PARIS, France — French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel has died at the age of 86, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for nearly two decades.
Rykiel stepped down from her role as CEO and artistic director of her eponymous brand in 1995 but remained close to the label, serving as honorary president until 2009 when she retired. She is survived by her two children, Jean-Philippe and Nathalie.
The designer made a name for herself in the 1970s as the “Queen of Knitwear”, after she opened her first store in Paris two years earlier, attracting clients like Catherine Deneuve and Audrey Hepburn. Her trademark knitwear pieces include deconstructed, rough-hemmed jumpers, which are a key category in the company’s main line collections and its more accessible contemporary line, Sonia by Sonia Rykiel.
French President Francois Hollande praised Rykiel as “a free woman and a pioneer" in a statement announcing her death today. “She invented not only a style, but also an attitude, a way of living and of being, and gave women a freedom of movement,” he said. “Passionate about culture, she did not conceive of fashion without the arts, which were always present in her creations. Her style is known across the world. It will remain a symbol of the remarkable alliance of colour and the natural, of fluidity and light.”
Born as Sonia Flis in Paris in 1930, to a French father and Romanian mother, Rykiel was the oldest of five daughters. She married boutique owner Sam Rykiel in 1953. The couple divorced in 1968.
Rykiel started her fashion career dressing the window displays of a Parisian textile store and began designing maternity clothes in 1961, when she was pregnant with her second child and could not find clothes that she liked. She began selling her designs in her husband’s store, and her breakthrough came when her so-called Poor Boy sweaters, which had long sleeves and a fitted shape, were featured on the cover of Elle magazine.
Known for her focus on stylish, comfortable clothes that women wanted to wear, Rykiel was one of the first designers to turn the seams of garments inside out, eliminating darts and incorporating straps inside coats. Her nuanced brand codes of feminism and Left Bank insouciance helped her grow her business into a global company that now operates 25 stores worldwide and sells in 630 wholesale doors.
In 2009, she was awarded the Order of Légion d'Honneur in recognition of her 40 years of service in the French fashion industry. Rykiel was also a well-known writer, having published books including a novel, a children’s book, an A-Z of fashion. In her last book, N’Oubliez Pas Que Je Joue (Don’t Forget That I’m Acting), published with Judith Perrignon in 2012, she revealed her 15-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease.
Today, the Sonia Rykiel brand includes luxury ready-to-wear, contemporary, childrenswear and homeware. In 2012, First Heritage Brands, a subsidiary of Fung Capital Ltd., the private investment arm of the families of Dr Victor Fung and Dr William Fung, took an 80 percent stake in the brand for an undisclosed amount. Until then, it was one of the last wholly independently-owned fashion businesses in Paris. Rykiel's daughter Nathalie remains on the board as chairwoman.
The company is now led by chief executive officer Eric Langon, who joined Sonia Rykiel from Lancel in 2012, following First Heritage Brands' investment. Julie de Libran has served as creative director since May 2014, after working for brands including Prada, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs.
Updated 15:20 pm GMT on 26 August, 2016:
The house of Sonia Rykiel issued the following statement commemorating the life of the company's founder:
It is with deep emotion that the house of Sonia Rykiel announces the death of its founder, Mrs Sonia Rykiel. With her passing away, the fashion world has lost an icon, a pioneer and a huge chocolate lover. More than a designer, she was an extraordinary woman and an artist who devoted her life to woman and their freedom.
Jean-Marc Lousier, chairman and chief executive officer, First Heritage Brands:
“Mrs Sonia Rykiel's passing away is a very sad news for us all. My thoughts are with her family and especially with Nathalie and her daughters and with Jean Philippe her son. My thoughts are also with all the members of La Maison Rykiel who are so devoted and so proud to write its history, daily. But this extraordinary woman offers us an exceptional legacy. She is a pioneer woman who helped change our society, always putting together creation, culture and clothes to serve women and their rising role in our world. This legacy is alive and more than ever is the future.”
Julie de Libran, artistic director, Sonia Rykiel:
“My first moment meeting Sonia Rykiel at her home will stay in my heart as a very beautiful memory. I was very touched by the charm and grace of this unique woman who truly defined what it means to be iconic. She will be greatly missed but her style, legacy and spirit will never be forgotten and will live on to continue inspiring women around the world.”
Sabrina Fung, group managing director of Fung Retailing Limited:
“We are deeply saddened by the passing away of Madame Sonia Rykiel and our family extends our condolences to Nathalie, her daughters and the family members of Madame Rykiel's. Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time. As a family and as close partners we are proud to carry on the legacy of Madams Sonia Rykiel whose talent and skills have made an everlasting mark on the world of fashion.”
Eric Langon, chief executive officer, Sonia Rykiel:
“Madame Sonia Rykiel was essentially and uniquely free. She embodied remarkably this Spirit of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. All of us, in the House she created in 1968, are deeply saddened by her passing away and express our deepest condolences to her family.”