Sonia Rykiel: Queen of Knitwear

This year Paris’s enigmatic legendary designer celebrated 40 years on the fashion scene with a show that was according to one lucky attendee, (unfortunately not moi) the most spontaneously exuberant and genuinely fun fashion event in recent history.

Sonia Rykiel’s eponymous label was founded in 1968 wither her first boutique opening on the Rue de Grenelle on the Left Bank in Paris.  Aside from window-dressing her father’s shops in her teens, Rykiel had no formal training.  Later she began creating her own maternity sweaters out of necessity when she couldn’t find what she wanted in stores.  In 1962, Rykiel went on to sell her sweaters under her husband’s label “Laura” and when one made the cover of Elle magazine, it brought her fame and in 1970 she was dubbed the “Queen of Knits” by fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily. 

“I didn’t have a métier. I was supposed to be a mother, like my mother, who didn’t work. I had two children — Nathalie and Jean-Philippe. My husband had a boutique called Laura. I wanted a maternity dress and I couldn’t find anything I liked. Everything was abominable. So I made one. Then I made a pullover. Elle put it on the cover. Then WWD elected me the queen of knitwear.” Sonia Rykiel to Women’s Wear Daily.

Rykiel is famous for inventing inside-out stitching, no-hem and ‘un-lined’ pieces that reflected ‘la de-mode’ or rather ‘un-fashion’.  This new philosophy  allowed women the freedom to dress for their personality.  She encouraged women to use their head to create fashion for their body rather than be told what to wear and how to wear it.  

Sonia’s Spring 2009 collection in my opinion was the most gorgeous collection of colour, fabric and femininity I have seen in a very, very, very long time.  There wasn’t one piece from this collection that I would not wear.  It was pure perfection, pure girlishness, dreamy, sexy, and heavenly all at once.

The author of several books, Rykiel began to incorporate words into her designs. “I feel more like a novelist than a fashion designer,” she commented to the International Herald Tribune ‘s Suzy Menkes. “Someone who writes a new chapter each season, including everything I see around me.” And what she has seen around her becomes emblazoned on slinky dresses and the fronts or backs of sweaters variously inscribed “Moi,” “Fête,” and “Plaisir,” among others plus English words: “Artist,” “Ready,” “Black Tie,” and “Black is Beautiful” have also been included.

First I destroyed, undid what I had made. I wasn’t satisfied with it, it wasn’t me. It didn’t relate to me. It was fashion, but it wasn’t my fashion. I wanted to abolish the laws, the rules. I wanted to undo, overflow, exceed fashion. I wanted to unfold, unwind it. I wanted a lifestyle appropriate to the woman I was…this woman-symphony who was living the life of a woman mingled with the life of a worker.
I wanted airplane-style, travel-style, luggage-style. I saw myself as a woman on the go, surrounded by bags and children…so I imagined “kangaroo-clothes,” stackable, collapsible, movable, with no right side, no wrong side, and no hem. Clothes to be worn in the daytime I could refine at night. I put “fashion” aside to create “non-fashion.”
—Sonia Rykiel

During the evening-gown section of the Spring 2009 40th anniversary show – long tanks and feathery halters and tiers ruffled to the floor—some of the guests started tossing roses at the models. Soon the runway was covered in flowers the color of Rykiel’s dresses.  The runway then broke into a dance party when they came out again in taffeta mini-dresses. A few even conga-lined it straight into the audience.

Well, maybe I would re-think wearing this Jean Paul Gaultier for Rykiel over-sized knitting needle sweater… but I do love the play on Sonia’s hair, it looks like almost all the models went down the runway with their hair emulating Rykiels famous locks.

In 1996, the French government showed its appreciation by awarding her the Legion d’Honneur. Today, her label encompasses lingerie, accessories, children’s clothing, menswear, and beauty.  It is still a family-owned business with Rykiel’s daughter Nathalie as president and artistic director.

It is not surprising then that Sonia Rykiel has been likened to Coco Chanel, even being called “Coco Rykiel” at one time.  Much like Coco Chanel, Sonia Rykiel fell into designing, she challenged the standards and broke the rules and has become successful many times over because of her innovation, her strength, her intelligence, her flair, panache and elegantly simple style.

A woman to be admired, oui?

Images from Google.

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