Fashion loses an icon: Sonia Rykiel’s life & inspiration in 14 images (PHOTOS)

French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, the ‘queen of knitwear’ and pioneer in elegant designs for ‘women who want to confront life,’ died yesterday at the age of 86. Here are 14 images that capture the unique color of her life and style.

Sonia Rykiel poses backstage after the Sonia Rykiel Ready-to-Wear show as part of the Paris Womenswear Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2011 at Halle Freyssinet on March 2010 in Paris. Richard Bord | WireImage

She could often be seen in Saint-Germain-des-Près in Paris, dressed in black, with her trademark windswept auburn hair and dark eye makeup. Le Monde, the most influential newspaper in France described her as “the essence of a French woman and the spirit of the left bank of the Seine.” In the span of 40 years, Sonia Rykiel not only created a strong brand and a fashion house, she launched a successful cosmetics business as well.

Her creations were worn by the biggest stars: Catherine Deneuve, Jacqueline Onassis, and Lauren Bacall among others. Deneuve emphasized that the creations were elegant and sexy, nonchalant and relaxed, all at the same time. Rykiel herself said that she designs for women who confront life. Women who work, love, want to be beautiful and admired, and try to simply enjoy life. “Fashion exists for women, not the other way around,” she used to say.

Sonia Rykiel was born in Paris on May 25, 1930, to a middle class family with Jewish roots. Her entire life was connected to this European city. In 1956 she married Sam Rykiel, owner of a clothing boutique. Six years later she took the store over from her husband. She created a little striped colorful sweater, which caught the eye of an ELLE magazine reporter and subsequently made the cover of the magazine. Soon Sonia was named the “World’s Queen of Knitwear.” Even though she didn’t know how to sew … “I had talent,” she used to tease.

Following her divorce, in 1968 she opened her own boutique, where she began selling dresses. Her career took off and soon found herself at the center of social life in Paris. She knew the famous regulars at the well-known Café de Flore, the hangout of artists, philosophers, intellectuals, and actors. She counted Marc Chagall and Andy Warhol among her friends. In the ’70s and ’80s she developed her brand—her shows were different not only because of the original designs but also for creating a light atmosphere, full of warmth.

Fashion Show Ready-to-Wear Spring / Summer 1992 in Paris, France, October, 1991—Sonia Rykiel. Daniel Simon | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images
Ready-to-Wear Spring/Summer 1988–1989 fashion show during the Paris Fashion Week in October, 1988, Paris. Victor Virgile | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images
Ready-to-Wear Fall/Winter 1989–1990 fashion show during the Paris Fashion Week in March, 1989, France. Victor Virgile | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images
Ready-to-Wear Fall/Winter 1989–1990 fashion show during the Paris Fashion Week in March, 1989, France. Victor Virgile | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images
Ready-to-Wear Spring/Summer 1993–1994 fashion show during the Paris Fashion Week in October, 1993, France. Victor Virgile | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images
Ready-to-Wear, Spring/Summer 1998 in Paris, France on October 14, 1997. Daniel Simon | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images
European designers have given warm wools an exciting splash of color. Above: knits from Sonia Rykiel: right; pants ensemble from Claude Montana. Canada. Bernard Weil | Toronto Star | Getty Images
A model walks the runway during the Sonya Rykiel show part of Paris Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2009 on October 02, 2008 in Paris, France. Karl Prouse | Catwalking | Getty Images
Sonia Rykiel during her fashion show for the Spring/Summer 2003 Ready-to-Wear collections in Paris, France in October 2002. Pool Bassignac | Benainous | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images

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In the late ’90s, doctors diagnosed her with Parkinson’s disease, the same illness that took her mother. In 2012 she wrote, together with Judith Perrignon, a book N’oubliez Pas Que Je Joue (Don’t Forget that I’m Acting), describing her struggles with the disease. She lived through this difficult time like the rest of her life: full of rebellion, dignity, and holding on to her sense of humor. “I won’t let old age get me, I will fight. I will become a symbol,” she wrote. And every day she repeated to herself, “keep your head up.”

She left an incredible legacy and a big space to be filled by the women close to her. Her daughter, Nathalie, is involved in the fashion house. Julie de Libran, who has been the artistic director for the past two years, brilliantly feels and develops the style of Sonia Rykiel. In the last collection of the brand for Fall/Winter 2016–17, the designer pays tribute to the doyenne. The collection also includes images of Sonia, Nathalie, as well as Lola, Sonia’s granddaughter, by American artist Maggie Cardelus. Lola is promoting the brand in the United States.

Sonia Rykiel at the end of her show for the Autumn/Winter 2004–2005 Men’s Fashion Week in Paris January 2004. Jean-Pierre Muller | AFP | Getty Images
French Minister of Culture Jack Lang (7th L) poses with famous fashion designers before a lunch organized during the fall/winter fashion show in Paris in March 1984. From left to right: Kenzo, Anne-Marie Beretta, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Chantal Thomass, Alix Gres, Yves Saint-Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Issey Miyake, Pierre Bergé and Emanuel Ungaro. Pierre Guillaud | AFP | Getty Images
Sonia Rykiel in Paris, France in July 1993. Alain Benainous | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images
American director Robert Altman, Sonia Rykiel and Yves Saint Laurent, and actress Anouk Aimee attend the 1994 Yves Saint Laurent Spring/Summer fashion show. John van Hasselt | Sygma | Getty Images
Sonia Rykiel and her daughter Nathalie Rykiel, the artistic director for the fashion house Rykiel, for their Spring/Summer 2008 Ready-To-Wear Collection in Paris in October 2007. Photo by Gilles Bassignac | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images

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Ewa Maciag
Ewa Maciag
Ewa has worked as a journalist and editor for many women’s magazines, including ELLE and Gala, where she was assistant editor, and for Dom & Wnętrze, where she interviewed many well known artists. In her spare time, she attends lectures about astronomy, discovers hiking trails in the south of Poland, and cooks for friends.

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