Sonia Rykiel, the Paris fashion designer who planted her contrarian flag on the Left Bank in the 1960s, flouted haute couture conventions and created chic ready-to-wear clothes that caught on around the world with generations of women on the go, died on Thursday at her home in Paris. She was 86.
The death was announced by the Élysée Palace, the office of the French president, and by Ms. Rykiel’s daughter, Nathalie, the artistic director of the fashion house her mother began. The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Often likened to Coco Chanel, the designer who liberated women from corsets in the flapper 1920s, the free-spirited Ms. Rykiel (pronounced ree-KYEL) made fashions for women who, like herself, were proud of their pregnancies, sophisticated about sex and too busy to fuss over the latest designer fads — women who wanted to look smart, but needed to get on with their lives.
She was best known for raising old-fashioned knitwear to flattering new and practical designs: figure-hugging skirts and sweaters, especially ribbed pullovers with high armholes that made the shoulders seem smaller, torsos narrower and legs longer. The news media called them “poor boy” sweaters. They made the cover of Elle, and they were snapped up by Anouk Aimée, Audrey Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve and Lauren Bacall.
Two French presidents conferred the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest award, on Ms. Rykiel, and she was as recognizable to many Parisians as were the politicians in the Élysée Palace: a dramatic, sparrowlike woman, always in black, with a pale powdered face engulfed in a mass of Titian flame hair and bangs that fell to heavily mascaraed green eyes. She looked a bit like Édith Piaf, France’s national chanteuse.
“My color is black,” she once told an American fashion editor. “And black, if it’s worn right, is a scandal.”
In a fashion world often seen as a fantasyland of beautiful people and expensive, impractical clothing, she had always been a rebel. Her career spanned nearly a half-century, and while she made clothes for a broad clientele of working and professional women, singles and mothers, including socialites and chief executives, she was after the woman who wanted value and style.
Her typical patron? “She is fragile, but strong,” Ms. Rykiel told The New York Times in 1987. “We are working women. Also, we have the problem of children, of men, to take care of our houses, so many things. I try to explain that in my clothes. They are clothes for everyday life.”
Unlike many designers whose lives center on fashion, Ms. Rykiel was also a writer, and her works included magazine columns, a novel, a children’s book, an epistolary exchange with the writer Régine Deforges, and books on fashion and her own life. Her Paris apartment, with black-lacquered walls and piles of serious books, was a salon for writers, philosophers, musicians, actors, politicians and academics.
Ms. Rykiel began designing clothes when she was carrying her second child, in 1961. At a time when maternity clothes were made primarily to conceal bulging midriffs, she could find nothing she liked in stores. They all seemed to convey shame, apologies or suggestions of embarrassment. So she designed an outfit for herself, with a fitted bodice and flowing skirts — one that celebrated her pregnancy.
“I wanted to show the world how happy I was,” Ms. Rykiel told Newsweek in 1976. “My mother-in-law was scandalized, but my friends asked how they could find one like it.”
She eschewed traditions. Instead of making clothes for young women and assuming older women trying to look young would buy them, too, she designed dresses, trousers and jackets for no age group. Some critics called it absurd, trying to squeeze young and old into similar clothes. But others said they were becoming on matrons and 20-somethings, and they were comfortable, durable and reasonably priced.
Unbound by training or trends, she broke all the rules. She emphasized pants when skirts were stylish and hot colors when somber hues were in. Rivals scoffed when she repeated themes, like red, white and blue stripes, after short intervals. She was one of the first to splash words, like “mode” or “amour,” on designs. She produced fanny-wrappers, long tight sashes for the hips and derrière. It worked.
And to depose outdated customs, like changes of clothing during the day, Ms. Rykiel made reversible dresses and jackets, and she created flexible designs in culottes, which offered the silhouette of a skirt and freedom of movement. She made garments that could be worn inside-out by breaking more rules — eliminating darts, exposing raw edges of seams and doing away with finished hems.
She reversed things at fashion shows too. “While most designers presented their collections on sullen, haughty goddesses who posed in a spotlight at the end of the catwalk, Rykiel sent her models down the runway in groups, chatting and laughing, like friends having fun,” Holly Brubach wrote in W magazine in 2015.
Ms. Rykiel, who sold her maternity wear and poor-boy knits at her husband’s store in the ’60s, soon had an avid following. She opened her own boutique in St.-Germain-des-Prés in May 1968 but closed it for a time as Sorbonne students rioted, touching off strikes and protests that paralyzed France for weeks. During the ’70s, sales of her ready-to-wear designs grew enormously.
“The Rykiel mystique has reached such a pass that steel-eyed women were said to cry at the showing of the spring collection for store buyers this week,” Bernadine Morris wrote in The Times in 1974. “She was told head-turning things — that the collection was the best she had ever done, that it was the best in Paris at this time, that it was the best ever. Much of it is true. Rykiel clothes have just passed from being the delight of connoisseurs to having an impact on mass fashion.”
In the 1980s, the Rykiel product lines grew to include clothing for men and children, household items, cosmetics, lingerie, perfumes and accessories. Some Rykiel clothing was criticized as too casual or too revealing, with models occasionally flashing their breasts. But reviewers generally praised her work along with that of Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino.
“I think creativity is inside you,” Ms. Rykiel told The Times Magazine in 1982. “If you have something to tell, you expose it. I never went to any design school. I was so strong in my thinking and my way of seeing fashion, I knew exactly what I wanted. I said to myself, ‘I have no limits.’ ”
She was born Sonia Flis in Paris on May 25, 1930, the oldest of five daughters of a Romanian father and a Russian mother. Her father was a watchmaker and her mother a housewife interested in fashion. She grew up in Neuilly-sur-Seine, northwest of Paris, in a home where politics, art and literature were discussed at the dinner table.
At 17, she got a job as a window dresser in a Paris dry goods store, and she drew the attention of the artist Henri Matisse with a display of colorful scarves. He bought them all. It was her first hint of creativity in fabrics.
In 1953, she married Sam Rykiel, who owned a Paris boutique. They had two children, Nathalie and Jean-Philippe, who survive her. The couple divorced in 1968.
By 1990, when Ms. Rykiel opened her flagship store on the Boulevard St.-Germain, a business that had begun with a single boutique had grown into a global enterprise with sales in 200 retail outlets in Europe, Asia and the United States. The number of outlets later grew to more than 1,000.
In 1985, President François Mitterrand named Ms. Rykiel a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy named her a grand commander of the legion for lifetime service to fashion, a major national industry.
“Sonia Rykiel was a free woman, a pioneer who was able to forge her own path,” the Élysée Palace said in a statement on Thursday. “Having created her own company, she opened her first store in St.-Germain-des-Prés in May 1968. She invented not only a style, but also an attitude, a way of living and of being, and gave women a freedom of movement. Passionate about culture, she did not conceive of fashion without the arts, which were always present in her creations. Her style is known across the world. It will remain a symbol of the remarkable alliance of color and the natural, of fluidity and light.”
Ms. Rykiel retired in 2009. Her daughter became the company’s artistic director in 1995 and its president in 2007. In 2012, Fung Brands, an investment firm backed by two Hong Kong billionaires, acquired 80 percent of the company, with the founder’s family retaining 20 percent.
Ms. Rykiel continued to attend fashion shows and to travel and write. In her last book, “N’Oubliez Pas Que Je Joue,” or “Don’t Forget That I’m Acting” (2012, with Judith Perrignon), she disclosed that she had had Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder, for 15 years and had kept it secret, even from her family, until she could no longer hide the symptoms.