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Q&A: Sonia Rykiel

The designer on women, fashion and literature.

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PARIS — As she celebrates the 40th anniversary of the house she founded in 1968, Sonia Rykiel, a beacon of St. Germain’s arty style, is hardly ready to call it quits.

In an hour-long interview, Rykiel, in a green marabou vest draped over a flowing black ensemble, stressed that la mode remains the grand passion of her life. Though she’s suffering from bad knees, the red-haired designer is in fine fettle and ready to start the next chapter of her legacy.

It’s one that involves the family. Her daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, is the house president and an important confidante in business and style. Rykiel’s granddaughter Lola, a dancer who lives in New York, is also involved now in promoting the house though Rykiel said she doesn’t want to force her hand: “She has to decide if this is what she wants to do herself.”
Rykiel has brought fresh creative blood into the studio, too, underscoring a desire to keep the house in step with a younger generation. Earlier this year she promoted Gabrielle Greiss to oversee women’s ready-to-wear.

Seated in her apartment across the street from her shop, Rykiel explained her decision to share the creative reins after years of working alone, reminisced about her early days and forecasts the future.

WWD: How did you start in fashion?
Sonia Rykiel: I didn’t have a métier. I was supposed to be a mother, like my mother, who didn’t work. I had two children — Nathalie and Jean-Philippe. My husband had a boutique called Laura. I wanted a maternity dress and I couldn’t find anything I liked. Everything was abominable. So I made one. Then I made a pullover. Elle put it on the cover. Then WWD elected me the queen of knitwear.

WWD: How did you work at first?
S.R.: I made clothes spontaneously. When it rained, for example, I designed a trenchcoat. When it was cold, I did a coat. I followed my instincts. It was fantastic for someone who knew absolutely nothing about fashion.

WWD: So you didn’t always want to be a designer?
S.R.: Not at all. I could have been a writer — which I am. I could have been an actress — which I am, because you can’t do this métier without being an actress. I could have been a sculptor or an artist.

WWD: But you were always interested in style?
S.R.: Not really. I was raised in a very bourgeois family. We always talked about politics or art or paintings. Artistic things. I had an uncle who was a painter. He taught me how to see beautiful things. How the mix of yellow and blue makes green. It’s my baggage.

WWD: Success came relatively fast?
S.R.: Very fast. As I said, I didn’t know anything. Since I didn’t know anything, I did everything I wanted. I didn’t listen to anyone. I was so violent, so authoritarian, only listening to what I wanted and myself. People loved me or hated me. Those who loved me, loved me a lot. The others, I didn’t bother with them very much.

WWD: Your designs were always linked to St. Germain and the Left Bank.
S.R.: Maybe. I don’t think I’m a designer for St. Germain. I think of myself as a designer for women everywhere. I’m more interested in a certain ethic for women, a certain sculpture for women, a certain attitude. Women who interest me are politicians or writers. Women who love life, who love to eat, who love children. That’s what interests me. Where is the woman of St. Germain in that? She belongs there because that’s the culture of St. Germain. It’s a question of appetite. The women of St. Germain are voracious. They love literature, cinema, to look at the vitrines, to shop for antiques.

WWD: That’s the type of woman you like to dress?
S.R.: I’ve never been interested in dressing one women. What’s interested me was to have a philosophy. It hasn’t been important to put a woman in a blue dress. I wanted to dress women who wanted to look at themselves. To stand out. To be women who were not part of the crowd. A woman who fights and advances.

WWD: That brings up the late Sixties, when you started. It was a time of social upheaval, especially for women. Do you think women have come out of that era with more liberty now?
S.R.: Not really. I think women today don’t have an attitude of liberty. There are so few women today who look at themselves truthfully in the mirror, during a day, a week, a month, a year, to know what they need to show and what they need to hide. Women learn to cook and read, and they work. They don’t learn how to dress. They are always with a saleswoman in the store whom they ask what they should wear. I don’t believe in that at all. Women should look at themselves and decide for themselves what color or length they should wear.

WWD: You suggest that they find their own personality through clothes?
S.R.: Yes. I wrote a book on the subject when I started urging women to learn how to find their own fashion. Not to follow the dictates of Saint Laurent or Rykiel or any other designer. It’s very important.

WWD: You’ve never been interested in following rules.
S.R.: I never went to fashion school. That’s why I sewed things inside out and did superpositions. I did everything people told me I couldn’t do. People said making clothes inside out was not proper. I disagreed because clothes that are inside out are as beautiful as a cathedral. There’s symbolism in putting on a sweater inside out. One says that if one puts on a sweater on inside out, one will receive a gift. I played with that.

WWD: Do you find that fashion has changed?
S.R.: It’s completely different from when I started. Fashion today is another story. You have to understand it. Swallow it and digest it. Today I don’t invent in the same way. We don’t live in the same way. With all of the computers, it has changed the way we design and cut. It’s incredible. Before I went to the factory…we did everything manually. The computer does everything today. Also, fashion isn’t sold in the same way. There are the big groups. There are very few people like us outside of the machine.

WWD: You’ve always held that clothes aren’t what make a woman interesting or seductive.
S.R.: Not at all. No, no. A dress will never make a woman sexy, fatale, magnificent, mysterious. It’s a way of walking, of standing, or existing, the way you give your hand or your regard. That’s what makes the dress. A woman and a dress, very often, fight against each other because they are not at the same place. Sometimes you see the woman moving the belt around. She is making the robe her own. She needs that. Otherwise the dress doesn’t exist.

WWD: Recently you’ve changed the way you work by hiring another designer, Gabrielle Greiss, whom you appointed creative director of women’s wear. Has the experience been enriching?
S.R.: I worked all alone for 35 years. And, now, for the last five years, I’ve starting working with a team. It was a decision. I knew I needed to accept that if this name was to exist and the brand was to exist in time. I needed someone near me who had something of me and something of her own as well. Fashion takes so much energy. You are on your feet all the time in front of a model. That’s why I have bad knees today. You’re on your knees in front of the model. Dialogue is very important. For instance, I go to see “La Traviata” and Gabrielle and the team will see Snoop Doggy Dogg. The next day we weave something from that. We mix a new culture.

WWD: What do you appreciate most about Gabrielle?
S.R.: She understands what I love. The style Rykiel I don’t even know what it is. But she keeps me in line.

WWD: Describe the chemistry between you and your daughter, Nathalie, who is president of the house?
S.R.: It’s fantastic. It’s paradise. It’s strange because we have the same words and the same way to say things and to like or dislike something.

WWD: Has it been difficult remaining an independent, family-owned firm in today’s fashion environment?
S.R.: Of course it’s been difficult. It’s something I’ve always wanted. There are a lot of things we can’t do since we don’t belong to a group. But we have different facilities. We decide to do something and we do it.

WWD: In a way you’ve worn many different hats. Do you consider yourself a businesswoman, too?
S.R.: I’m not a formidable businesswoman. I’ve been lucky. When I started I wondered if all of these women weren’t crazy. In the beginning I wanted to dress myself and I didn’t want to wear the same costume as all of the other women. I wanted to dress in special clothes. And then other women wanted the same thing. It was disturbing.
I’m not a businesswoman. But I’m attentive and I’m careful. Creation entails a lot of work. The creator is someone who doesn’t stop running inside of his or her head. It’s Roland Barthes who said that.

WWD: Is creating a difficult process for you?
S.R.: I’ve always suffered. Before each collection I’m desperate with fear.

WWD: You like to put books in the windows of your shops. What role does literature play in your creative process?
S.R.: I’m inspired by words. The first word I put on a sweater was “sensuous” because WWD elected me one of the most sensuous women in the world. I didn’t even know what it meant. We sold so many of those sweaters. Writing on a sweater is so beautiful.

WWD: What else inspires you?
S.R.: At the moment I’m really interested in Jeff Koons. I love what he does.

WWD: What is the future of Sonia Rykiel?
S.R.: It’s to be strong and know how to surround ourselves with the right people. I think there is a future for a house like ours, with a way of acting that’s different. I love this métier. It’s what makes me happiest.

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