Born: Sonia Flis in Paris, 25 May 1930. Education: Attended high school in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Family: Married Sam Rykiel, 1953; children: Nathalie, Jean-Philippe. Career: Freelance designer for Laura boutique, Paris, 1962; first Paris boutique opened, 1968; household linens boutique opened, Paris, 1975; Sonia Rykiel Enfant
Et je la voudrais nue, Paris, 1979.
Rykiel, Paris, 1985.
Célébrations, Paris, 1988.
La collection, Paris, 1989; Tokyo, 1989.
Colette et la mode, Paris, 1991.
Collection Terminée, Collection Interminable, Paris, 1993.
Tatiana Acacia, Paris, 1993.
(contributor) Spengler, Franck, ed., Plaisirs de femmes: nouvelles, Paris, 1998.
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Fraser, Kennedy, The Fashionable Mind. Reflections on Fashion 1970-1981, New York, 1981.
Chapsal, Madeleine, Héléne Cixous, and Sonia Rykiel, Rykiel, Paris, 1985.
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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."
French ready-to-wear designer Sonia Rykiel is a compelling presence whose intellect and individuality are apparent in her clothes. With her small bones and trademark mane of hair, she is probably her own best model, projecting assurance and energy. She began designing with no previous experience when, as the pregnant wife of the owner of Laura, a fashionable boutique, she was unable to find maternity clothes she liked. Continuing to design knitwear for Laura,
By 1964, Rykiel had been nicknamed "The Queen of Knitwear" in the U.S., where an ardent following developed for her knits, which were sold in trendsetting stores like Henri Bendel and Bloomingdale's in New York. For women who were rich and thin enough to wear them, these skinny sweaters, with their high armholes, imparted instant chic. Part of their appeal was in their distinctive colors and striped patterns. Black, navy, gray, and beige are still standards, but there was also a unique Rykiel palette of muted tones—stripes of grayed seafoam green and grayed teal. Although she herself does not wear red (she wears black, considering it a uniform), Rykiel still uses it consistently, with the shade changing from season to season.
Rykiel continues to design a complete range of clothes and accessories for women in the 1990s, drawn from her experiences and her fantasies, which she encourages women to appropriate and adapt whilst inventing and reinventing themselves. In addition to knits and jerseys, she uses crêpe for soft clothes, and woven tweeds and plaids for a more structured day look. Evening fantasies are best expressed in lightweight black luxury fabrics, often combined with sequins, metallic thread, embroidery, or elaborate combinations incorporating velvet.
Physical fitness is implicit in Sonia Rykiel's idea of modern femininity, so it is no surprise that the innermost layers of the knitted or jersey separates at the heart of her collections continue to be body conscious, if not figure hugging. They range in style from skimpy, narrow-shouldered pullovers with recognizable Rykiel detailing, to drop-shouldered tunics, to cardigans both short and boxy, and long and flowing. The detailing itself can be as soft as ruffles and bows, or as hard as nail heads. Although certain themes like cropped wide-leg trousers recur, the skirts and trousers that accompany the sweaters sometimes reflect the fashion of the moment, as in the short skirt worn with a classic Rykiel sweater which was featured by the New York Times Magazine in Patricia McColl's 1988 spring fashion preview, titled "The Byword is Short." The sweater is a fine example of another important facet of Rykiel's work: the dress, sweater, or accessory as bulletin board.
As befits 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. Nor has English been slighted: "Artist," "Ready," "Black Tie," and "Black is Beautiful" have also been included. Not even eveningwear is sacrosanct: a 1983 ensemble with a sheer black lace bodice and black crêpe sleeves and skirt was encircled with a rhinestone studded belt reading, "Special Edition Evening Dreams." Nonetheless, the most frequent words to appear are "Sonia Rykiel," or simply "Rykiel."
Rykiel was an early exponent of deconstruction. Made of the finest quality wool yarns, sometimes mixed with angora, her knits are frequently designed with reverse seams. She also innovated the use of lockstitched hems. Since the early 1980s Rykiel has also produced at least two casual lines a year in cotton velours, a fluid, sensual fabric well suited to uncluttered silhouettes. Each season there is at least one dress, in addition to trousers, pullovers, cardigans, and jackets, many with reverse seams. They are offered in several solid colors, in stripes and, occasionally, in prints. Like other clothes of illusory simplicity, they have often been unsuccessfully copied.
Another Rykiel specialty is outerwear. Her coats, whether in fine woolens, or in highly coveted fake fur, tend to be voluminous. Along with these and her accessories line, other Rykiel enterprises include children's and menswear lines and perfumes. The entire Rykiel design output is available in the lifestyle boutique on Boulevard Saint Germain, which opened in 1990.
As the century came to a close, Rykiel looked forward and back. She celebrated the 30-year anniversary of her first Paris boutique with a gala at the Bibliothéque Nationale in 1998, remembering the Parisian student riots that forced her to close temporarily. Yet this particular French revolution ushered in both political upheaval and a shift in fashion—one Rykiel was only too happy to espouse. Her passion for artistic design is undiminished; yet it is now a family affair, involving daughter Nathalie, her husband, and Nathalie's three daughters who have modeled new Rykiel designs. And family is ever important to Rykiel, as she told Menkes in April 1998: "I wrote the story of women across the world. We all have the same needs and desires, the demands of work and family life. The Rykiel woman? She always has a bag on her shoulders so she can stride forward—with a child in each hand."
In 2000 and 2001 Rykiel continued what she did best: fluid, fashionable clothing in a variety of fabrics and styles. She produced taut tops, skirts, and dresses in geometic patterns for a cruise line collection in early 2000, including her perenially popular matelot stripes. And black, of course, always black, her personal favorite. Though older and wiser, her tenets have remained the same: clothing should be sophisticated, and as she told Menkes, a "kind of bouillon de culture [a cultural broth]. To be modern is to be aware of what is going on."
Sonia Rykiel, once called "Coco Rykiel," is a worthy successor to the Chanel tradition: she is a strong, ultrafeminine, articulate intellectual with a flair for simplicity and self-promotion, who has shown herself capable of both refined innovation and commercial success.
—Arlene C. Cooper;
updated by Nelly Rhodes