Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Remembering Sonia Rykiel

The extraordinary life of Sonia Rykiel

When the legendary designer Sonia Rykiel passed away this past August, I was surprised.  Although she was 86, and had suffered from complications of Parkinsons and osteoporosis, she was so full of exuberance, rebellion and whimsey it seemed impossible for her to leave this earth.

Sonia was always one of my favorite designers.  Her triangle-shaped mane of impossibly-red hair, her smudgey eyeshadow and her joyfully insouciant approach to design (and life!) made me want to be like her.  Sonia Rykiel was just so impossibly French.  Like a heroine from a 1960s French New Wave film, she was self-assured, bold and irreverent.  Her first design was a maternity dress for herself.  Sonia didn't want one of the late 1950s tent dresses that attempted to camouflage pregnancy.  Instead, she made a tight knit dress that celebrated her changing body.  Keep in mind, this was long before the term "baby bump." Her body-skimming outfit was considered an act of outright rebellion.

"She had this tremendous seduction," Christian Lacroix once said of her.  "Her eyes, voice, attitudes, words.  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."
1963: the birth of the Rykiel sweater

Known as the Queen of Knitwear, Sonia joined designers like Coco Chanel and Mary Quant in unabashed determination to liberate women from the constraints of clothing.  She embraced sensuality, but always from a woman's perspective.  (When her models took off their bras in the 1960s, it was not to seduce men.  It was to celebrate the feminine body and enjoy the unrestricted comfort of wearing a thin, elegant sweater like a second skin.)

Sonia always maintained that while she loved to design clothes, women should define their own fashion.  She even came to the conclusion that fashion itself was out of fashion.  In one of her runway shows in the 1970s, she added items from other designers because it represented how real women got dressed. 

Sonia Rykiel was perhaps best known for her iconic striped "poor boy" sweater -- a ribbed, form-fitting pullover with high armholes.  Released in 1962, the sweater revolutionized knitwear for women.  We've all seen the pictures of Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn rocking these sweaters. 

You can imagine my glee this week when I came across an original, unworn Sonia Rykiel striped sweater on Tradesy:

Thrifted motherload: an original Sonia Rykiel striped sweater!
In honor of wild, unrestrained Sonia, I'll wear it without a bra.  

Sonia Rykiel loved books almost as much as she loved fashion.  Not only did she often print words across her clothes, in 1979 she published her first novel with photographer Dominique Issermann entitled Et Je la Voudrais Nue.  (And I Would Like Her Nude.)

My favorite biography of Sonia is from the 1990s Universe of Fashion series:

I also love the gorgeous book put out in conjunction with a Sonia Rykiel 40th anniversary exhibit at Musée des Arts Décoratifs Paris in 2009.   

The next time you see a favorite IG fashionista pair a striped sweater with a floral scarf or statement necklace, think of Sonia Rykiel.

Be sure to watch the short biography video of Sonia at the top of this post.  Below, listen to Sonia's voice on the fabulous Malcolm McClaren song Who the Hell is Sonia Rykiel?  If you have 15 minutes, sit back and enjoy the Sonia Rykiel Autumn/Winter runway show in its entirety at the bottom of this post.

Sonia was so cool, Malcolm McClaren put her on his album.

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Sonia Rykiel Autumn/Winter 2016 Fashion Show, Paris.

Video via Paris Modes by AFP
Sonia Rykiel portrait courtesy of Getty Images
Who the Hell is Sonia Rykiel video by The Big List