This year marks the 50th anniversary of the iconoclastic Parisian fashion brand Sonia Rykiel. Coincidentally, it is also half a century since the “évènements” of May 1968, the student-led rebellion that spread from the Sorbonne on the Left Bank out onto the streets, culminating in violent clashes with police. That same month, a short distance away on Rue de Grenelle, Rykiel opened her first boutique. The protesters were fighting for world peace and equality of the sexes; fast-forward to 2018 and that spirit of rebellion feels just as relevant today.
To mark its 50th anniversary, the brand’s current artistic director, Julie de Libran, has conceived a year-long programme, kicking off with the launch of a capsule collection, Manifesto, made up of brightly coloured knitwear and cropped denim flares. The flame-haired Sonia Rykiel died in 2016, and the limited-edited collection pays homage to her love of wordplay. “Sonia was a really funny woman, and she created this dictionary, the Dictionnaire Déglingué — I used words from that and have added some of my own for this collection,” says de Libran, 45, in her office above the St-Germain store.
When de Libran arrived at the house in May 2014, her CV included stints at Versace, Prada and Louis Vuitton (under Marc Jacobs). Since then, she has astutely reinterpreted Rykiel’s unique style to reflect a complete wardrobe for today’s woman, seducing stars including Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst with her line of denim separates, tweed tailoring and sharp suiting in one of Rykiel’s favourite fabrics: velvet. Today, de Libran is the embodiment of this new muse, dressed in flared black jeans and a superbly cut navy velvet blazer.
Like Rykiel, de Libran is very much a Left Bank fixture. She lives in the well-heeled 6th arrondissement with her husband and son, aged 11, and walks to her office above the flagship boutique each day. She takes her morning coffee and meetings at the nearby Café de Flore, where a bread-free sandwich named Le Club Rykiel still graces the menu. Though they didn’t meet until 2014, Rykiel was always someone of great significance to de Libran. “I mean, when I was asked to come here, I was, like…” she gasps. “It was a dream, because Sonia was a woman I respected so much. Her designs were part of my childhood: my mother wore Rykiel in the 1970s. She had three kids and we lived in the countryside, and she was very active and free in her clothes. I remember how beautiful she looked.”
The Left Bank lifestyle has always had a strong literary association — Rykiel rubbed shoulders with free-thinkers and academics alike — and de Libran has made it a priority to honour that tradition. Not long after she arrived, she fitted out the boutique with a library of 40,000 books. “I wanted it to be a place where people could come and spend time and exchange ideas,” she says, adding that kids from nearby schools as well as locals often drop by and borrow books. For the anniversary, she has recruited the artist Jaro Varga to cover the Paris shopfront with blank books, inviting fans and passers-by to make their mark on the spines. The same art installation launches at the Rykiel boutique in Mayfair on Tuesday. For de Libran, this is pure Sonia: playful and inclusive, the way fashion should be. “To have optimism and a sense of humour is so important in fashion,” says de Libran. “I feel like we’re so lucky to be creating beautiful things and I’m so passionate. But we can’t take it seriously — it’s become such a business, but we have to make it fun.”
Sonia Rykiel burst onto the Paris fashion scene alongside a new generation of couturiers and ready-to-wear stylists — Yves Saint Laurent, Emmanuelle Khanh and Karl Lagerfeld among them — who shook up the stately haute couture system. Crowned the “queen of knits”, she rightly earned comparisons with Coco Chanel, thanks to her innate understanding of the modern woman’s need for clothes that encouraged movement. Her free and easy, fluid silhouettes came in vibrant colours and stripes, and her tighter than tight “Poor Boy” sweaters defined a new trend of high/low dressing.
Rykiel died just two years into de Libran’s tenure (Rykiel’s daughter, Nathalie, had already sold 80% of the company in 2012 to First Heritage Brands, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong group Fung Capital), though not before she was able to impart some good advice. “I had some very special moments with her, which I think of probably every day,” says de Libran, adding fondly: “I still remember her as that iconic Parisienne, with her hair and her black velvet; so elegant and so delicate in her movements.”
Like Rykiel, de Libran is in tune with the benefits of being a female designer at a womenswear brand. “I want change: for women to be heard and to be part of what’s going on in the world,” she says.
On this topic she seems shy and chooses her words carefully. She’s no firebrand like her predecessor, but she says she has always had a rebellious streak — the right amount of ammunition to carry this storied house into its next chapter. “I feel like people see me as very quiet and sage, but inside, I’m just, like, ‘Boom, boom, boom’,” she says with a smile. “My mother always says, ‘You know, you seem like you’re the quiet one, but you always did exactly what you wanted.’”