Yara M. El Banna
Around a month ago, the world lost a pioneer, an innovator, and a legacy. Sonia Rykiel lost her battle with Parkinson’s disease, after almost 20 years of struggle, on August 25th, 2016. Many people don’t know many things about her, and others probably do not know she even existed. Either way, she played a huge role that made us where we are today in fashion.
Sonia Flis was born on May 25th, 1930 to a Russian mother and a Romanian father, and she grew up in a house with four younger sisters. Her first ever work in the fashion industry was when she started working to set up the display window at the Grande Maison de Blanc, a Parisian textile fabric store. At the age of 23, she got married to Sam Rykiel, owner of elegant clothing boutique, Laura. The couple had two kids, but divorced in 1968.
When Sonia was pregnant, she found it really hard to acquire clothing that suited her taste. This led Rykiel to collaborate with an Italian clothing supplier to design a dress and a sweater for herself. The sweater incorporated high-cut armholes and a shrunken fit to cling to the body. Everyone was impressed by her practical and modern style, and her friends began asking her to make them similar sweaters, that was later labeled “The Poor Boy Sweater.” Rykiel started selling her design at her husband’s boutique, and it got so famous that the “Poor Boy Sweater” made the cover of French Elle magazine, pushing Rykiel into the spotlight. Her design became so renowned that actress Audrey Hepburn ordered the sweater in 14 different colors. The Sonia Rykiel brand label company was established in 1965, with the help of Sonia’s husband, and her first boutique was at the Left Bank of the Seine river in Paris.
Sonia was able to create various new fashion techniques. She was the first designer to put seams on the outside of a garment, leave hems unfinished, and use slogans on her sweaters. In 1972, the Women’s Wear Daily named her the “Queen of Knits.”
In 1978, she launched her first fragrance called “septième sens,” translated to “seventh sense.” She also contributed to the interior decoration of the Hôtel de Crillon and the Hôtel Lutetia.
In October 2008, the Sonia Rykiel brand celebrated its 40th anniversary with a fashion show, where thirty fashion designers, including Ralph Lauren, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Giorgio Armani paid tributes to Rykiel as they showcased their visions of the “Rykiel woman”. Throughout November of 2008 to April 2009, the brand and the designs were the subject of an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Rykiel also collaborated with H&M for a collection in December 2009.
Rykiel was a woman with many talents. Other than her huge contribution to the fashion world, Rykiel was also a writer. She wrote in different domains, from fashion books and children stories to magazine columns. Her first book was published in 1979 under the name of “Et Je La Voudrais Nue,” translated to “I Would Like Her Naked.” She also had appearances in the music and film scenes.
Rykiel won many awards throughout her journey, including an award from Fashion Group International of New York in 1986, award for Design Excellence from the Chicago Historical Society’s Costume Committee in 1994, and Woman of the Year from the Association des Amis in 2002. The National Order of Merit of France named Rykiel its officer in 1996, then commander in 2001, and later to Grand officer in 2013.
After her death, Jean-Marc Loubier declared that “It is a sad day but Sonia Rykiel leaves behind her an extraordinary legacy,” and day by day, we realize that we are living it.