Sonia Rykiel (née Flis) was born in 1930 in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. She was the eldest of five girls born to a Russian mother and Romanian father. Her work in the fashion industry began in 1948, with employment as a window dresser at the Grande Maison de Blanc. Following this, in 1954, she took over the management of a Parisian boutique opened by her parents in the 1940s, called Laura. Described as experimental and conceptual, Rykiel’s first designs—a dress for expectant mothers, and a series of sweaters—were realized during her time at Laura.
Knitwear would come to define Rykiel’s career. Her first skinny-rib “poor boy” sweaters were sold at Laura in 1962; Audrey Hepburn reportedly bought fourteen in different colors. Her iconic stripes featured on the cover of Elle in December 1963, in the form of a vibrant sweater dress modeled by Françoise Hardy. Hardy was one in a long line of prominent Frenchwomen styled by Rykiel at the boutique, with other clients including Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Madame Pompidou.
The Sonia Rykiel label was founded in 1965, and in 1968 she opened a boutique at 6 Rue de Grenelle, Paris. The number “6” (representing the boutique) would frequently appear in her collections from 1974 onward. Other signature looks included playful trompe l’oeil motifs, wordplay, the lace-fronted “braless” dress, and jersey pantsuits. In 1974 Rykiel created the first “inside-out” garments, which had visible seams on the outside. Rykiel’s reflexive approach to the fashion industry was demonstrated in her “Nonfashion” collection of spring/summer 1977, where the struck-through word “mode” was written on garments. This theme would recur at various moments in Rykiel’s career, such as her “destruction” of fashion in 1978.
The diffusion line Inscription Rykiel was created in 1989 and later renamed Sonia by Sonia Rykiel in 1999. The brand expanded to include clothing for men; her first menswear boutique opened in 1976, with a focus on sweaters and knitted jackets. Sonia Rykiel Enfant was launched in 1984. Sonia married Sam Rykiel in 1951, and they went on to have a daughter, Nathalie, in 1956, and a son, Jean-Philippe, in 1961. Nathalie would go on to play multiple roles in the Rykiel brand, modeling garments and staging runway shows, before eventually becoming managing director and artistic director in 1995.
Sonia Rykiel’s contribution to fashion was very formally recognized in 1973 when she was voted vice president of the Chambre Syndicale du Pret-à-porter, des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. She remained in the post for twenty years. Rykiel’s designs and illustrations have been the subject of many exhibitions, including one at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris from 2008 to 2009.
Under the creative direction of Nathalie Rykiel, the brand collaborated with Swedish high-street brand H&M in 2010—following a successful lingerie collaboration the previous year. Not only has the Rykiel brand enjoyed vast success, but Sonia Rykiel herself has become an iconic figure in contemporary culture—with her striking looks documented (not least by Andy Warhol) in portraiture and film.