ccentric, seductive and mysterious. This is how Sonia Rykiel, legendary French fashion designer, believed women should be, urging them throughout her illustrious career to be above all, creators of their own style. Having passed away this week aged 86 after a long fight with Parkinson’s disease, it cannot be said that she did not live by her own advice. A vision all in black with a shock of incendiary red hair, Rykiel was unshakeably Parisian in style and was praised a ‘pioneer’ by President Francois Hollande for her iconic contribution to fashion. Dubbed fondly as ‘The Queen of Knits’, Rykiel’s revolutionary fitted knitwear designs changed the face of high end fashion, her clothing offering women total freedom of movement unencumbered by the wide-shouldered suits and bulky jumpers of the time. However being on trend is something that never mattered to her. “Being one step ahead of a fashion trend is not so important to me” she said, “What matters is to always forge ahead.”
Originally having no interest in fashion design, The Queen of Knits’ start in the industry wasn’t the one that we are familiar with today. It was motherhood that set her on the road to couture, as being unable to find maternity outfit that she liked, she set about making her own. “Sonia had a wide dress made that enhanced her shape and proudly displayed her pregnancy”, recalls Alice Morgan, art and fashion design consultant for Hermes. Embracing her own body shape and being purely motivated by “wanting to be the most beautiful pregnant woman”, Rykiel ordered clothes to be made from her husband’s boutique Laura and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was her funky skin tight jumper design that rocketed her to international fame. Dubbed the ‘Poor Boy Sweater’, the design was short and fitted with long sleeves, and different than anything that had come before. "I realised that beauty was nudity” Rykiel said. “I wanted women wearing my sweaters to give the impression they were naked. The aim wasn't to impose outfits but to stay as close as possible to women's bodies and their freedom of movement."
The sweater quickly became one of the fashion icons of the 1970s when Elle put 19 year old Françoise Hardy on the cover wearing a colourful striped Rykiel jumper in 1962. Having ignited a fashion craze, Rykiel soon had celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot flocking to the door of Laura’s to buy them, along with half the women in Paris. For one of the first times ever, Haute Couture was not ruling the fashion world and Rykiel never looked back.
That does not mean to say the newly crowned Queen of Knits never had her doubts. "When I started in fashion, for the first 10 years, I said to myself every day, 'I'm going to quit tomorrow,'" she told Le Nouvel Observateur. "People are going to figure out that I don't know anything. I always thought I'd be discredited in the end." However her revolutionary work with reverse stitching, raw no-hem edges and, of course, knitwear, proved these worries to be false, seeing her launch her fashion house and open her first boutique on Paris’ Left Bank in Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1968.
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Now an international family run business, with her daughter Nathalie Rykiel working as managing and artistic director, Sonia Rykiel has left behind her a fashion empire and bold and daring legacy. Having never had any formal fashion training, Rykiel only ever followed her instincts when it came to designing, ignoring those who presumed to tell her what was right and wrong. “I did everything people told me I couldn’t do” she remarked in an interview with WWD. “People said making clothes inside out was not proper. I disagreed because clothes that are inside out are as beautiful as a cathedral.”
Her philosophy concerning fashion reflected this almost anarchic attitude towards styling. Her philosophy named “la Démode”, as a neologism combining ‘deconstruction’ and ‘fashion’, expresses Rykiel’s desire that women should fit their clothing to their own desires and demands, rather than submitting to the whims of a designer. This non-conformist woman was the one she designed for; and is the legacy that she ultimately leaves behind. “I wanted to dress women who wanted to look at themselves. To stand out. To be women who were not part of the crowd. A woman who fights and advances.”
On confidence: “A dress will never make a woman sexy, fatale, magnificent, mysterious. It’s a way of walking, of standing, or existing, the way you give your hand or your regard. That’s what makes the dress”
On image: "It's not true that clothes look better on skinny girls; what counts is the attitude"
On quality: “It doesn't matter one damn bit whether fashion is art or not. You don't question whether an incredible chef is an artist or not- his cakes are delicious and that's all that matters.”
Words by Scarlett White