Fashion Reverie looks back at fashion icon, Sonia Rykiel. Sonia Rykiel died on Thursday, August 25, 2016 after a long battle with Parkinson disease. With Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood, Sonia Rykiel completed the fashion triptych of European female designers who had a direct influence on how women dressed over three decades. While Rhodes and Westwood very heavily influenced by the avant garde, punk, social upheaval and rebellion, Rykiel’s design aesthetic was a modern distillation on how the modern women could be comfortable and casually chic while still breaking some of fashion’s traditional rules.
Known as the “Queen of Knits,” Rykiel was the first designer to put seams on the outside of garments, leave hems unfinished and put slogans on her sweaters. Born to Jewish parents in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Rykiel nee Fris first job was dressing windows for a Parisian textile store. Later, she married Sam Rykiel, the owner of Laura, a chic Paris boutique. While pregnant with her first child and unable to find anything to wear that she liked, Rykiel created a practical dress and sweater, which incorporated high cut arm holes and a shrunken fit to cling to the body which became known as the “Poor Boy’s Sweater. After selling the knit ensemble to friends and Rykiel began selling the knit set at her husband’s store. In 1965, Rykiel’s “Poor Boy’s Sweater” was featured in French Elle and caught the attention of lots of celebrities, particularly Audrey Hepburn. In 1968 Rykiel opened her first boutique on the Left Bank.
In 1972, Rykiel was given the moniker “Queen of Knits” by Women’s Wear Daily. Rykiel began to popularize black as a color that was acceptable for women to wear at any time of the day. In 2010 Sonia Rykiel collaborated with H&M for a collection entitled Sonia Rykiel for H&M. And in 2008, Rykiel was the subject of an exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratif in Paris.
“Sonia Rykiel was one of the go-to brands that I used when I was styling for Japanese independent films and commercials in the 80s and 90s,” explained legendary stylist Rosemary Ponzo. “Her designs were classic, but always with a twist. At times she did use a lot of bold color, but she is also known for using a lot of black. She was also the queen of embellishing clothing with brocade-like fabric, diamond-shaped designs and fur. I still have a diamond-shaped fur Rykiel vest. She was truly ahead of her time … Going to her showroom was wonderful when she had her collections in her showroom in NYC … “I pulled a lot of her garments for Japanese films because the Japanese love anything that was different and French. Although she’s known for using black, she also used bold colors like mustard, terracotta, and red when other designers stayed away from some of those colors. She was in the league of Andres Courreges and Claude Montana. At one time she had a little in-house boutique at Barneys New York and consumers in NYC loved her clothes because her clothes were cut for the American woman.”
“ I modeled for Sonia Rykiel a lot in the 80s. And she knew exactly what she wanted and she really didn’t give a lot of direction. In fact, she was kind of quiet, which is unlike a lot of French designers that can sometimes yell a lot and be very demanding,” explained supermodel Coco Mitchell. At the time no one was doing things like Sonia Rykiel with all her knitwear, she had her vision of Parisian style for the modern woman … “It was amazing walking in her shows because she sometimes would send out 10 models at one time wearing the same thing. It was almost like a visual tableau of models wearing the same thing, saying ‘look at us.’” “She was a light in the fashion world for me because I was a new model in Europe when I started modeling for her.”
—William S. Gooch