IN THE LATE ’60s and throughout the ’70s, the Left Bank of Paris was a hotbed of creativity and intellectual frisson. The student protests of May 1968, which began at the Sorbonne, sparked a time of social turmoil, in which women played a pivotal role (French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir had published The Second Sex two decades earlier but her influence reached its apex in those heady days).
In spite of the uncertain climate, not all those young Parisiennes who were storming the barricades or occupying universities neglected their personal style. Many of them were in fact clad in the oversize knits and striped ensembles concocted by a couturiere who’s still the epitome of a certain kind of Parisian je ne sais quoi: Sonia Rykiel.
The Left Bank-based, red-haired designer founded her eponymous business on chic separates such as Breton tops, chubby furs and her much-copied “poor boy sweater”, earning the moniker of “queen of knits” at the beginning of her career. Brainy and outspoken, she mingled with aristocrats and philosophers alike, becoming an unofficial mayor of Saint-Germain, a boho-chic neighbourhood and home to institutions such as Café de Flore (the restaurant even serves Le Club Rykiel, a club sandwich, named after the designer, which in true fashion mode, comes sans bread).
Rykiel, now in her nineties and dealing with Parkinson’s disease, hasn’t been designing the label for the better part of the last two decades, which haven’t been the best in the history of the brand. In spite of the involvement of her daughter Nathalie and a series of designers at the helm, the nonchalant attitude and cool Parisian flair of yore were gone.
It wasn’t until another French designer took charge that things slowly started to change. Last year, Julie de Libran, a veteran of Prada and Louis Vuitton, was appointed creative director. Back when she worked under Miuccia Prada and Marc Jacobs at Vuitton, de Libran was responsible for those all-important but less glamorous pre-collections that, due to their slightly more commercial appeal, are the bread and butter of fashion companies. This detail on her resume didn’t go unnoticed to the current majority owner of Sonia Rykiel, Hong Kong-based Fung Brands, which was attracted by de Libran’s no-nonsense approach and ability to marry creativity with business savvy.
Although de Libran is as French as they come, her background is international: besides her decade in Italy working alongside Miuccia Prada, de Libran spent her early years in California, where her family lived at the time, absorbing the carefree vibe and pop culture of the West Coast in the ’80s.
Enveloped in a voluminous fur coat and sitting in her studio on Boulevard Saint-Germain above the label’s first boutique, de Libran looks like the best advertisement for the brand she now helms when we meet the day after the autumn/winter 2015 show during Paris Fashion Week. Clearly enthusiastic after her first year at the label – “It’s been an amazing adventure for me and I’m enjoying the heritage and the spirit of the brand, so it’s a lot of fun” – de Libran staged the show in the boutique itself, which she redesigned to resemble a maze-like bookshop.
“It’s always been the culture here, the arts, the bookshops, the cinema, the centre of all that, and I wanted the space to be somewhere we can spend time, look at beautiful books about photography or art or just drink coffee, try out some clothes – there’s a children’s line and we’re going to create a whole universe, men’s too,” explains de Libran about her love for Saint-Germain, and about her decision to turn the boutique into a mini arts club.
De Libran definitely has her eyes on the future – her revamp of the label has attracted young girls such as blogger Chiara Ferragni and long-time friends such as director Sofia Coppola, who’ve both worn her wares – but she’s also aware of Sonia Rykiel’s strong identity and heritage. “Sonia Rykiel stays a brand that’s charming and familyoriented and kind of intimate and that’s why I wanted to do the fashion show in our shop,” she says.
“I wanted people to come and rediscover where we are at and where we started in 1968, what was going on here in Paris with the riots, the literature, the culture, the cinema ... I’m not nostalgic, but this is a brand that has done so much. It’s a feminine brand with a fun side and it’s a smaller brand, so I think I want to keep that approach because Sonia Rykiel has always been a brand that’s desirable, open to everybody and accessible. The creativity is also thought of in a sense of price point to quality, because that’s what I’ve learned in my past years of experience; that’s what I like about this business, that it’s not just designing but making clothes that you wear.”
Featuring lush velvets, voluminous furs and sequinned evening numbers, the autumn/winter collection is a nod to Sonia Rykiel’s heritage but also a step forward for the brand, which is not strictly tied anymore to the codes of the house’s DNA. The starting point for the range was the idea of the mirror, which originated from one of Sonia Rykiel’s quotes discovered by de Libran.
“The mirror was very Sonia Rykiel for me,” she says, “because it reflects light and it’s a reflection of you. I read a phrase in one of Sonia Rykiel’s books that said that the mirror never lies; it’s a true dialogue, the best dialogue, and the Sonia Rykiel woman looks at herself in the mirror and it’s true that the mirror doesn’t lie; it tells you what to do, what to change, like a best friend.”
This honest approach to dressing is what de Libran relishes about her job, which is basically making real clothes for real women like herself, a mother who works hard, travels and wants to look her best. “I like for a woman to feel she’s in control when dressed and free to do what she has to do, and not be so contrived that you can’t walk or sit,” de Libran explains.
“I don’t like when clothes are in your way. The body is free and light and airy and it’s important for the woman to feel comfortable and good and not constricted by her clothes. And that’s the feeling I got with the girls at the show, because when they’re trying on their clothes and they’re like, ‘I love this!’ That’s a really nice feeling.”
It’s been a good year for de Libran, who’s beginning a new era at Sonia Rykiel by trying to find a balance between past and present, history and modernity. She’s still in touch with the Rykiel clan, meeting Nathalie and her daughter from time to time and getting their feedback about her efforts.
“I saw Nathalie Rykiel and we had lunch and I showed her the collection and she loved it and her daughter Lola, who works in our press office in New York, loved it too,” says de Libran. “Last night the youngest daughter was wearing it and even Nathalie said it was great because it suits her, but it also suits her daughter and it’s wonderful to see women of different ages finding something for them. It’s something that reassures me and makes me happy that the Sonia Rykiel woman doesn’t have an age.”
Appealing to – and dressing – different generations of women, de Libran has found her mission at the legendary label. It may seem like a small accomplishment, especially when compared to the grand pronouncements of designers who aim for global domination, but it’s actually no easy feat and de Libran is certainly up to the challenge.