CR Muse: Sonia Rykiel, Queen of Knits

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

There is something special—even revolutionary—about being one’s own muse. Such was the case for Sonia Rykiel, who launched a fashion empire and helped popularize upscale ready-to-wear, all because she wanted a sweater that fit her. Rykiel would have turned 89 today. Though she passed away in 2016, her legacy lives on in both her own work and her influence on others.

In 1962, Rykiel was a pregnant housewife. Her frustration about maternity clothing options led her to create what she couldn’t find: form-fitting, youthful wares. “I wanted to make a sweater for a specific woman—myself—because I wanted to dress differently,” she once wrote. “But [I] couldn’t find the clothes I had in mind for a woman of 30 who has come home from work to go to the theatre and then wants to go out for dinner afterwards.”

She designed a form-fitting knit sweater with high arm holes and had it produced in an Italian factory. Nicknamed the “poor boy” sweater, Rykiel began selling it in her husband’s boutique. “I wanted to show the world how happy I was,” she said, referring to her pregnancy. “My mother-in-law was scandalized, but my friends asked how they could find one like it.” When an editor put it on the cover of [a magazine]—worn by Françoise Hardy, no less—it became a sensation. Not bad for a woman with no formal fashion training.

After Rykiel and her husband divorced in 1968, she opened her own boutique on Paris’ Left Bank. She was incredibly chic, but had an edge still relatively uncommon in a world dominated by couturiers. Her aesthetic was part sporty, part modern, with a flirty sexiness. She left hems undone and put seams on the outside of garments. Over the next few decades, her business expanded to include full seasonal collections, boutiques around the world, and even a diffusion line, Sonia by Sonia Rykiel.

Of course, Rykiel did so much more than just design clothes. She also wrote books and hosted eclectic salons at her Paris home. She attracted everyone from artists to politicians and academics, her proneness to intellectual conversation having been a major part of her childhood. “We discussed politics, art, sculpture—never fashion,” she said of her family.

Despite this seeming aversion to fashion, it became Rykiel’s lasting legacy. Her approach to dressing was perfectly timed with a youth-led revolution in Paris and the world. She outfitted a new generation of women who were intelligent, ambitious, and rebellious. Fashion was never the same again. Her contributions to the industry awarded her France’s Order of Légion d’Honneur in 2009.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe such a life could be built from a humble sweater. But on a certain level, Rykiel always knew what she was doing. “I think creativity is inside you,” she reflected. “If you have something to tell, you expose it. I never went to any design school. I was so strong in my thinking and my way of seeing fashion, I knew exactly what I wanted.”

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