Following the passing of iconic designer Sonia Rykiel, Lucy Mortell reflects on the legacy she leaves behind.

 

A MASS of fiery red hair singled out one of the greatest pioneers of women’s fashion in the 20th century — Parisienne Sonia Rykiel, who had been battling with Parkinson’s disease when she died in August of this year. Her start in fashion was, like her career, unconventional.

While pregnant with her second child in 1961, Rykiel wanted to celebrate her changing body and, as the maternity clothing of the time failed to do so, she decided to create something for herself. The dress that followed had a fitted bodice and flowing skirt, highlighting her protruding stomach.

What really established her, however, was the “Poor Boy Sweater” – a ribbed jumper with a high neck and high arm holes. It landed on the cover of Elle magazine, and Audrey Hepburn bought not one, but fourteen of them.

She made her clothes for the working woman, describing her target market as “fragile, but strong” — practical yet undeniably chic. As the 60s marked the beginning of the hippie movement, she said “you could be dressed the way you wanted — it was absolute freedom”, and she expressed this freedom through her designs. Her knitwear enhanced the female figure as her pieces move with the body, enabling women to embrace their sexuality rather than be inhibited by it.

Rykiel continued to make her mark on the fashion world for four decades, not only setting trends but inventing techniques. She was the first to put seams on the outside of garments, use unfinished hems and put slogans on sweaters – no doubt her 2009 “Obama” sweaters paved the way for Marc Jacobs and Public School’s outerwear declarations of support for Hillary.

Her ability to make comfort chic has been echoed in collections to this day, setting a precedent which allows modern designers to create lines that were not only fashionable but also practical. Alexander Wang has consistently produced effortlessly cool sweater dresses, and his A/W16 collection is no different. Similarly, Hermes’ latest looks perfectly emulate Rykiel’s work, striking the balance of feminine practicality. Sonia may be gone, but her legacy speaks for itself.