It really is the year of departures. Yesterday, the sad news broke that the iconic redhead queen of French fashion, Sonia Rykiel, died at her Paris home in the early morning hours. She was 86 and, as it’s been previously confirmed, she has been suffering for years from Parkinson’s disease, which was also the cause of death as stated by her daughter (and her successor at the fashion label she’s created), Nathalie Rykiel.
The brand might have lost on its popularity in the last decade (although recent seasons saw it come back into spotlight, slowly but surely), but its name alone is firmly embedded in fashion consciousness. Just like Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, Sonia Rykiel (née Fils) was more than a designer – she was a socio-cultural icon, not only responsible for the way women dressed but also thought. Starting out as a window dresser in late 1940’s, she took up knitting out of very practical reasons – during her pregnancy, she knitted herself comfortable maternity dresses that were also modern and stylish, and that inspired her to create her famous Poor Boy Sweater design, which she sold through her husbands store first. It was a word-of-the-mouth hit, having been bought in 14 different colours by Audrey Hepburn and worn by Françoise Hardy on the cover of French Elle, and in 1965, the Sonia Rykiel Company was born. Her first boutique soon followed, opening on the Left Bank in 1968.
She was one of the first designers (along with Yves Saint-Laurent) to move towards ready-to-wear designs, even designing a line of clothes for a mail order catalogue (kind of like modern designer/high street collabs of today, something unheard of back then in the snobby Paris fashion world). Her easy, individual chic philosophy embodied the general free-spirited attitude of the late Sixties. Intelligent, intellectual but never arch or pretentious, she came up with some of the defining fashion techniques and styles that keep influencing designers to this day. Just like Yves Saint-Laurent put women in tailoring and trousers, Sonia popularised wearing black (previously just a sign you were in mourning, now the height of arty elegance). She was also the first to put seams on the outside of a garment and the first one to create clothes with their hems and edges left raw – things that we still take as the height of modern and edgy approach to design to this very day, so visible in the work of Japanese and British fashion designers.
But the thing we owe her probably the biggest credit for is the now ubiquitous slogans on t-shirts and jumpers. Yep, it was Sonia who did it first in 1971 with a jumper that read ‘Sensuous’. In a world where creating something truly original and groundbreaking is something only a few can boast of, the sheer volume of inventions and things that are forever linked to her name (berets, striped jumpers) is a testament to her unparalleled creativity and genius. The Queen of Knits was not just about fashion, though. Sure, she earned her stripes by putting people in stripes, but her influence spread beyond that. Muse to the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Altman, she was a staple of Paris’ society – or at least, the thinking part of it. With her iconic, shock of red hair bob with a long fringe, she was as much of a Parisian sight as the Eiffel Tower – as anyone lucky enough to spot her at her regular hangout spots like Café de Flore (where she had a sandwich named after her) could attest to.
The world has lost more than just a genius designer who defined an era. Her biggest legacy is not any of her iconic designs – it is the spirit with which she operated in a famously stuck up world. That was always visible during her shows – even if you were fashion illiterate and couldn’t tell a jumper from a couture gown, there was one thing always present that made it clear it was a Rykiel show. Smiling models – that was always her instruction to the girls walking down her catwalk, and however simple and insignificant it may seem, it was something lacking everywhere else in Paris. Fashion, however clever, should always be full of joy, just like life itself – and even with the terrible illness that cost her life, it seems like it was a philosophy she lived by to the end.