Think of sex appeal in fashion and you think of the thigh-high splits and plunging necklines made famous by Donatella Versace, Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking that put a feminine twist on the traditional men’s suit, or Balmain’s figure-hugging embellished mini dresses. Knitwear doesn’t exactly come to mind but that’s exactly what French designer Sonia Rykiel did; she made knitwear sexy, covetable and modern at a time when it was merely a thing of practical functionality.
On 25 August 2016, the news broke that Rykiel had died at age 86, after 20 years of battling Parkinson’s disease. The Paris-born and bred designer was renowned as much for her shock of red hair and love for smoky eyeshadow as she was for her quirky Left Bank designs and pioneering nature in fashion.
It was 1953 when the wife of women’s dress shop owner Sam Rykiel would find herself first introduced into the world of fashion. Pregnant and unable to find anything to wear, she enlisted the help of an Italian knitwear supplier to create a dress and number of sweaters. Only, these weren’t the unshapely garments that made up the knitwear options of the time; the arm holes were cut high and they clung to the body in a shrunken fit. The sweaters came in vibrant stripes, quickly gaining the nickname the “poor boy” sweater. Rykiel soon started selling them in her husband’s store, where it was spotted and subsequently featured on the cover of French Elle, modelled by then-teen star Françoise Hardy.
The rest, as they say, is history. In an age dominated by haute couture and pre-conceived ideas of femininity and sensuality, Rykiel added a new, innovative, liberating dimension to women’s fashion – much like fellow Parisian designer Coco Chanel did before her. She had fun with knitwear, adding exposed seams, raw hems and slogans to sweaters – paving the way for contemporary fashion and a fresh approach to design.
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Words by Angharad Jones. Image property of Rex/Shutterstock