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How One Poor Boy Turned Sonia Rykiel into a Knitwear Pioneer.
Sonia Rykiel began her life of fashion at age 17 when she started working as a window dresser for French textile shop, Grande Maison de Blanc. In 1952, she married Sam Rykiel, owner of Laura, a high end clothing boutique in Paris’ 14th arrondissement. While Rykiel was pregnant with her second child in 1961, she had trouble finding clothes that were chic and fit well (‘Everything was abominable’ she said). So she designed a maternity dress with a bow on the belly (an ode to motherhood) and long-sleeve sweater. Both constructed of knits cut close to the body, she had them made by her husband’s clothing manufacturer. Friends loved her clothes, which were also sold at Laura, and that sweater — known as the ‘The Poor Boy’ — landed on the cover of the December ’63 cover of Elle. And with that, a fashion pioneer was born.
Rykiel opened her first eponymous boutique in 1968 on the Rue de Grenelle in Paris. She became renowned for her colorful sweaters and dubbed ‘The Queen of Knitwear’ by WWD. Her shop was in the heart of the student protests of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and in her windows, she accessorized her clothes with carefully curated books. In the 70s, she began experimenting and pushing the limits of knits — turning seams to the outside and playing with deconstruction. A lover of literature and supporter of social causes, she inscribed slogans and words onto sweaters. ‘I invented everything in the 70s,’ she once said. Rykiel believed that freedom of movement was essential to the modern women. This spirit, along with a commitment to knits and stripes, and a penchant for elongated shapes, lent her clothes a 1920s zeal, which led to comparisons to Coco Chanel. Rykiel also brought to the fashion table colorful fur chubbies, quilted jackets, and shrunken silhouettes. Over the years, her witty designs were modified, but they never strayed far from her signature aesthetic. Even today, you can recognize a Rykiel look a mile away.
But for all of the bold color that splashed across her fashions, Rykiel herself was like many fashion designers — she wore mostly black, though the black was often furry or feathered. She capped off her minimalist ensembles with a shock of bright red hair, cut in a ‘triangular’ style with heavy bangs, and smokey eyes. (On more than one occasion, Sonia Rykiel runway shows featured models decked out in similar hair and makeup.) She was part of fashion’s anti-establishment vanguard, believing that women shouldn’t follow fashion, they should lead the way. When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1995, she stepped down as the label’s CEO and artistic director but remained as an advisor and honorary president. Her son Nathaniel, who had been with the company since the 70s, became creative director in 1996. (Currently, Julie de Libran holds that position.) Over the years, she remained close to the company while also publishing a string of books, including 1996’s The Red Lips, an erotic novel about a man, woman, and sweater. She also designed hotel interiors and theatrical costumes. In 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy awarded Rykiel with the Légion d’Honneur, calling her ‘terribly French’.
Upon her passing on August 26th at age 86, the company released this notice:
It is with deep emotion that the house of Sonia Rykiel announces the death of its founder, Mrs Sonia Rykiel. With her passing away, the fashion world has lost an icon, a pioneer and a huge chocolate lover. More than a designer, she was an extraordinary woman and an artist who devoted her life to woman and their freedom.
Sonia Rykiel on the job in 1965
The famous Poor Boy, worn by Françoise Hardy in December 1963 (photo by Marc Hispard) and
Rykiel’s first slogan sweater — ‘Sensuous’, in April 1971 (photo by Tony Kent)
Model wearing Sonia Rykiel jacket in Elle (1966)
Audrey Hepburn was a fan, here she models Rykiel in Vogue Italia, shot by William Klein (1966)
Sweater girls of 1972 — in L’Officiel and Elle.
Knock-out knits, in red (1973) and in stripes on stripes on stripes (1974)
The icon herself, shot by Dominique Isserman (1980)
Shot by Alex Chatelain for Marie Clair (1972) and working with deconstruction aka ‘démode’ (1977, photo via SoniaRykiel.com)
With entrepreneur (and owner of the Roxy) Steven Greenberg at Studio 54, shot by Andy Warhol (1986).
By Dominique Issermann from a print ad (1985) and Helena Christensen by Peter Lindbergh (1992)
From Rykiel’s sketchbook in 2005
Taking her final bow after the A/W93 runway show (by Getty/ Bertrand Rindoff Petroff)