In one of the tracks featured in his 1994 album "Paris", Malcolm McLaren wondered 'Who The Hell is Sonia Rykiel?' Yet, he definitely knew who she was since the voice of the French designer was widely sampled in the track and perfectly came to represent the spirit of Paris. Rykiel - known for her trademark striped sweaters and for embodying the freedom of French style, attitude and approach in her collections - died Thursday at her home in Paris from complications of Parkinson's disease. She was 86 and had been diagnosed with the disease more than 15 years ago.
Born Sonia Flis in Neuilly-sur-Seine in May 1930, from a Russian mother and a Romanian father, Rykiel started her fashion career dressing the window displays of a Parisian textile store.
In 1953 she married Sam Rykiel, owner of the boutique Laura and they had two children, Nathalie and Jean-Philippe (she is survived by both of them). Her first creation was a maternity dress she made when she was pregnant with her second child because she couldn't find anything she liked.
But her ground-breaking design remains a pullover inspired by the classic "poor boy" sweater (View this photo). Elle put it on the cover and her knit became a landmark design of the early Sixties, adored by many celebrities of the time including Anouk Aimée, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Lauren Bacall (who donated most of her Rykiel garments to the Met Museum) and Audrey Hepburn.
According to the fashion legend, Hepburn bought 14 sweaters by Rykiel in different colours and she was also photographed in 1966 by William Klein for American Vogue wearing a navy blue wool jersey shift with bike-racer sleeves in red, white and blue stripes with a matching tam o' shanter.
In 1964 a Laura boutique opened in Galeries Lafayette: four years later Rykiel divorced her husband and opened her first self-named shop on the Rue de Grenelle in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area. The creative '60s and the 1968 youth rebellion were great times for Rykiel: her sweaters - that she suggested to wear with no bra underneath - encouraged freedom while her style was in general whimsical and eccentric.
In 1969, she opened an in-store shop at Galeries Lafayette, while her clothes were also stocked at Bloomingdale's and Henri Bendel in New York. In the same year Britt Ekland was photographed by Gianni Penati for the April Vogue cover wearing Rykiel's gold Lurex turtleneck.
In many ways Rykiel was ahead of her times: nowadays we call "genius" and "fashion innovator" a designer creating pieces in collaboration with other brands and sending them out on his runway, but in 1978 Rykiel showed a runway collection in which her clothes were mixed with pieces by other designers to give an idea of how they would have looked in real life.
In the '80s Rykiel also redecorated some of Paris' most luxurious hotels including the Hotel de Crillon in 1982, and the Hotel Lutetia and its brasserie in 1985. In the same year Andy Warhol painted four portraits of the designer and portrayed her in some of his famous Polaroids.
In 1994, apart from featuring on Malcolm McLaren's album "Paris" Rykiel inspired Robert Altman's film Prêt-à-Porter, but her voice was also sampled by Hugues Le Bars in his album "Zinzin" (1995).
Daughter Nathalie, who first worked as a model for the house, became its managing and artistic director in 1995, and its creative director the next year. She created a children's wear and a diffusion line, launching also shoes and accessories.
Nathalie also designed a clothing collection for La Redoute in 1995 and a lingerie line for H&M in 2009, that was followed by an accessories and knitwear collection in 2010. In the meantime, the house had launched the Rykiel Homme collection (1990-2009) and Rykiel Woman (2002), a lingerie and erotica shop on the Rue de Grenelle.
Nathalie Rykiel celebrated the company's 40th anniversary in 2008, asking a group of designers - among them Jean Paul Gaultier, Alber Elbaz, Martin Margiela, and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac - to create dresses in homage to the Rykiel style. In the same year a retrospective at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs included 200 outfits by the designer.
In 2008, Rykiel was named grand commander of the legion for lifetime service to fashion by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but she had previously been named a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1985.
Rykiel was also a writer: in 1979 she published a novel in diary form entitled Et Je la Voudrais Nue (And I Would Like Her Nude); in 1996 she published an erotic novel, Les Lèvres Rouges (The Red Lips), while also releasing a children's book and an A-Z of fashion. More recently she published N'oubliez Pas Que Je Joue (Don't Forget That I'm Acting, 2012), which covered her illness. Her love for books remains embodied in the New York Rykiel boutique that includes a library with 15,000 volumes.
The company remained un the family until 2012 when 80 percent was purchased by First Heritage Brands, at the time called Fung Brands - an investment firm backed by two Hong Kong billionaires, Victor Fung and William Fung. The family initially retained a 20 percent stake, but it sold it later on, even though Nathalie still works at the fashion brand as consultant. The current Creative Director at Sonia Rykiel is Julie de Libran.
Fashion-wise Sonia Rykiel leaves a long heritage: though she is often dubbed the "Queen of Knitwear" (even though she didn't really learn how to knit...), she was more than that.
While Coco Chanel replaced corsets with casual elegance, Rykiel represented a newly liberated generation in the '60s. Her iconic hairstyle may have pointed towards a sort of pre-Raphaelite beauty, but she definitely had the temperament of La Casati.
She encouraged women to wear trousers when skirts were the rule, opted for bold and bright colours when somber and neutral shades were in fashion and stayed loyal to recurring palettes, such as her beloved combination of red, white and black. She also came up with functional ideas such as reversible dresses and jackets and created ribbed figure-hugging sweaters that looked practical and comfortable but guaranteed the wearer a healthy dose of style.
Writer Hélène Cixous perfectly described the fashion designer and her work when she stated "Sonia Rykiel fabricates the dream of the body: to freely be of a body with the legs, the belly, the thighs, the arms, with the air of the sea, with space."
There are a few lessons that young designers should literally steal from her: Rykiel designed for a no age group, she focused on timelessness rather than on trends and, rather than copying somebody else, she followed her own insticts, inspirations and ideas.
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