SONIA RYKIEL’S STORY
A look at how Sonia Rykiel’s legacy lives on through Julie de Libran.
Now well into her 80s, Sonia Rykiel has always been driven by a combination of instinct and necessity. Despite later being hailed Queen of Knits, she had no training in fashion design and had never picked up a knitting needle. Yet when she needed something to wear nearly 50 years ago, she ended up building an empire.
Rykiel once offered a brief version of her story. She started sketching her own designs in the early ‘60s, a pregnant housewife unhappy with maternity options. When she and her husband, a clothing boutique owner, later divorced, she inherited her own shop. Dissatisfied with what labels were offering working women (particularly those, like her, with a post-work social life), Rykiel commissioned a factory in Italy to produce her short, tight, poor-boy sweater. From the shop window it made the cover of a big fashion magazine, Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn became clients and the rest, as they say, is history.
After decades of sketching designs, Rykiel unofficially retired in 2007 – but not because the Bingo tables were calling. Afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, her health had slowly deteriorated for years. Today, she contributes ideas while her daughter, Nathalie, runs the company and Julie de Libran designs each collection.
De Libran arrived at the house two seasons ago after making an impression at Gianfranco Ferré, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Versace and Louis Vuitton, where she was creative and studio director for womenswear until last year. When asked how she’s found settling into the new role, her enthusiasm is palpable. “It’s been fantastic! And this is just the beginning,” she says, before adding, “but there’s still a lot I want to do.”
With iconic stripes, an abundance of knits and some very obvious nods to the ’70s – the era when Rykiel shot to fame for her deconstructed “démodé” look – it was evident at the spring/summer 2015 show that the designer takes Rykiel’s legacy seriously. But that doesn’t mean she’s restricted by it. “It was important to me to go through the archives when I arrived at the house,” she says. “Then I needed to close everything and create my own vision for women today, while still respecting where I am.”
By fall/winter 2015-16, she was doing just that. The latest collection has a new, if familiar, Rykiel woman in mind. Adding that today’s muse is even busier than her early counterpart, de Libran explains, “I don’t think she’s different than before – her spirit is the same.” The designer outfitted a hectic lifestyle with denim, leather and tweeds that move and feel like knits. She also played with contrasts, pairing soft, supple velvet and cold, reflective textiles and beadwork.
By all accounts, de Libran is the epitome of the Rykiel woman, complete with a successful career and mercurial French style (her penchant for ’70s silhouettes seemed almost fortuitous when her appointment was announced). If she had to choose one look to live in this season, she says it would be a mix of pieces from the collection: the velvet Liberty-print jumpsuit with a matching cape, worn with a shearling purse and sock-trimmed boots. “My philosophy is to make your own fashion by wearing clothes that suit your shape, lifestyle and personality.” But most of all, she adds, “keep an element of surprise and passion in whatever you do.” Sonia Rykiel wouldn’t want it any other way.
—MacKenzie Lewis Kassab