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At Sonia Rykiel, “Sexiness Is Part Of Reality”


It’s been a good few years for Sonia Rykiel. At its Spring ’09 show in Paris, the family-owned, family-run label celebrated its 40th year in business with an exuberant homage: a surprise show-within-the-show featuring Rykiel-inspired looks designed by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Martin Margiela, Giorgio Armani, and many others. Not long thereafter, Rizzoli published a history of the house, and not long after that, H&M announced that they would be collaborating with the brand on two collections. The first, a range of lingerie, debuted at the end of 2009; the second, a collection of accessories and signature Rykiel knits for women and girls, launches worldwide on February 20. Sonia Rykiel artistic director Nathalie Rykiel (pictured) was in town last night to preview the looks and took a few minutes to speak with about expensive clothes, free women, and why she can’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

How did the H&M collaboration come about?
Well, they called to ask if we were interested, and the answer was obvious.

Obvious how?
Because of the Rykiel philosophy. I love that we are part of this wonderful fashion universe, which is full of beautiful things that are very expensive. It’s fantastic to make women dream. But I had frustrations. You know, my mother, she was the first couturier to make ready-to-wear clothes that were affordable. Her original customers, who were very well-off, bourgeois, they didn’t like that at first—that a secretary could also be wearing Rykiel. But my mother decided, Rykiel is for everyone. That attitude is part of the brand. And so for that reason, working with H&M, it was obvious.

Sonia Rykiel celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. The brand has remained remarkably consistent over the years—you can see that in the book Sonia Rykiel—but do you think the woman who buys Sonia Rykiel has changed?
Yes and no. Sonia Rykiel has always been designed for the woman who is free. This is still true. What has changed, of course, is the context. The woman who buys Rykiel now is incredibly well educated about fashion, thanks to the media, and she is spoiled, in a good way, by the offer of products that exists today. And so, whereas in the beginning of Rykiel, you would see women who dressed in Rykiel head-to-toe—coat, hat, even shoes—now Rykiel is part of a wardrobe. The Rykiel woman loves to shop and she loves to mix. Even I do it. I’ll wear Rykiel with Prada, for instance. It’s the modern way. But there is still this attraction to the brand, a connection to what makes it distinct.

You say that Sonia Rykiel is designed for the woman who is “free.” That sounds implicitly feminist.
People always ask me if I’m a feminist, if Sonia Rykiel is a feminist brand, and the answer is yes. But not in a tough way, like the women’s liberation. I’m not against men. When I say, Sonia Rykiel is for a woman who is free, I mean, she is free to be herself. Free to move, free to work, free to be sexy.

Do you think that point of view comes out of the fact that Sonia Rykiel has always been designed by women, for women?
Well, no matter what you admit to anyone else, it’s true that when you design, you think of yourself first. What do I want? And this question, it makes you realistic. You don’t even have to think about being realistic, because you know, women, we work, we travel, we get the kids from school, we drive, we worry about whether we’ll have time to change before dinner. That is the reality. But there is another way of looking at reality, which is the reality of the garment, the reality of the contact of fabric and skin, the reality of the way the clothes make you feel. Comfort and sexy, they say these things cannot be together. Why not? Sexiness is part of reality. Art is part of reality.

People tend to associate that kind of emphasis on the work clothes do with the American sportswear tradition. But Rykiel, of course, is iconically French.
French, yes. French chic. And more than French, Parisian. And more than Parisian, Rive Gauche. And more than Rive Gauche, Saint-Germain des Prés. The identity is very specific.

The Sonia Rykiel signatures are so clear and so strong—the knits, the stripes, the little embellishments. What was it like to see them reinterpreted by the designers who participated in the 40th anniversary show?
Oh my God, it was a dream. You know, when I began to talk about this idea, of a surprise for my mum, a secret show, with the best designers working today contributing looks, they all shook their heads and said, Hmmmm, once again, she’s crazy. It’s impossible, it will never happen. But then I picked up my phone, and everyone who said yes, they said yes with such enthusiasm. What a gift! Really—the fashion world is so caricatured, we’re all meant to be egomaniacs—and yet designers like Lagerfeld and Gaultier and Rodarte, they took time from their own collections to pay tribute to Rykiel. I saw sketches, and then every look, down to the accessories, was realized in each designer’s atelier, and every time one of their boxes arrived, it was like I was receiving a present.

The process of putting together the show must have made you reflect on the history of Rykiel.
I’m not so interested in that—in retrospective, in looking back. I would never have wanted to do a show of looks of from the archive. This was a way of thinking about tomorrow. Rykiel has a great history, but it has a great tomorrow, too.

Photo: SHAUN MADER / Patrick McMullan