Sonia Rykiel (1930-2016), A Fashion Revolutionary, by Maude Bass-Krueger

A few years ago, I was hired by Sonia Rykiel (the house, not the woman herself) to research and write about Sonia’s history and legacy. Fung Brands Limited had just bought the majority equity stake in the company and a new designer had been named. The company wanted somebody knowledgeable about fashion history to look at their archives and piece together a historical biography of the founder and the house. I spent almost a month pouring through the paper archives conserved in the company’s headquarters, housed above the iconic St. Germain boutique. Yumiko Hayashi, Sonia Rykiel’s wonderful archivist, kindly brought me binder upon binder of press clippings, magazine articles, and photographs. She gave me access to hundreds of hours of interviews, news reports, and filmed catwalk shows. Housed off-site, the archive also maintains an extensive textile collection spanning Sonia Rykiel’s entire career. A well-curated selection of these garments was shown at the Arts Décoratifs in 2008-2009 as part of the “Sonia Rykiel” exhibition. A catalogue published for the occasion includes a thorough appendix of Sonia Rykiel’s fashion collections. 

What did I discover? A newfound appreciation for how revolutionary Sonia Rykiel and her designs were in the 1960s and 1970s. 

The history of Rykiel and her eponymous label is also the story of the ready-to-wear revolution that shook Paris in the mid-1960s and early 1970s—a period when young designers jettisoned the aging couture model in favor of a more modern way of selling and wearing clothing. At the same time, younger clients began rejecting the notion of buying from “one” designer and began frequenting multi-designer boutiques.

Sonia Rykiel, née Flis, was born on May 25, 1930 in Paris to a French mother of Russian origin and a Romanian father. In 1951, she met Sam Rykiel and married into the Rykiel family business of clothing manufacturing. In 1954, true to his family business, Sam opened a clothing boutique that he called Laura, located at 104 Avenue du Général-Leclerc. A year later, Sonia was pregnant with the couple’s first child. “I wanted a maternity dress and I couldn’t find anything I liked,” Sonia Rykiel confided to WWD in 2008, “Everything was abominable. So I made one. Then I made a pullover. Elle put it on the cover. Then WWD elected me the queen of knitwear.”1

Sonia’s maternity dresses had narrow shoulders, A-line waists, and bows and buttons on the chest—“doll’s dresses,” in the words of a journalist. Her ‘poor-boy sweaters’ were tighter than other sweater sold in the boutique. Their sleeves were cut very high under the arm their shoulders narrow. (In 1968 Elle showed its readers what the difference between a normal sweater and a Sonia Rykiel sweater meant: the model wearing the normal sweater raises her arms and the sweater bulges outward from her body and upward along her stomach; but clad in Sonia’s wool jersey version, the sweater does not move; its silhouette stays tightly married to the body.2 Off the body, a Rykiel sweater was so tightly knit that it was reduced to child-size proportions, as if it had shrunk in the wash.)

Sweater by Sonia Rykiel, 1974-1976, Gift of Lauren Bacall. From the collection of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Helped by the patronage of an editor of French Elle who starts to write about the store and feature its clothing selections, the Laura boutique takes off in the 1960s. Described by ThNew York Times, as “one of the progenitors of the boutique boom in Paris,” Sam wanted to have a “real modern shop in Paris” that catered to women like his wife. “The [Laura] girl is 20 to 25 years old; she has a mirror and she looks at herself; she doesn’t care about real comfort, but she cares what she looks like,” the NYT journalist wrote.Celebrity clients like Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, and Sylvie Vartan began to frequent the store in order to get their fill of the skinny knits, A-line dresses, and mod jackets that were regularly featured in the pages and on the covers of French magazines throughout the early sixties.

Because Laura was a boutique that sold manufactured clothing under its own label, Sonia’s name did not appear on the first dresses and sweaters that she designed in collaboration with the boutique’s Italian manufacturers. But tight, colorful, striped or embellished, the sweaters featured in the French press at the time were unmistakably hers.

A LAURA label inside a 1963/1964 black and white “schoolgirl” dress. Source: PB Fashion Expert
Francoise Hardy wears a Sonia Rykiel sweater on the cover of Elle, December 13,1963.

Elle featured a short-sleeved blue knit sweater on its July 1, 1960 cover and Françoise Hardy wore a black, red, and pink striped turtleneck version on the cover of Elle’s December 13, 1963 issue.

By 1964, sweaters begin bearing Sonia’s name with the label “Sonia Rykiel chez Laura.” The same year a Laura corner store opened in the Galeries Lafayette and ten affiliated stores opened in Paris and the provinces. By 1967 Sonia and Sam had begun selling Sonia’s dresses and sweaters internationally and were marketing them to the press as Sonia Rykiel originals.

In 1968, Sonia Rykiel opened her own boutique, SONIA RYKIEL, on Paris’ Left Bank at 6 rue de Grenelle.

“In the beginning I thought the whole thing was too easy. The truth was, I had no real idea of what I was doing in those very early days. I was simply lucky. Real direction occurred only later when I began making clothes for me—Sonia Rykiel—and not for other women. I wanted to be the only woman in the world to be dressed entirely in my own way. What this selfish idea did was to give my clothes a unique signature. My costumers began to dress the way I wanted to dress and therefore I made them unique in my own image.”4 

The first image of Sonia Rykiel in her boutique is of her reclining in the staircase, languorously confident, legs akimbo. “The pose is androgynous, legs apart,” she recalled, a stance “unimaginable six months earlier.”5

Photo – Sonia Rykiel in the stairway of the boutique at 6 rue de Grenelle in 1968 © Sonia Rykiel

Rykiel’s “sweetly sexy, simple but sophisticated” sweaters, shorts, coats, and dresses were applauded by the press and snapped up her modern and liberated customers who favored her easy, seasonless styles.6 “I do not want women to disappear beneath my clothing,” she would repeat of her design philosophy, “the woman must be more than the garment, for it is not the dress that makes the woman, but the woman who makes herself.”Sonia designed for herself and for the women who wanted to be like her, a woman who “lived a woman’s life mixed with a working life,” who traveled hands free, and who loved a good party. “This music-sounds-lights-folly-desire-woman,” as Rykiel described herself.8 Karl Lagerfeld, writing in Vogue about partying at the Palace, Paris’ Studio 54 equivalent, remembered that Sonia Rykiel out-danced them all.

Sonia’s designs in the 1970s were radical and modern; by constructing garments inside-out and leaving hems unfinished, Sonia Rykiel was deconstructivist long before the Belgian and Japanese fashion designers of the 1990s. Rykiel piled knits over knits, staggered the length of her layers, turned sweaters inside out to showcase their “architecture,” refused linings, hems and finishes, advocated wearing garments over bare skin, created pouches and strings within the garments in order to transport them more easily, and grafted third and fourth sleeves onto sweaters as a design element.

Sonia Rykiel, Wool coat, 1970’s. The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sonia Rykiel, Ensemble, 1973-77. The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In a television interview from 1977 Sonia Rykiel stands before a mirror and turns her sweater inside-out, revealing the stitching: “it is fantastic to be able –finally!—to be as you want without saying I am “à la mode” or not…now you are free to say I feel good, I feel like myself.”9

Photo – Presentation of Spring-Summer 1977 collection in the boutique © Sonia Rykiel – Photographer Didier Destal 

Rykiel called this fashion revolution la démode, a catchphrase that stood for the idea that being fashionable came from how the wearer chose to present herself through clothing, and not from what the designer dictated. La démode was Rykiel’s way of telling women to be eccentric, to feel free to create their own style by adapting fashion to their own body, just as she had created for hers.

Sonia Rykiel’s philosophy and innovative designs challenged the established notion of what couture meant to women consumer in the seventies. The youthful off-the-rack styles sold by boutiques such as Laura had introduced the consumer to fashionable and wearable fashion for less. Rykiel’s success under her own name made couturiers uneasy, as they felt that the ready-to-wear model was gaining ground.

Rather than fight a losing battle, however, the Chambre syndicale de la couture parisienne decided to open its door in November 1973 to the five most important Parisian ready-to-wear stylistes: Sonia Rykiel, Emmanuelle Khanh, Kenzo, Jacqueline Jacobson, and Karl Lagerfeld. Sonia Rykiel was named Vice-Président of this renamed Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode The styliste, an idea-maker, and the couturier, an artisan dressmaker, converged into one: the créateur, who created, innovated, and elaborated.  These créateurs du prêt-à-porter, or ready-wear designers, of whom Sonia Rykiel was a pioneering member, shepherded fashion into the future.

As Elle explained to its readers in 1979, “There was haute couture. Then the explosion and diffusion of ready-to-wear. Fashion was in the streets. But creation, in the experimental sense of the word, did not disappear. It reasserted itself very quickly with a certain number of stylists who were no longer simply concerned with whether a garment was wearable, but if it was innovative.”10

Sonia Rykiel was innovative, not only in her designs, but also in her philosophy of how—and why—women should dress.

  1. Robert Murphy, “Q&A: Sonia Rykiel,WWD , October 1, 2008.
  2. Berthod, “Sonia Rykiel,” Elle, April 29, 1968, p. 145.
  3. “Skinny Knits, and Sweaters That Sell Like Chocolate,” New York Times, March 2, 1967
  4. Richard Actis-Grance, “A Talk With Sonia Rykiel,” Dépèche mode, 1968
  5. Vogue, May 1998, p. 152.
  6. “Fashions to Applaud—and to Laugh At,” New York Times, April 21, 1971
  7. INA, Televised Sonia Rykiel interview on Régine Desforges’ program Femmes et libertés, aired on March 20, 1978.
  8. Sonia Rykiel, Et je la voudrais nue (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1979), p. 19
  9. INA, Televised Sonia Rykiel interview, aired on February 8, 1977.
  10. “Les créateurs été 79,” Elle, February 12, 1979, p. 42.

Maude Bass-Krueger, Phd, Historienne

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