PARIS — Even if she couldn’t knit, Sonia Rykiel will forever be remembered for popularizing sweaters, especially her beloved stripes — a staple of Parisian chic.
The popular French designer, who died here on Thursday at age 86, was also synonymous with Left Bank insouciance and for creating clothes to accompany women during the liberation movement of the Sixties and Seventies.
While rarely seen in public in recent years as Parkinson’s disease tightened its grip and osteoporosis heightened her frailty, Rykiel will forever be remembered for her flamboyant style, a triangle of frizzled red hair framing her chiseled face and arresting jade eyes.
“She had this tremendous seduction: her eyes, voice, attitudes, words,” recalled Christian Lacroix. “She epitomizes a certain brand of ‘French-ness’ and Paris since the Sixties — free and elegant girls, with French style, French attitude and French freedom, both erotic and intellectual.”
“I loved her flamboyance, and she was very sweet as a friend. I made many portraits and cartoons of her,” Karl Lagerfeld said. “I knew her since the Sixties when she bought Chloé dresses for the shop Laura.”
A Left Bank resident himself, Lagerfeld would often run into Rykiel at the local pharmacy, and he would attend — and sometimes film — her early shows.
Lagerfeld lauded the femininity and elegant modesty of her early designs, tinged with the Twenties and yet current. “They were so poetic, they looked like a Sarah Moon photo,” he said, noting his late mother wore Rykiel almost exclusively late in her life. “I must say, she looked good in them,” he recalled.
“Sonia is a great designer, a superb mother, a wonderful grandmother and a great friend and I really adored her,” said a rueful Alber Elbaz. “She’s not only a great designer. I think the fact that she’s gone marks the end of an epoch of French design and French fashion and what she represented as a true French designer that designed for French women and women that are modern and active and gorgeous.”
Indeed, Rykiel’s Paris fashion shows were a display of national pride something akin to Bastille Day, as French fashion editors came out in force for her upbeat shows, through which models always smiled and often gyrated down the runway.
Until the Fung retail family invested in Rykiel in 2012, it had been one of the few privately held French fashion houses left following the formation of the mega conglomerates Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton.
Rykiel’s peers considered her one of the major figures and innovators of the 20th century. “She was the link in between Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Chanel and her generation of women designers, with a modern, feminist, optimistic and free approach to fashion, the world and the times,” according to Lacroix. He associates her name with “a very precise, sinuous silhouette, knitwear forever, stripes, sequins, fedoras, Twenties makeup, black and beige.”
The designer was known for her long, slim shapes, often in jersey; knits that were either cropped or oversize, and fur chubbys in shades such as bright pink and blue. Red, white and black were important elements in her signature palette.
“Sonia Rykiel was a revolutionary designer. I have great admiration for the work that she has done on liberating women and their fashion. And she gave the inspiration and the style to all of us,” Jean Paul Gaultier told WWD.
Rykiel had long since passed the design reins to a series of young designers. Julie de Libran, an alumni of Louis Vuitton and Miu Miu, is the current creative director.
Nathalie Rykiel, who remains a consultant to the house, called her mother a legend. “She was the epitome of a free woman,” she said. “She accomplished so many things, and it wasn’t only about fashion. It’s a story about women and the liberation of women.”
Her far-flung innovations included jogging suits and collaborating with the popular French mail-order company Les 3 Suisses in 1977 — unheard of at the time for a designer brand.
Services are to be held next week, but Nathalie said the precise date and location have yet to be defined. She was swamped with tributes, including from French President François Hollande, who called Sonia Rykiel “a free woman, a pioneer who was able to chart her own course.”
Jean-Marc Loubier, president and chief executive officer of First Heritage Brands, the holding company for Sonia Rykiel and Delvaux, noted the founder considered her designs aids to empower women as they gained fuller participation in society. A sign of her zesty personality, she did not consider pants a way for women to be equals with men but to afford equality to women who might not have beautiful legs, he noted.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing away of Madame Sonia Rykiel, and our family extends our condolences to Nathalie, her daughters and the family members of Madame Rykiel’s,” said Sabrina Fung, group managing director of Fung Retailing Group. “As a family and as close partners, we are proud to carry on the legacy of Madame Sonia Rykiel, whose talent and skills have made an everlasting mark on the world of fashion.”
Tomas Maier, Bottega Veneta creative director, worked with Rykiel for eight years, and was once in charge of her men’s line. “Besides having a great sense of humor, Sonia should be credited with giving women a new sense of freedom, dressing in separates and having invented a personal style,” he said.
“I think she has been so important,” noted H&M creative adviser Margareta van den Bosch, who tapped the French brand for a 2009 collaboration and bantered with the house founder during fittings. “With her colors and shapes, she worked in such an artistic way. She was unique. She really belongs among the big icons of fashion.” Van den Bosch lauded a style built around femininity, Parisian chic and modernity, channeled in functional, comfortable, and wearable clothes.
“Like Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, Sonia got into this almost by accident. She was self-taught and spontaneous, so the whole house was built on her personality,” said Inès de La Fressange, who used to model in Rykiel’s early shows, to which the designer would also invite friends and people she admired. “I remember Frédéric Rossif, quite a famous filmmaker, was there in the front row, and Karl Lagerfeld would come to her shows and not any others, because Sonia was an old friend of his.
“She was a seducer, not just men, but also women,” de la Fressange continued. “She seduced people, but like a child with her charm. She was adorable.”
“She was a visionary,” said Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. “Her approach to fashion was inextricably linked to feminism: an audacious and combatant sensuality. The way she put the seams on the exterior of the garment to make it softer on the skin….She was part of these designers whose creations are immediately recognizable, alongside Yves Saint Laurent and André Courrèges. They embodied an era, where designers created their houses. Now, there are more fluctuations within houses.”
“When I arrived in Paris in the Sixties, she was already a star,” said Kenzo Takada. “I met her in the 1972 or 1973 and we became friends. She was talented and pioneering. She revolutionized fashion with her knits. She was determined, with an incredible capacity for work and for family.”
Chantal Thomass anointed her “a grande dame of fashion, and there aren’t so many.”
Didier Grumbach noted that Rykiel was part of the group of young designers who joined the Chambre Syndicale in 1973, coming from ready-to-wear. “She was one of the first to present under her own name in 1968; there was Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in 1967 and Kenzo in 1970. She paved the way,” Grumbach said, also noting her passion for literature, beautiful objects, jams and chocolate.
Books, for example, have been a feature in Rykiel windows since she first set up shop — a legacy de Libran amplified last year by installing some 50,000 books in floor-to-ceiling shelves in the brand’s Paris flagship.
“I never got to meet her but I have always thought of her, all the more so when I started the adventure of creating my own house,” said Vanessa Seward. “I was sensitive to the way she thought of women. It was a democratic and chic fashion I relate to as a designer. I was also sensitive to her joie de vivre and her spirit.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo lauded Rykiel as a “major designer and Parisian icon.” “Sonia Rykiel splendidly sported her creations. Her red hair, her sense of humor, her laughter shook up fashion and made it sparkle. A passionate woman, a woman of character, she was fully rooted in the life and vigorously fought against the disease. She wanted to be the symbol of allure and style — she was until the end.”
Born in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, the eldest of five daughters of a Russian mother and a Romanian father, Rykiel, nee Flis, never aspired to be a designer. “I was supposed to be a mother like my mother, who didn’t work,” she once said.
But as fate would have it, her husband, Sam Rykiel, whom she married in 1953, owned a boutique named Laura. When she became pregnant, “I wanted a maternity dress, but I couldn’t find anything I liked. Everything was abominable. So I made one. Then I made a pullover. Elle put it on the cover. Then WWD elected me the Queen of Knitwear,” Sonia Rykiel recalled.
Her shrunken “poor-boy” sweater from 1962, with its fine ribbing and Made in Italy quality, became a landmark design of the early Sixties.
A Laura boutique opened in Galeries Lafayette in 1964. Rykiel, who had her daughter Nathalie in 1956 and her son Jean-Philippe in 1961, divorced her husband in 1968 and opened her first self-named shop in May of that year on the Rue de Grenelle in the heart of the arty Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.
The neighborhood, rocked by student protests at the time, was ripe for a designer like her — although she had to close her shop the day after she first opened it because of unrest in the streets. Success came quickly, and her business grew. In 1969, she opened an in-store shop at Galeries Lafayette, and her clothes were picked up by Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel in New York.
Looking back on those years, in 2008, Rykiel told WWD, “Since I didn’t know anything, I did everything I wanted. I didn’t listen to anyone. I was so violent, so authoritarian, only listening to what I wanted and myself. People loved me or hated me. Those who loved me, loved me a lot. The others, I didn’t bother with them very much.”
Nathalie, who had begun working at the house by modeling for it in 1975, became its managing and artistic director in 1995, and its creative director the next year. She expanded the label into children’s wear, a diffusion line now called Sonia by Sonia Rykiel and introduced shoes and accessories. The Rykiel Homme collection, first designed by Maier, was produced from 1990 to 2009.
In 2002, the company introduced Rykiel Woman, a lingerie and erotica shop on the Rue de Grenelle that sold sex toys. At the time, Nathalie said, “It worked out, because my mother strove to liberate women. [Forty] years ago, she told them to ditch their bras under her little poor-boy sweaters. She told them to embrace liberty. Now we are being provocative in another way.”
For Rykiel, being provocative was important. Her first slogan sweater, in 1971, broadcast “Sensuous,” a term that WWD had used to describe her and it became a bestseller. She often spoke of the importance of lovers in a woman’s life.
Rykiel created clothes that were unpretentious and woman-friendly at a time when French feminism was being revived by the youthful rebellion of 1968. Her Seventies heyday reflected the freedom in the fashion air; her styles were most commonly described as eccentric, whimsical and oh-so-French.
“Nineteen-sixty-eight was the beginning of the hippie movement in fashion,” she told W magazine, then WWD’s sister publication, in 1997. “That movement made fashion change completely. It was not necessary to be always dressed up. You could be dressed the way you wanted — it was absolute freedom.”
She went on to state matter-of-factly, “I invented everything in the Seventies. Sweaters without shoulders; quilted jackets; showing inside seams outside.”
Regarding the unchanging nature of some of her designs, she quoted Jean Cocteau, who allowed that “he always made the same portrait. The trick is to last, and to last while not always doing the same thing, but not doing something entirely different. It’s important in fashion to stay who you are, but to always be in the mood and the air du temps.”
Rykiel believed women should define their own fashion, not the other way around. In the late Seventies, in fact, she began to say that fashion itself was “demode,” and in 1978 she showed a collection that mixed her clothes with those of other designers on the runway, the way they’re worn in real life. She expressed these views in her first of her many books, which were often done with photographer Dominique Issermann, a novel in diary form, “Et Je la Voudrais Nue” [“And I Would Like Her Nude”] in 1979.
She published an erotic novel, “The Red Lips,” in 1996. She said it was about a “love triangle between a man, a woman and a sweater.” In describing her early design process, she said, “I made clothes spontaneously. When it rained, for example, I designed a trenchcoat. When it was cold, I did a coat. I followed my instincts.”
Rykiel also had a hand in decorating some of Paris’ most luxurious hotels. She was asked to help revamp the interior design of the Hôtel de Crillon in 1982, and she worked on the redesign of the Hôtel Lutetia and its brasserie in 1985. Andy Warhol painted his four famous portraits of the designer that year.
In 1994, Rykiel was enshrined in Malcolm McLaren’s album “Paris” with a song called “Who the Hell is Sonia Rykiel?” Robert Altman was inspired to make his 1994 film “Prêt-à-Porter” after he and his wife attended a Rykiel fashion show.
Rykiel saw a great deal of change during her years in fashion. The metier, she told WWD in 2008, is “completely different to when I started. Fashion today is another story. Today I don’t invent in the same way. We don’t live in the same way. With all of the computers, it has changed the way we design and cut. It’s incredible. Before I went to the factory…we did everything manually. The computer does everything today. Also, fashion isn’t sold in the same way. There are the big groups. There are very few people like us, outside of the machine.”
To commemorate the firm’s 40th anniversary in 2008, Nathalie threw a party in her mother’s honor, which included the designer’s latest collection and, as a surprise, she asked a group of designers, including Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester, to create dresses in homage to the Rykiel style. The designer also put on a retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2008 which featured about 200 outfits and showed not only her fashion but illustrated her role as an inspiration to her peers.
Olivier Saillard, the curator of the exhibition, said, “Rykiel did minimalism before the Japanese and turned clothes inside-out before the Belgians.” He added, “There was a sense of permanence to her work. When you look at older pieces alongside the more recent, the older ones aren’t out of fashion.”
In 2007, Nathalie became president of the company, and Rykiel appointed Gabrielle Greiss, an internal talent, as its new creative director. Rykiel noted in an interview with WWD, “I worked alone for 35 years. And now, for the last five years, I’ve started working with a team. It was a decision. I knew I needed to accept that if the name was to exist in time.” Greiss held the job for a year. Subsequent creative directors included April Crichton and Geraldo da Conceicao.
De Libran joined in 2014, and described the founder “as important for me as Saint Laurent in the Seventies.”
In 2009, Rykiel was given the Légion d’Honneur by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“You are terribly French,” he teased her in his speech at the time. “We need more free spirits like yours to turn our habits on their heads. Our country is too conservative; you contributed to French elegance.”
In addition to expanding her namesake brand, Rykiel dabbled in acting and designed costumes for plays. She was also an inspiration for many artists’ exhibitions and books.
In 2009, Rykiel designed a plastic belt that was purchased by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. The designer said, “[Everyone at the fashion house] is happy when Madonna wears one of my dresses,” but added that she herself was more excited that someone like Obama is a fan. “I find her fascinating: a very strong woman and a huge asset to her husband,” she said.
Of her decades-spanning career, Rykiel said, “I think there is a future for a house like ours with a way of acting that’s different. I love this métier. It’s what makes me happiest.”