‘It’s not true that clothes look better on skinny girls; what counts is the attitude.’
For the generation of women who came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s, Rykiel with her hallmark bright orange hair came to symbolize the new era of freedom.
Sonia Rykiel died on August 25, 2016. She was 86 years old.
Her ‘rykielism’ philosophy is a concept which extols the liberation of women through sensuality, intelligence and irreverence. It is about having the freedom to be oneself.
Her death comes as France is deep in a debate over what many see as a regression in women’s fashion and freedom, centered on the full-body burkini swimsuits worn by some Muslim women. Some mayors have banned them, and leading politicians say they oppress women—but critics say banning burkinis is simply a new way to dictate what women wear.
Rykiel got her start by designing knit maternity dresses for herself. She became a fixture of Paris’ fashion scene starting in 1968 when she opened her first ready-to-wear shop on the Left Bank at a time when student riots were challenging France’s bourgeoisie establishment.
Her empire grew to include menswear and children’s lines as well as accessories, perfumes and home goods, sold in the label stores on 4 continents.
In 1995 her daughter Nathalie Rykiel was appointed Artistic Director and CEO of the brand. In 2007 she then became President of Sonia Rykiel. The business was among France’s last major family-owned labels until it was sold to a Hong Kong investment fund in 2012.
Sonia Flis came from an intellectual and upper-class Jewish family. She was born in Paris, May, 1930 to a Polish mother and a Romanian father.
At the age of 17, she was employed to dress the window displays in a Parisian textile store, the Grande Maison de Blanc.
In 1953 she married Sam Rykiel, owner of LAURA, a boutique selling elegant clothes and it is this same store that she created and sold her first sweaters. In 1960, one of her sweaters was on the cover of ELLE Magazine. Audrey Hepburn came by the store and bought 14 sweaters in every colour designed by Sonia. The sweater later became known as the ‘poor boy sweater’.
In spite of their divorce, Sam helped her create the Sonia Rykiel Company and the Sonia Rykiel brand in 1968.
Sonia was the first designer to put seams on the outside of a garment, and to print words on sweaters.
In 1977, she was the first designer to create clothes for the mail order ‘Les 3 Suisses.’
She was voted one of the world’s 10 most elegant women and she also hit upon the trend of big, soft, fun fur done as a huge bubble of colour, baby pink, purple knitted fox or teal-blue Mongolian lamb.
She penned several novels, including one about a dress and its various incarnations and figured in director Robert Altman’s satirical 1994 look at the fashion industry, Pret-a-Porter.
When she died, President Francois Hollande’s office announced her death in a statement praising her as ‘a pioneer’ who offered women freedom of movement.