Sonia Rykiel was hard to ignore. Some would have said that was true despite the fact that she dressed, always, in black; she knew it was because of it. The French fashion designer, famous for her chic, artistic knitwear, flattering on all ages, passed away Thursday in Paris from complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Rykiel was born into a Jewish family in Paris in 1930, the first of five daughters. Her father was Romanian, her mother Russian. Initially, she followed the ordinary path for a French woman of the time – marrying at age 23 and having children – with one notable exception: most other women could not claim to have given inspiration to the artist Henri Matisse. Rykiel could; as the New York Times’s Robert D. McFadden reported in his obituary for Rykiel, when she was working on window displays at a dry goods store at age 17, she created an arrangement of scarves that so captured the artist that he bought every one.
Rykiel never received schooling in fashion design. With her instincts, she likely never needed to. Her first foray into design happened when she was pregnant with her second child, her son Jean-Philippe. Discontent with the options she saw for maternity wear, which she felt treated the pregnant female form with caution and distaste rather than joy and awe, she designed her own alternative.
It was the start of a career. At first, humbly, Rykiel sold her designs in her husband’s store. The two divorced in 1968, and Rykiel opened her own ready-to-wear boutique in Paris’s Left Bank. Her star item was the poor-boy sweater, slim-cut, ribbed, and designed with high armholes; it appeared on the cover of “Elle” and gained a famous fan in Audrey Hepburn, who bought the design in 14 different colors. (Scandalously, Vogue’s Hamish Bowles reported in his obituary for Rykiel, she encouraged women to go bra-less while wearing the sweater.) Rykiel became famous for emblazoning words on her clothing – as Bowles wrote, the first message-bearing sweater she produced read “sensuous” – and for emphasizing practicality alongside style. Her clothes were fluid, graceful, and rule-breaking; she designed reversible clothing, made it stylish to show the raw side of a seem on the outside of a garment, and paid little attention to the demands of the fashion seasons, repeating design elements whenever she pleased.
Her own look was as distinctive as those of many of her most famous clients, whose number included Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. With bright green eyes and a crisply-cut cloud of copper hair, high cheekbones and a sharp chin, in a 1998 New York Times profile, writer Suzy Menkes commented that Rykiel was the quintessential spirit of the Left Bank, embodying “ the stylish, intellectual Bohemian who is the mythical inhabitant of the Café Flore.” Her intellectual pursuits were central to her character; beyond her career in fashion, she wrote and published extensively, plunging into genres from the children’s book to the novel.
In her later years, Rykiel worked closely with her daughter Nathalie, her label’s artistic director since 1995 and president since 2007. While Nathalie herself is not a designer, she’s proven capable at continuing and advancing her mother’s aesthetic.
As Rykiel told Menkes in 1998, “What pushes me forward is everything I have learned: political, social, cultural. I put all that into the clothes. Fashion should be a kind of bouillon de culture [a cultural broth]. To be modern is to be aware of what is going on.” Oh, what an aesthetic that was.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s summer culture fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @TalyaZax