Stilorama Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Hala Di-Maio interviews the famous Fashion Designer Sonia Rykiel.
Madame Sonia Rykiel, you are an inspiration for many women across the world. Your designs are free-spirited, comfortable and stylish, and your fashion style is ageless. Back in 1962 when being a successful business woman and entrepreneur was unheard of, you designed your first maternity dresses and tiny sweaters when you couldn’t find any soft sweaters to wear while you were pregnant. Your first creation, which you started selling through your husband’s label “Laura”, made the cover of Elle fashion magazine, and inevitably brought you fame. In 1968, you opened your own boutique. You created your own perfume in 1978, launched a career as an interior designer, and in 1980 you were elected one of the world’s ten most elegant women. You have also written many books including An A to Z of Fashion and a collection of children’s stories.
Hala Di-Maio: You set up your business in the 1960s, a time of great change for women across the world. Did the mood of the time affect your decision of embarking on your first business venture? Or was it simply due to the fact that you couldn’t find suitable maternity wear?
Sonia Rykiel: I started by designing a sweater very close to the body, because I couldn’t find any for myself. My husband had a clothing store in Paris, and I had his factory make specifically for me something similar to the one I was looking for. We made it in different colours, and decided to sell them in the store…and in a day, they were sold out! This sweater became later known as the “poor boy sweater” and it ended up making the cover of Elle magazine, and in a day, I became the “Queen of knit”, without knowing anything about knitting!
HD: Many women today aspire to achieve the success you have reached in your career as a fashion designer, but they often find themselves facing daily challenges in terms of juggling their family life and work life. What was the biggest challenge you faced as a woman, wife and mother in your career and how did you overcome it?
SR: It is a very important matter, as a woman, to juggle everything… Your professional life, family, children etc…I did not plan to have such a career in the fashion world. All that I wanted, was to have ten kids and raise them! When I was a kid, all I liked were books and chocolate. In my family, Fashion was something we never talked about, it was thought of as kind of superficial. It was by coincidence that I ended up opening my first shop in 1968, and I haven’t stopped since. I now find myself trying to do everything. I couldn’t live without creating my collections, without writing, drawing and reading. But I couldn’t either live without being close to my children on a daily basis and also to my grandchildren, and to all the people I love. I guess I am like every woman today, one who juggles her work and family life.
HD: Was your career success something you set out to achieve at a young age? Or did you get caught up in success unintentionally?
SR: It was completely unintentional. I’ve done this sweater only because my husband had a store. My parents never mentioned anything about fashion in our household, instead we used to talk about literature, theatre, and arts…this is why I have kept a real relation with the Art world, by putting books from the beginning in my shops’ windows. I couldn’t have opened a store without putting books with the clothes. I am still writing as I have always done, and have published my ninth book “L’envers à l’endroit” last year. I am currently working on a dictionary of my favourite words.
HD: Do you believe in the saying which goes “Being there at the right time, at the right place with the right people”, and do you think that luck played a small part in the launch of your career?
SR: It’s hard to say, as I have the feeling I’ve always done what I wanted throughout my life. I was rather free, and I always did what I wanted to do, sometimes without listening to the people who warned me not to do this or that. As a young girl I was a real tomboy, only listening to myself. I carried on with this attitude even as a woman and when I first launched the Sonia Rykiel line, and said to women to remove their bras or when I designed sweaters with stitches inside out, everybody said to me that it was crazy and risky, but I ignored what they said and I did what I felt was right at the time.
HD: Every designer gets labelled at a very early stage in their career, and they are constantly reminded of their trademark designs, which in your case is the big knitted jumper. In your opinion does this labelling have a negative or positive effect on the business, and why?
SR: I think in my case it’s a positive trademark, but it certainly is not the only one. The knitted jumper comes in different trends, colours, shapes, and is adaptable in various ways when wearing. But there are also different noticeable marks of Sonia Rykiel brand, like black stripes which are very recognisable too…
HD: Do you see yourself as an artist? And if so, have you been able to direct your artistic talents into the fashion industry freely, or has the competitive world of fashion restricted your artistic flair in any way or manner?
SR: I feel like a slave, and in a way like an artist, because I need to get inspiration everyday, from everything and everyone… I am like the lover of Roland Barthes “who’s always running in his head”. I’m always searching, and “eating” everything from my life, in order to put it in my dresses! In the same way, I can wake up with a very positive idea of what I want to do for my collection, and be completely desperate at night regarding the same thing. And I do a lot of other things too: Writing for me is almost as important as drawing my collection.
HD: Do you still get overwrought and excited when you present your collections on the catwalks to the media and public? Or have you reached a point in your artistic status as a designer where you are in control of your emotions?
SR: As a slave, I can be very dramatic and very demanding of myself and of the people I work with. After all these years of creating my collections, I still doubt my decision even until the last minute before the fashion show, I keep questioning myself and wondering if I did the right thing.
HD: Now that you have reached a successful plateau in your career as a fashion designer, how involved are you in the day to day running of the business in terms of creating, designing and marketing?
SR: I am still taking care of the creation of the collection alongside my staff, and my daughter Nathalie Rykiel, is the artistic director of Sonia Rykiel, who takes care of a lot of things. We are very alike and also very close. She’s always been very close to me and she knows the business like I do.
HD: Are you critical of your work?
SR: Yes very critical, I am someone who doubts her work all the time. I can be happy with something I did, like a drawing or a dress I designed, and yet be very disappointed with the same drawing, or the same dress the day after.
HD: Have you ever felt at any point in your career that you were negatively criticised? If so how did you deal with it?
SR: Yes. I can be negatively criticised, but this is actually a positive thing, especially if the critic is smart, and helpful. I am very attentive to critics, they let me go ahead and push myself harder to continue.
HD: Your daughter Nathalie is also Sonia Rykiel’s Creative Director, how does a mother/daughter working relationship manifest itself on a day to day basis? And how does it reflect positively on the Sonia Rykiel brand?
SR: She’s always been very close to me, to the people I’ve worked with, and it was a very natural and logical thing for both of us, that she would work with me, even though I’ve never pushed her to do so. She’s smart and creative, and she has a very sharp point of view, and a real innovative look towards the brand. She created two lines, for example, Rykiel woman, and Rykiel Karma Body and Soul! She knows by heart the genetic codes of the brand, and she also has a very contemporary and creative opinions about it.
HD: Fashion is often linked to the young and the beautiful. Do you feel that women of a certain age are totally ignored by the fashion industry?
SR: Sometimes they are indeed. The fashion industry can in a certain way be very hard and closed. Sometimes in the fashion industry we come across some unfair rules, but no one is obliged to follow them. The fashion industry is a free world, with creative codes that can be hardly considered sometimes, but it’s also up to women to create their own style, and own trend. This is why from the very beginning I’ve said to women not to follow the fashion rules blindly, and to adapt clothes to suit who they are, and not the contrary. It’s important to know yourself well, in order to create your own style of fashion to suit your own body shape.
HD: Lately there has been a lot of criticism from the media about skinny catwalk models and about the negative effect they have on young women. Do you believe that fashion designers should be held responsible or even blamed for booking skinny fashion models?
SR: Of course and in a way it is our responsibility, and we must protect the girls who work with us. But fashion is also a form of art, and like every kind of art, it has its own way of expression. In other words, if a dress looks better on a thin girl, on a catwalk, during a very specific moment of time and space then it’s represented as part of a “fashion Show”. It is after all a “Show” and it has to be understood by people that it is a “show” and not real life. We are not saying that all women should be thin like these very thin and young girls. We are creating a show, with its artistic codes and rules, and we have to try not to mix up all the codes together.
HD: What’s next for Sonia Rykiel the designer and Sonia Rykiel the woman?
SR: I will be working on the collection until the day before the show! It’s an endless process, that’s all that I can say at that stage.
HD: Is there a question that I didn’t ask you but you would have liked me to?
HD: Madame Sonia Rykiel, I would like to thank you for taking time for this exclusive interview with Stilorama Magazine.
Catwalk images from Sonia Rykiel’s A/W2011 RTW fashion show www.soniarykiel.com
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