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How Sonia Rykiel’s Jewish Family Inspired Her Exultant Art

The fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, who died on August 25 at age 86, was prized as one of the leading lights of French Jewish artistic achievement. Joan Nathan’s “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” lists Rykiel among prominent Gallic Jews, alongside Marcel Marceau, Anouk Aimée, Simone Signoret, and Nostradamus. Rykiel, who was born Sonia Flis in Neuilly-sur-Seine to a family of East European immigrants who had fled anti-Semitic pogroms, was not raised to be observant. As a girl, if she wanted to pray for good grades in class, she went to a Paris church to light a candle. Still, in 2013 Rykiel told “Tribune Juive,” that Israel was important for her “in an idealistic, novelistic, literary way, and for everything dealing with charity, keeping busy, making sure that I can help them.” She became an activist for WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) France and Coopération feminine, an association of volunteer Jewish women. Rykiel added to “Actualité Juive” in 2008 that she had fond memories of vacations spent in Israel: “I feel good [in Israel]. The country’s history touches my heart, naturally.”

Also touching her heart were memories of being raised with four sisters, including the social anthropologist Françoise Zonabend, a student of Claude Lévi-Strauss. “Nuclear Peninsula,” by Zonabend, about the relatives of workers in a rural French nuclear waste reprocessing plant, was akin to family-centered studies by another sister of Rykiel’s, Dr. Muriel Flis-Trèves. An expert on childbirth, who has written authoritatively on stillbirths, Flis-Trèves worked alongside the eminent specialist René Frydman. Rykiel did not just kvell privately about her sisters’ achievements, she displayed their books in windows of her boulevard Saint-Germain boutique, alongside her designs for clothes, jewelry, and other luxury items. Rykiel’s family survived the Nazi Occupation in hiding, as she recounted in a 2012 memoir, moving from temporary refuges outside Paris to the remote village of Thomery in north-central France. In 2012, she told “Elle” that she had blocked out memories of the years of Occupation, “because the war stole my childhood. I was six, and felt that everyone around me was afraid. My father and uncles had left, and we women wandered from house to house…I was always afraid for my mother, since she was incredibly naïve. One morning, she went out to go shopping and met some soldiers whom she thanked for arriving to save us, only it turned out they were Germans.” Rykiel’s son, Jean-Philippe Rykiel, informed a Belgian Jewish website in 2013 that although not observant, his mother’s family gathered for the Yamim Noraim. In 1998, the Rykiels made a special trip to Israel to be present at the dedication of a classroom in a Yad Rachel child center named after his paternal grandfather.

Rykiel was motivated to be the most literate of her sisters, learning to recite fables by La Fontaine and the monologue Athaliah’s dream, from the verse play “Athalie” by Jean Racine. In the latter Biblical drama, the widow of the king of Judah sees her mother while asleep. When not emoting in verse, Rykiel played with her sisters while watching her mother, who was always knitting. When she decided to design clothes, Rykiel recalled her mother’s obsessive work with knitting needles, even though she herself never learned how to knit. She commissioned an Italian workshop to produce form-fitting, delicate sweaters to flatter women’s shapes, and by the 1970s was reductively dubbed the “queen of knitwear.” Rykiel’s influence was in fact more wide-ranging, in flowing garments offering a sense of ease and naturalness. Coining the term “unfashion” (la démode), Rykiel applied it to being fashionable “according to one’s own body and mind, hiding what is ugly and glorifying what is beautiful.” Slacks for women were a matter of equality, “not with men, but with other women who have lovely legs.”

The joyous Rykiel sisterhood was reproduced on fashion show runways for decades, where models were commanded to look happy and zany instead of the usual Paris fashion world ideal of depressed existential anorexia. Rykiel’s was an exultant art, directly inspired by her close-knit family circle. Her friend and collaborator Dominique Issermann, a photographer of Alsatian Jewish origin, told “Elle” that Rykiel’s shows were always “like a flock of sisters, with something quite joyful, and that reflects her life.” This was especially clear in the backstage scenes in the 2009 documentary “The Day Before,” by Loïc Prigent.

Part of that joy was experiencing the Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter of Paris, then a center for bookshops, now almost entirely replaced by clothing boutiques. Writing many books, including some intended for young readers, Rykiel produced what she termed a “Broken-Down Dictionary” (Dictionnaire déglingué; 2011) redefining familiar words according to her own views. Rykiel also devised literary installations, where she displayed fashion alongside thousands of books in places where neither normally appeared. In 1985, the 40th anniversary of the end of the German Occupation and its book-burnings, Rykiel decorated the Hôtel Lutétia. A prewar residence for refugees from Nazism, after the German Occupation the Lutétia was requisitioned by the Abwehr, German military intelligence. After the Liberation of Paris in 1944, the Lutétia sheltered repatriated prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors. Rykiel’s display of family-inspired craft and much-loved literature in this context was surely not coincidental. Only last year, over 50,000 books crowded her Paris boutique as part of yet another literary-themed installation.

Among Rykiel’s many novels, “The Red Lips,” (1996) exudes fetishistic exaltation of clothing in a love story, including stockings, skirts, coats, and multicolored, luxurious knitwear. An equally ardent epistolary novel, “Casanova was a Woman” (2006) was coauthored with the French erotic writer Régine Deforges. Fittingly, among Rykiel’s awards, in 2014 she was honored by the Festival de Nohant, which celebrates the Romantic-era music of Chopin and writing of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, the novelist who signed her works George Sand. In a book-length homage by her daughter Nathalie, we read that despite battling Parkinson’s disease, Rykiel retained her insouciant impishness. Although no longer able to climb or descend stairs at home, Rykiel demonstrated her new-found method of sitting on a step and bouncing up or down respectively until the destination was reached.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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