oh my God, she’s so nice, she’s so sweet!’ She was really the sweetest person and the nicest person and the most generous person.”
Yet Mamie’s indulgence had its limits. When Lola and Tatiana would visit the studio as children, Sonia sometimes asked them to sketch looks they’d like to see made. A Disney Princess kind of girl, Lola once drew a dress of that genre, all big-skirted, fluffy and pink. “Can you do this, please?” she asked. A follow-up visit unveiled the hard truth: Sonia had distilled the theme into a big sweater with “princess” written across the front. “’That’s not what I wanted!’” Lola protested. “I wanted to have this pink, disgusting girly thing. I was so upset.”
Though Sonia made her initial splash in fashion two decades or so before Lola was born, she is very aware of the powerful way in which the designer’s aesthetic spoke to that moment, particularly women’s lib. Asked what she expects Sonia’s legacy to be, Lola referenced neither a specific look nor overall sartorial ease. “She really talked to women,” the granddaughter said.
“I think for me, the most important thing she was saying was ‘know yourself.’ She was very particular [about style] but basically, she was saying, ‘Think about what is the best and the worst [of yourself] and make the most out of it.’ I think that by being herself and being exactly her own character, she was inspiring people to find themselves.”