With flaming red hair and a perenially smudged smoky eye, Sonia Rykiel was a legend in French fashion. The designer died at the age of 86 yesterday in her Paris home, and is remembered today for her rebellious and lasting fashion legacy.
Sonia's first client, in a sense, was the artist Henri Matisse. At the age of 17, she had a job at a dry-goods store in Paris, and she designed a window display filled with colorful scarves. The painter was so taken with the scene that he bought every last one of those rainbow-hued scarves.
In the 1960s, Sonia got her start in the industry by designing maternity clothing, which she sold at her then-husband's boutique Laura. "The free-spirited Ms. Rykiel...made fashions for women who, like herself, were proud of their pregnancies, sophisticated about sex, and too busy to fuss over the latest designer fads," notes The New York Times. Sonia later opened her own boutique in the Left Bank of Paris. Along with Yves Saint Laurent, she was among the first to put the tony shopping area on the fashion map.
Best known for her knitwear, Sonia designed sweaters with provocative mottos. "Ten years ago, I started to write on my sweaters such words as ''Life.' I felt I had something inside me to say. Now I write on my belts and my sweaters, and women adore them," she told The Times Magazine in a 1982 interview. Sonia also created the skinny, ribbed "poor boy" sweaters beloved by Audrey Hepburn. (The actress is rumored to have had 14 of the shirts—one in each color!)
The designer was also recognized for the innovative format of her runway shows. Instead of sending models out to walk the runway alone, wearing sullen expressions, she featured groups of models in convivial tableaux that included chatter and laughter.
Sonia herself, of course, always wore black. "“My color is black,” she once said. “And black, if it’s worn right, is a scandal.” In her Paris apartment, she surrounded herself with black-laquered walls and books, and often held salon-style meetings with writers, musicians, and politicans. Literature was in her blood: when she wasn't designing, Sonia herself was a writer; she also sold books at her boutiques.
She retired from fashion in 2009, leaving her daughter Nathalie at the helm of Sonia Rykiel as its president. The company is now a global empire with over 1,000 retail outlets. "If you have something to tell, you expose it," she said in the Times Magazine interview. "I never went to any design school. I was so strong in my thinking and my way of seeing fashion, I knew exactly what I wanted. I said to myself, ‘I have no limits.’”
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