Nov 21, 2008
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Sonia Rykiel: 40 years a fashion pioneer

Nov 21, 2008

PARIS, Nov 21, 2008 (AFP) - "Sonia Rykiel was Japanese before the Japanese, Belgian before the Belgians. She is a pioneer of conceptual fashion, one of the first modernisers," says Olivier Saillard, curator of the first retrospective of the French designer's work.

Photo : AFP

As she celebrates 40 years of her own label, he is in no doubt of Rykiel's claim to a place in fashion's hall of fame.

"She abolished hemlines and linings, she invented knitwear, she made clothes that were reversible, she used layering," and she was doing all this 10 years before the arrival of Rei Kawakuba of Comme des Garcons, and Martin Margiela, founders of fashion's minimalist and deconstruction trends.

"She has done the same things since the very beginning, which makes it difficult for archivists to date her clothes," he explains, illustrating his point with a huge showcase of her trademark skimpy striped knits, with slogans like "sensuous" across the chest.

Impossible to tell by looking which ones date from the 1960s or which are hot off the catwalk last October. Saillard has tried to put at least one recent model in every display.

"Rykiel always emphasises permanence, continuity and tradition. She finds clothes that have been worn more interesting than new ones."

She turned her back on the orthodoxy that dictated that last season's clothes should be discarded. Her idea is that a woman adds new pieces to her wardrobe every season but they do not make her existing clothes look outdated, Saillard explains.

The long black coat with a fur collar she was wearing when complimented on being one of the most elegant women in the 1970s was six years old.

Rykiel had no formal training. In 1962, pregnant with her daughter Nathalie, she was frustrated by the frumpy maternity wear available so designed her own. Her big frock went on sale in her husband's chain of shops and was a huge success, even bought by women who were not expecting.

-- Rykiel has a weakness for bling --


She then opened her own boutique in St. Germain des Pres, in the heart of Paris' trendy Left Bank in May 1968.

From the very early pieces -- many of which are on show -- the Rykiel signature of relaxed sophistication is already there, Saillard points out. "She used humble fabrics like cotton and jersey. Everything is very unstructured, easy to pull off and on, very fluid."

Rykiel was also a pioneer in blurring the distinction between night and day, and in fashion's move towards informality.

From the early 1970s she was designing glamorous tracksuits in terry towelling that were never intended to come into contact with a sweaty gym. Her black velours evening version emblazoned with "SR special edition" in silver was worn with high heels. And trousers have always been much more important to Rykiel than skirts.

In tracking down clothes for the show, Saillard said he had never come across customers "so bulimic" about a designer's work: one woman had literally thousands of pieces.

The exhibition is set out to give the impression of wandering through an apartment, with doors folded back and curtains to add intimacy.

Copies of her many books -- Rykiel is a prolific writer -- alongside sketchbooks of designs in felt-tip, as well as a wardrobe of clothes worn by her daughter Nathalie, who modelled for her mother and now manages the business, add to the impression of entering the designer's private universe.

Highlights include her perennial trompe l'oeil pieces, like the jumpsuit with a tie embroidered in scarlet sequins, and the bikini top and tiny triangular bottom picked out in rhinestones on a black knit dress, as well as fluffy maribou feather coats in crimson and turquoise, which verge on the vulgar.

Like Coco Chanel, Rykiel has a weakness for bling.

The last room in the exhibition is given over to tributes paid by other designers at her gala extravaganza to celebrate the label's 40th birthday. Jean Paul Gaultier's contribution is a black mohair knit dress held up by giant orange knitting needles, while Margiela summed her up with outsize orange wigs, both in homage to Rykiel's hallmark halo of flame red hair.

The exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs on the Rue de Rivoli opens this week and runs until April 19.by Sarah Shard

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