Sonia Rykiel, the French fashion designer, dies aged 86

A pioneer of Parisian womenswear from the late 1960s onwards, the French designer has died from a Parkinson’s disease-related illness

French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel has died at the age of 86.

Her daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, broke the news to the press today: “My mother died at 05:00 this morning at her home in Paris from the effects of Parkinson’s.” She was diagnosed with the diseasemore than 15 years ago.

French President Francois Hollande praised her as “a pioneer” and said Rykiel’s designs “offered women freedom of movement”.

Sonia Rykiel opened her first store in Paris in 1968 on the Left Bank. Despite becoming synonymous with knitwear, casual-chic and the infamous “poor boy” sweaters – fitted ribbed jumpers with raised armholes that narrowed the torso and shoulders – her legacy is more focused on pioneering womenswear at a time when women were expected to wear sombre tones and skirts. Regularly compared with Coco Chanel, both designers famously eschewed couture in favour of ready-to-wear clothes, encouraged women to wear trousers, made stripes a signature look and helped carve out Paris as a major player on the modern fashion map. Her manifesto urged “women to be eccentric, seductive, mysterious, and to create their own style”.

Sonia Rykiel with models on the catwalk in 1980.
Sonia Rykiel with models on the catwalk in 1980. Photograph: Jean-Claude Delmas/AFP/Getty Images

Despite becoming one of the most famous designers in French history, her transition into fashion was almost accidental: it was only following her involvement in her husband’s ready-to-wear boutique, Laura, that she was inspired to start designing – “I wanted to wear clothes that would make me stand out from the crowd ... so I decided to have a few things made up for me.”

Speaking to the Guardian in 2012, Rykiel explained how she continued to work immediately after her diagnosis: “It didn’t affect me too much at first. You couldn’t tell at the time that I was ill just by looking at me, so I managed to go on for a while like that, keeping it to myself.” In 2007, however, she handed over the baton of managing and artistic director to her daughter.

Models in Rykiel’s signature coloured striped outfits on the spring/summer 2004 catwalk.
Models in Rykiel’s signature coloured striped outfits on the spring/summer 2004 catwalk. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

Rykiel also wrote a book called N’oubliez Pas Que Je Joue (Don’t Forget That I’m Acting), which covered her illness and revealed an admirable gallow’s humour about her illness (she called it “putain de Parkinson’s”, or “p de P”) right up until her death.

“I didn’t tell a soul – not even my daughter, who was in her 40s then. I kept it that way because my doctor advised me not to tell anyone. It was a mild form of the disease, so it was barely worth mentioning, he said. But in private I was really frightened, because my mother contracted the disease when she was 70, and I had memories of her suffering (although that was 40 years ago, when there was no treatment at all).”

Rykiel was born 25 May, 1930. She had two children with her ex-husband, Sam Rykiel, and despite her illness, remained involved with her eponymous label, lately serving as honorary president. Her early clients included Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn, and her pieces regularly appeared on the covers of Elle and Vogue. In 2009, she was awarded The Order of Légion d’Honneur in recognition of her 40 years of service to the French fashion industry.

Julie de Libran currently heads up the label, which will show at Paris next month during fashion week.


Morwenna Ferrier

The GuardianTramp

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