PARIS — “Look, there’s Patti Smith,” Julie de Libran remarked at the Café de Flore in Paris, still a magnet for the cultural elite, as the American musician and writer slipped past.
Sonia Rykiel’s new artistic director, who is to parade her first collection on Monday during Paris Fashion Week, was seated at the founder’s regular table, discussing her approach to a Left Bank fashion house that stirs strong memories, and seems to already fit her like a favorite sweater.
“It’s like an institution in France, like my experience at Louis Vuitton,” she said, referring to her six-year stint as studio director of women’s ready-to-wear under Vuitton’s then-artistic director Marc Jacobs. “I feel very confident about it — being a woman designing for women, which is what Sonia did in her time.”
Dressed in a military green jumpsuit with a mannish gray blazer propped on her shoulders, de Libran said she hopes to return the house to its roots as a purveyor of fashions that were approachable, yet immediate and desirable.
De Libran brings to the task a comfort level designing for a global behemoth with stores around the globe, and a varied clientele. To wit: Her first collection is not only what will be paraded on the runway, but a showroom full of interpretations and variations — what the French call a “declinaison.”
“You have to have the dress to the knee, the top with the sleeves,” she explained. “It’s really creating a whole season’s wardrobe.”
De Libran provided few other hints about the show, while noting that interplays of masculine and feminine garments would be part of the Rykiel legacy she would represent.
Born in Aix-en-Provence, de Libran moved to California when she was 8 years old, and she cherishes memories of her mother, an interior decorator, dressed in groovy Seventies fashions by Kenzo, Yves Saint Laurent and Sonia Rykiel.
“Ease and comfort, with a glamor to it and a feminine touch” is how the statuesque blonde described her memories of the brand, and the attributes she wishes to exalt with her designs. “It’s not a conceptual brand,” she said. “It’s so timeless.”
For example, Rykiel is known for the sailor sweater, a cheerful and unmistakably French garment that recently surged in popularity and is sure to be a part of de Libran’s universe. “It has to be a good stripe, though,” she noted with a smile.
Having pored through the clothing archive and innumerable books about Rykiel since joining the house last May, de Libran marveled that Rykiel left so many “codes,” more than she could ever fit in a single collection.
One of her lesser-known innovations was using satin-backed crepe for unlined jackets with a sensual, feminine look — and a unique approach to accessories, which the founder codesigned with her sister Danielle. De Libran found that the Rykiels often hid good luck charms, like a ladybug, for example, in bags, heightening their personality.
“The bags were always part of the outfit. It wasn’t about pushing the bag. It was part of the silhouette, something supple that worked with the outfit,” she said.
While knitwear is sure to remain a foundation of the house, “denim is also important, leather, bathing suits, lingerie, fur. There are so many categories,” she said.
De Libran’s overhaul of the house is to extend to retail, and she’s working with architects to develop a new boutique concept for the Paris flagship that will be rolled out to other units, hinting at projects in London, Japan and New York. She plans to amplify the store’s original mission as a meeting place like the Flore, and with cultural components.
She said that a perfume is on her wish list for future projects, and that she would also oversee the design teams for the Sonia By second line, children’s wear and home collections.
“Even the home collection, I feel like there’s huge potential,” she said. “I’m having a lot of fun with it.”
Before Vuitton, de Libran worked beside Miuccia Prada to help establish the Italian firm with celebrity and event dressing. Her résumé also includes stints at Versace, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Gianfranco Ferré.
She takes over the design reins at Rykiel from Geraldo da Conceiçao, a Canadian designer who logged three fashion shows for the house following its 2012 acquisition by First Heritage Brands, previously known as Fung Brands Ltd.
Jean-Marc Loubier, president and chief executive officer of First Heritage Brands, described Rykiel as “a global brand” with a “strong identity” that is ripe for development. “It’s Julie’s first show, and we are very confident; it puts us in a position to accelerate Rykiel’s first line,” which he said is built on “high quality, but clear and easy silhouettes that are immediately understood.”
The executive noted he expects orders for spring “to increase substantially.”
Currently, expansion efforts are focused on Sonia By. A total of nine stores are to open by the end of this year, five of which will be in Asia. The investment fund is looking at five more for 2015. Loubier said Sonia By “is developing very strongly,” but noted that, unlike the main line, it started from smaller numbers.
“At Sonia Rykiel, we have the right locations already — we are in Saint Germain and Faubourg Saint Honoré among others; we can add some more once the product is there,” said Loubier.
The main line recently opened new wholesale doors in Hong Kong and Bloomingdale’s New York this year, with a unit at Bloomingdale’s in Boston to follow in the coming months.