Obituary for Sonia Rykiel

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Obituary for Sonia Rykiel

The news of designer Sonia Rykiel’s death was announced Thursday morning by President Francois Hollande’s office. The designer passed away in her Paris home early Thursday morning, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Her daughter Nathalie, the managing and artistic director for the Sonia Rykiel label, said in a statement that, “My mother died at 05:00 this morning at her home in Paris from the effects of Parkinson’s.”

Sonia Rykiel (born in 1930), French fashion designer, on August 26, 1968.

Sonia Rykiel (born in 1930), French fashion designer, on August 26, 1968.

Sonia Rykiel is survived by her daughter Nathalie, and a son Jean-Philippe.

President Francois Hollande’s office expressed their condolences, calling Rykiel “a pioneer who was able to forge her own path” and going on to state that “she invented not only a style but also an attitude, a way of living and being, and offered women a freedom of movement.”

A fixture in the industry from her beginnings, and soon dubbed the ‘Queen of Knitwear,’ Rykiel began her foray into design when she knit herself maternity dresses, and was first known for her ‘poor boy’ striped sweaters. These striped pieces, featuring long sleeves and a fitted body, were soon a favourite staple of celebrities and starlets such as Bridget Bardot and Audrey Hepburn, bringing Rykiel to fame in 1963.

The distinctive designer, sporting bright orange hair that brings to mind Rossetti’s muses, opened her first boutique on Paris’ Left Bank in 1968, reportedly helping to cement not only the city but the Left Bank itself as the world capital for couture. Rykiel stated in a 2005 interview that she was continually insecure, telling Le Nouvel Observateur that, “When I started in fashion, for the first 10 years, I said to myself every day, ‘I’m going to quit tomorrow.'” People are going to figure out that I don’t know anything. I always thought I’d be discredited in the end.”

While insecure in her own work, Rykiel is revered for offering women clothing that was unlike anything else being offered at the time – as is so often the case, her own needs posed an inspiration for a gap in the market that needed filling. During her second pregnancy, maternity wear was an apologetic style, disguising and hiding the natural progression of the pregnant shape. This lead to the designer knitting her own maternity clothes, showing off her stomach and not hiding her ‘condition.’ While some were scandalized, plenty of others were fascinated and turned to Rykiel for a source. “All the women who saw me in the dress wanted it even if they were not pregnant,” the designer remembered.

Rykiel seemed to look at fashion with a distinctly philosophical, direct, and challenging view. “All the clothes were very sad,” she recalled of shopping for maternity wear. “So I made a dress that was bigger, fuller, more gay.”

As her eponymous label gained traction, the designer moved from designing her ready-to-wear line into menswear; a branch from her main line called “Sonia by Sonia Rykiel;” and a children’s line called “Sonia Rykiel Enfants,” as well as accessories and perfume.

Rykiel went on to revolutionize fashion, bringing in a rebellious attitude that went beyond mere defiance of the norms, instead she simply ignored the norms and created what she felt women needed at the time and were not offered. In a November 1987 interview with The New York Times, she considered her ideal woman, saying “she is fragile, but strong.” Rykiel continued, referring to both herself and the modern woman she was designing for. ”We are working women,” she explained. “Also we have the problem of children, of men, to take care of our houses, so many things. I try to explain that in my clothes. They are clothes for everyday life. That is the real life of woman. I have the impression that the women around me are like me – smaller, taller, fatter, thinner – but in fact we are all the same.”

Rykiel was a writer as well as a designer, writing several books in her lifetime along with numerous magazine columns. It was in a book, her 2012 memoir Noubliez Pas Que Je Joue, or Don’t Forget That I’m Acting, that the designer would reveal to the world her ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease, with which she was diagnosed in 1997. Rykiel had only recently retired in 2009, and her daughter became the company’s president in 2007 after her 1995 placement as the artistic director. In 2012, 80% of the company was sold to a Hong Kong investment firm called Fung Brands, making one of France’s last and longest standing independent and family-run fashion houses an internationally-held luxury brand.

The designer grossed a multitude of international accolades during her career, including being bestowed with the insignia of Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1993 by the Minister of Culture, and again with the insignia of Commandeur in 2012. She was again decorated by the Minister of Culture in 1996 with the insignia of Officier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur, which in turn was promoted to Commandeur in 2008. She was further decorated in 2001 by Laurent Fabius, Minister of the Economy, Finance and Industry, as a Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Mérite, a decoration that was promoted to Grand Officer in 2013.

Today, Sonia Rykiel’s passing has made international news, and her life and work is celebrated worldwide. An expressive, independent talent, Sonia Rykiel inspired more than a generation of women, and offered a distinctive, philosophical take on fashion that addressed the modern woman’s needs and lifestyles. As stated on the brand’s website, “Rykielism is a sociological and stylistic movement founded in 1968 by Sonia Rykiel in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris’ Left Bank. [It] extols the liberation of women through sensuality, intelligence and irreverence… [it] is about having the freedom to be oneself. It is a way of life that’s chic and offbeat. Rykielism lives on Left Banks all over the world. Rykielism will arise in all the places where women cherish their freedom.”

Obituary for Sonia Rykiel

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Written by Lillie Peterson

Lillie is a graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a bachelor's in Classics and a lifelong fascination for fashion and art. A freelance writer and artist, her hobbies include photography, design, drawing and blogging.

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