She’s one of those women who help you become your own totally liberated woman. With a creative, intellectual, strong and refined mind like hers, you can change the world – as she’s proven to do. This woman is by far the greatest designer I have ever met. But what I recognize as the most powerful aspect of Sonia Rykiel’s long history in the fashion world is her ability to reinvent that world without being influenced by anyone else over the course of many decades.
Reason 1: She changed social habits and broke fashion barriers
Sonia Rykiel is quick to impose her ideas, and she could care less about what anyone has to say. She does not follow fashion trends. One of her first creations led her to recognition in record time. Back in the ’60s, sweaters resembled Afghans more than jackets; they were tacky and formless. So a young Ms. Rykiel, wanting to dress how she saw fit, drew up plans for a sweater made from what she associated with a finer material – the jersey. This sweater, draping and highlighting the feminine form, turned the fashion world on its head. Her success was bewildering.
“Sonia Rykiel understands that an outfit fits a way of life.”
And as such, Sonia Rykiel only continues to surprise. She introduced stripes and revised styles from her past that had lost significance, like tracksuits and t-shirts. She thinks of “upside-down fashion” when showing her dressmaking. She works in luxury fashion, while at the same time associating with 3 Suisses (affordable mail order e-retailer).
As Frederic Joignot, journalist at Le Monde, explained: “She continues to work with matte, eliminates hems and linings and uses fine wools for creating pant suits, cardigans, small overcoats and, still, sweaters.”
Why does she still work with matte and sweaters, which have, for the most part, been discarded by dressmakers? Reminiscent of Coco Chanel, who finally liberated women from the corset, Sonia Rykiel also helped women do away with tight, curved and supported suits. She created a chic, casual style in a true Parisian fashion.
Reason 2: She shows that talent and vision outweigh everything else
At first, she wasn’t interested in fashion; she was by no means a designer. She simply didn’t like the clothes of the era.
In her own words: “I dreamt of wearing clothes that separated me from the flock… to be the one about whom they say, ‘Oh, she’s so beautiful, smart!’ So I thought about making clothes that I would like”.
She was the only one capable of bringing her designs to life. And thanks to her husband, a boutique owner in Paris’ 14th district, she was able to place an order with a supplier based in Venice. This lead to the creation of a pullover that would change everything. We were done with huge sweaters, entering modernity.
If it takes almost seven attempts to nail something down, it’s well worth it. It was an immediate success. Madeline Chapsal and Audrey Hepburn were the first clients, and Brigitte Bardot was soon to follow. The sweater stayed close to the skin. It was comfortable, elegant and unbelievably feminine.
Her talent gave rise to her vocation in the early years of 1962 to 1968. Without even looking to sell, she suddenly faced an intense demand for her famous little knitted pullover, which launched her career in a way she could never have imagined. She rose to stardom with a new vision for the maternity dress, which, instead of disfiguring a woman, would enhance that woman according to her desires.
Reason 3: She keeps her eyes open because she is interested in the world around her
The charm of great people is in how they capture the talents around them and enjoy the creative effervescent of one era in order to start a new one. For Sonia Rykiel, this meant staying on top of movements: “It was the spirit of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 1970s. There were my writer friends; I would hang around with editors, intellectuals who went to La Hune bookshop, at the Flora, the Lipp. There were artists, César, Salvador Dali, gallery owners, designers… It was a huge melting pot of ideas. You could invent. You could go there!”
She was both influenced and did the influencing. After her, Jean-Paul Gautier made sweater-dresses and stripes. Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs make heaps of sweaters, and Vivienne Westwood works extensively with matte.
In 2012, during the presenting of the Order of Arts and Letters to Sonia Rykiel, Pierre Bergé stressed that “Few designers have understood that fashion is not made to satisfy the fantasies of a creator but for speaking to women.”
Reason 4: She’s an incredible fashion sketch artist!
Nobody looks away from Sonia Rykiel’s fashion sketches feeling indifferent. They are swift, joyous, free. Their drawer possesses a certain talent of a sketch artist, to the point that Parisian galleries have exhibited her work many times over. While her characters are always brimming with life and personality – prey to singular universes – they nonetheless teach us something. With just a few strokes she knows how to unveil a female character, conveying messages of empowerment.
In 2013, she agreed to illustrate the Universal Dictionary of Creators, a monumental work in three volumes, which records more than 10,000 women spanning across all continents and centuries. She remains involved in the women’s cause while facing Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, we should all be very proud of this amazing woman.