August 26, 2016

By Marcellous L. Jones

Photos Courtesy of Sonia Rykiel

Antwerp, Belgium – Yesterday, the world lost the matriarch of French fashion, Sonia Rykiel. The legendary pioneer and feminist fashion designer with the iconic red coiffure died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

In an announcement daughter Nathalie Rykiel, who is both managing director and artistic director of the house said, “My mother died at 05:00 this morning at her home in Paris from the effects of Parkinson’s.” She was 86.

Upon learning the news of her death, French president François Hollande commented, “She invented not just a style but an attitude, a way of living and being, and offered a freedom of movement.

By the late years of the first decade of this century, I had already launched my television show, MEN’S FASHION INSIDER. I was delighted to catch up Sonia Rykiel during the house’s men’s show in Paris. She sat front row next me. During the show’s finale, she rose to her feet to join her daughter Nathalie at the edge of the catwalk for a final bow.



Though it was hot and humid on that very bright summer day, the atmosphere was the same very jovial thanks to the collection. I then leaned over and engaged the red-haired icon in conversation. I questioned her a bit on life, culture and fashion history. Finally upon asking for her thoughts on the house of Rykiel and the apparent budding “rival” in popularity of haute couture, she commented to me, “Remember that the Rykiel woman is not a woman of couture. She is and has always been a woman of culture. This is thanks to her curiosity, passion and enthusiasm for life”.

Sonia Rykiel officially founded her house in May 1968 with the opening of her first boutique. These were very socially and politically tense times in France as students led a modern-day revolution in the streets of Paris. In its aftermath the Forth Republic was torn apart; President Charles de Gaulle was ousted from power; but Rykiel’s power were just starting to rise.

The house of Rykiel quickly became a symbol of the new fashion movement known as ready-to-wear. It was remarkable at the time as this new fashion existed completely outside the stuffy world of haute couture. And Sonia would become its feminist champion for freedom of movement. Her first efforts in this crusade led her to remove the burdensome linings from sweaters, before extending it to other pieces.

According to the Rykiel official website, “Sonia Rykiel urged women to be eccentric, seductive, mysterious, and to create their own style. She arrived (in every sense of the word) on Paris’ Left Bank in Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1968. The neighborhood was a haven to artists from the world over and she quickly became its heart. Sonia Rykiel innovated not just with the cut of her garments, but also with her philosophy of fashion. She collaborated with the popular French mail-order company Les 3 Suisses in 1977 (shock! horror!) and then released a renegade fragrance, 7ème sens, the following year.”

Rykiel distinguished herself from her contemporaries through her intimate, innate understanding of knitwear. She is the one who made it sexy by bringing it more closely to the female silhouette than it had ever been before. It is around this time where other star to dub her as “Coco Rykiel”! Later her work with sweaters would lead Women’s Wear Daily to naming her the “Queen of Knits”!

Throughout the subsequent years and decades Sonia Rykiel would go on to launch successful endeavors including secondary lines for her female clientele as well as a kids’ line, a men’s line, accessories and fragrances. She welcomed collaborative deals in order to spread fashion democracy. Among the most notable are a collaborations with French retail catalogue Les 3 Suisses and later with the international retail juggernaut H&M. But through it all her stripes remain her calling card.

Throughout her career, Sonia Rykiel’s fame grew exponentially. Women expressed profusely their admiration for her work over the years. And the accolades and awards would flow in not just at home, but also abroad. However one of her greatest accomplishments was being honored by nearly every important fashion designer on the 40th Year Anniversary celebration. Designers honored her by creating a special outfit for her fashion show. Among them were Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Tom Ford, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, etc.

As I end this piece, I will not say goodbye to Mrs. Rykiel. I will only end with au prochain grand défilé chère Madame Rykiel ! 

French designer Sonia Rykiel (right) and her daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, Spring/Summer 2008 (October 2007 in Paris)

French designer Sonia Rykiel (right) and her daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, Spring/Summer 2008 (October 2007 in Paris)