Famed French fashion designer and “Queen of Knitwear” Sonia Rykiel passed away today at the age of 86 after losing a battle to Parkinson’s Disease, a diagnosis she first made public in 2012. Born in Paris in 1930, Rykiel’s first foray into fashion began at the age of 18 as a window dresser, and she created her first knitwear for herself long before launching a ready-to-wear line. In the early 1960s, Rykiel’s knitwear styles – particularly the “poor boy” sweater – caught on among gamine actors like Françoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot, and Audrey Hepburn on Rue de Grenelle. Since then, Rykiel’s brand has distilled the essence of French style into cozy, high-quality knitwear.
Fellow French designer Christian Lacroix summarized Rykiel’s aesthetic as “a very precise, sinuous silhouette, knitwear forever, stripes, sequins, fedoras, Twenties makeup, black and beige.” Jean Paul Gaultier praised her pioneering methods, stating, “Sonia Rykiel was a revolutionary designer. I have great admiration for the work that she has done on liberating women and their fashion. And she gave the inspiration and the style to all of us.” WWD characterized her clothes as “unpretentious and female friendly”. In a speech made about Sonia Rykiel when she accepted the Légion d’Honneur award, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said, “We need more free spirits like yours to turn our habits on their heads. Our country is too conservative; you contributed to French elegance.” According to The New York Times, artist Henri Matisse was once so captivated by Rykiel’s colorful collection of scarves that he “bought them all”.
For decades, Rykiel resisted the appeal of multi-national conglomerates and kept her company within the family until she eventually relinquished an 80 percent stake to Fung Brands in February 2012. Rykiel’s daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, became Creative Director of the house in 1996 and remained at the head of the brand until her position was turned over to Louis Vuitton alumnus Julie de Libran in 2014.
Rykiel is survived by her daughter Nathalie and son Jean-Phillipe.