Sonia Rykiel

By Rebecca Voight...

Nov. 23: With her famous red mane, Sonia Rykiel purred out her life story at the entrance to "Sonia Rykiel, Exhibition," a large-scale retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The show caps a year of 40th-anniversary celebrations for the slinky Parisian sweater house, most notably the spring 09 collection and after-party in the Bois de Vincennes that featured thirty designers' takes on her quintessential style, from Jean-Paul Gaultier's knitting-needle dress to Martin Margiela's savage red-headed sheath. Rykiel, 78, talked and talked until you understood the clothes are really an extension of herself: "My sisters were beautiful. I was different. I was a redhead. I was violent, difficult. I had no limits. My mother called it 'having character.'" A trail of words inside, outside and all around the exhibition followed Sonia Rykiel from one fashion high to another, beginning with the brand's launch in 1968, when the Paris student revolts gave birth to a new kind of femme fatale, one who bypassed couture for modern prêt-à-porter.

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Sonia Rykiel
1987 campaign, photo Dominique Issermann

"For me her clothes are like Meccano toys," says Olivier Saillard, the museum's enigmatic program director who curated the show, "they can be combined in infinite ways." (Incidentally, he once told me he used to create fictional couture houses as a child, complete with imaginary staff and archives.)  

The show's fête brought out French editors Samuel Drira of Encens and Numéro's Babette Djian, as well as designers Martine Sitbon, Corinne Cobson and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, whose house was rescued from bankruptcy this week when it was bought by Sweden's Atlas Design Group. Liz Goldwyn, who wrote an introduction to the show catalog, held court in the museum's gift shop wearing a beret and a curvy black Swarovski-studded Sonia sweater dress.  

Dominique Issermann, who shot all the Rykiel campaigns from 1979 through 1993, remembered her first series for the house like it was yesterday. "Sonia asked me if I wanted to photograph eighteen pages for French Vogue. Who wouldn't? So I shot (17-year old model) Anne Rohart simply standing against the marble wall of Paris's Palais de Chaillot. "I wanted the marble floor to look sleek and I remember Franceline Prat, the stylist, getting down on her hands and knees in a pink Chanel suit to wet the floor with a sponge." Rohart became Rykiel's star model. "We didn't have a big budget back then," said Issermann, "everything was so much simpler and we had freedom. Sonia gave me carte blanche." Issermann's haunting black-and-whites showed Sonia's girls dancing hand-in-hand at the seashore or draped over the hoods of cars in a moody parking lot. "Sonia was always finding sponsoring deals, she was so practical. We're lucky she never got one with a refrigerator!"

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Sonia Rykiel
1976 collection  

Pamela Golbin talked about the museum's upcoming show on Madeleine Vionnet that she's curating: "It's unique because Vionnet left everything to the museum in 1952. So we have the exact pieces she wanted shown. It's almost like she curated the show herself," said Golbin, who's working with Andrée Putman on the scenography.    

Meanwhile, Rykiel lounged in a velvet chair on the show's second floor beneath a wall of love letters from editors and friends including chanteuse Juliette Greco, French patissier Pierre Hermé, chef Guy Savoy and former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who wrote that he is "at all times surrounded by Rykiel women, especially my wife." After designer Philippe Starck knelt down and prayed to Sonia, I slid into the chair beside her and asked her how it feels. "I realize now all the work that's gone into this and I want to continue," she said. "The most important thing for me is to go forward."



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