Posted on December 19 2019
A Note from Marlene:
The Sonia Rykiel Rue de Grenelle shop was always my first stop on my buying trips to Paris — the space was charming and modern with the most lovely sales girls dressed head to toe in Rykiel — and then there was that staircase that added to the Rykiel mystery. I fell in love with Sonia's clothes in the late 70's. Wearing her knits always made me feel chic, comfortable and sensuous— they had a magical way of infusing the everyday with Parisian, left bank flavor. After Sonia’s passing I began seeking out Rykiel pieces to add to my collection, and, as serendipity would have it, her entirely lovely granddaughter, LOLA, popped by the shop. After chatting we thought, who better to shoot the archive on? To add another layer, Lola has just launched POM POM PARIS, her own collection of active-friendly, luxury velour sets and separates, sexy leggings and sensual caches — to quote the brand, “Sonia’s velour in all its splendor.” This entire piece felt like the perfect blend of old and new friends coming together to pay homage to Sonia and warmly welcome Lola’s new velour vanguard. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I do.
La Femme Rykiel
Written by: Alli Schaum
The Rykiel runway could, at times, feel more like the best party in Paris than a fashion show. Models held hands and beamed down the catwalk grinning ear to ear; they swung bags over their shoulders and twirled on their tiptoes; they went braless. This aspect didn’t make Rykiel shows a spectacle. Rather, viewers were immersed in the wearability and excitement of Sonia’s pieces. Wearability was certainly a distinguishing factor for the brand, as Sonia began her design career from a practical desire for flattering maternity wear. Perhaps it was this lack of formal background that truly propelled her to create so freely and innovatively.
Her ability to design for herself translated seamlessly to the runway, not simply because she set trends, but because she created pieces that women sought but couldn’t find elsewhere. It would be remiss to not paint Sonia as a feminist, and not simply because she was a female designing for real women. She played with sensuality, even displaying the word on her first slogan sweater in 1971. Her ‘poor boy’ sweaters celebrated and flattered the female form. In addition to their unique slimming fit, they often featured stripes and inside-out seams, a fairly novel idea to high fashion, but a staple for her brand. Models wore slacks. She was one of the pioneering designers to feature black runway models and continued to do so throughout her career. Despite the seemingly flamboyant nature of her use of bold stripes and colors, her work has actually been described as early minimalism and kept in mind the practical nature of a woman’s wardrobe.
Sonia's approach to design was “démodé;” a reappropriation of the french word for “out of fashion,” Sonia used it to describe an “anti-fashion” perspective (as captured in her Dictionnaire Déglingué, a book published later in her life to redefine terms according to her own worldview). Instead of subscribing to the ever-changing model of fashion — a world that continually discards the previous six months — Sonia felt she could create timeless pieces, and so she did.
We had the sincerest pleasure of speaking with and photographing Sonia’s granddaughter, Lola Rykiel for our shoot, who is following her grandmother’s footsteps and launching her own sportswear line called Pom Pom Paris — she clearly shares the fashion gene! She describes la femme Rykiel as “French, but Parisian, not only Parisian, but from the Left Bank, and most specifically from Saint Germain des Près. She knows very well what is going on in the world, in politics, in the news, and is not afraid to be vocal about her views and her opinion (she is liberal, obviously). She is engaged in the world...She never renounces anything because of the way she is dressed. She knows her strengths and her weaknesses and fools everyone because she knows herself so well...and that’s why she is confident, doesn’t take clothes or fashion seriously and remains always free from ‘Fashion’.” Jerry Hall and Bridgitte Bardot fit the bill, but ultimately, as Lola agrees, la femme Rykiel was Sonia herself.
A Rive Gauche (Left Bank) woman, Sonia was situated in a vibrant intellectual and artistic community. Hand-in-hand with that intellectualism was political engagement, none of which Sonia shied away from. She, in fact, embraced the pushback against norms and conventions budding at the time, especially as her first store opened in 1968. Despite early in her career being dubbed the “Queen of Knitwear,” she didn’t care much to chase the fashion world’s interest at any given time. She always relied on her own taste as a guideline.
She once said, “Everything I do is really an expression of myself, through colors and shapes and, at the same time, I try to explain what I feel not only as a creator but also as a woman. I cannot separate one from the other.” Because her personal identity was so deeply intertwined with her design, every collection was a reflection of Sonia: an individual, a writer, an actress, a Parisian, a redhead, a survivor of Nazi occupation, a woman, a wife, even a mother. Sonia’s dedication to her family was undeniable. Since beginning her career with two children, she was able to pass on the creative director role to her daughter Nathalie. Lola was also involved in the brand before the recent announcement of its liquidation. This news came 3 years after Sonia’s passing.
So, what is Sonia’s legacy? She was an activist for Women’s International Zionist Organization France and one of the most successful and highly-esteemed leaders of the French Jewish Artistic movement. She wrote around a dozen books both about fashion and other topics in a myriad of genres. She was featured on a song and in a movie. She pushed for fifteen years through a battle with Parkinson’s disease. She was a devoted mother and wife. She was a revered designer, whomst 30 other designers paid homage to on the brand’s 40th anniversary. She was a stunning redhead with sharp cheekbones, who celebrated her own individuality as much as she did that of others. She was the “stuff of legend,” whether that be Audrey Hepburn buying 14 different poor boy sweaters in all different colors or Henri Mattise unwittingly appreciating her window dressing work so much that he bought the entirety of the scarves in the display. Lola feels that sometimes her grandmother’s designs are misrepresented as solely joyous and cheerful when she also possessed a “a dark, dramatic, intense side.”
In many ways, Sonia was very much a creature of balance, but it is certain that she was guided entirely by her own tastes, a rarity in a field designed to please customers and critics alike. Sonia brought such a unique spark and zest to the world that it is almost impossible to know what exactly will most outlast her, but it is certain that her design influence will continue with or without the existence of the Sonia Rykiel house.