Sonia Rykiel

A new designer at the helm of the Left Bank favourite

Text by Dan Thawley

Photography by Alex Brunet

Styling by Nina Walbecq

It’s a chill winter’s day when I’m ushered into Julie de Libran’s office at Sonia Rykiel HQ, a makeshift space the French designer has begun to make her own since her speedy arrival as creative director last May. “I’m still waiting on my bookshelves,” she exclaims, having jumped up from her desk to greet me before reclining into the corner of a panelled chestnut-coloured sofa. Her blonde hair is framed by a halo of embossed welcome cards pinned on the wall behind her head, with names like Anna Wintour and Marc Jacobs gracefully signed off in friendly congratulations. They are proof that de Libran is no newcomer: after a childhood spent in California (which explains her impeccable, worldly English), the 42-year-old designer learned the ropes in Paris and Milan. She spent over a decade at Prada, where she directed Mrs. Prada’s studio, before returning to Paris in 2008 to do the same at Louis Vuitton, a position she left alongside her director and mentor Marc Jacobs early last year. Fast-forward to today and de Libran sits cross-legged in a pair of slim leather jeans and a tuxedo blazer, a fur bib strewn luxuriously over her white tee. If she’s not yet dressed in Rykiel, it’s only because outside it’s 5°C, and those va-va-voom sheer striped gowns she sent down her first spring runway do not hit stores until February. But that’s not stopping her from exuding an innate sense of style, à la Parisienne, that is poised to pull Rykiel’s legacy luxuriously forward into 2015, one cashmere thread at a time.

DAN THAWLEY: To many, this appointment is your first step into the public eye as the director of a fashion house. Does it feel different?

JULIE DE LIBRAN: Marc [Jacobs] gave me a lot of space at Vuitton – I was his right hand for five years. As he was also tremendously occupied with his own label in New York and was always back and forth between New York and Paris, I had to work on many really important collections – womenswear, bags, accessories – and I was doing the pre-collections on my own. Even after 10 years at Prada I had never before been in the position that Marc gave me to explain my work. He taught me a lot, like how to work on the collection 360 degrees, and then to choose the photographers and the models – to be involved in truly everything. So really he prepared me to do it on my own.

DT: And you put together that first show incredibly quickly.

JDL: It was quick. But I still took the time to get to know the archives, to know the house. Sonia has always been such an inspiration for a lot of designers, but to be inside the house and to see everything from that angle has been really wonderful. In 40 years, she amassed an amazing body of work – there is so much to learn from, to reinvent and recreate. To respect that heritage is very important to me, and at the same time choose what is relevant for today. What I wanted to talk about in this first spring show, to start on a blank page, was the stripes! You can talk to women of any age and the first thing they remember about Sonia’s work are her stripes; they are timeless. It is such a happy thing, and the brand has such a fun side to play with. [Stylist] Katie Grand and I agreed that the show had to stay sexy, and I wanted really strong girls. I wanted each girl to have her own character in the show, to have her own hairstyle. And I wanted sisters and friends in the show: we had Edie and Olympia Campbell, Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner. It was wonderful to have Lizzie and Georgia Jagger – their mother Jerry Hall was a model for Sonia Rykiel and they had memories of coming here as little girls. We held the show here – this is our house. It is nice to remind people where it all comes from.

DT: What do Sonia Rykiel clothes mean to you in terms of their construction, their feel?

JDL: Well, we are so lucky to have an amazing atelier and also incredible factories, which are helping me to realise the Sonia Rykiel woman I want to create for today. I want her to have a certain ease and comfort, but to remain always elegant, even surprising. Softness has to be there – materials need to be supple and fluid, sensual on the skin. Just like the iconic knitwear, reverse satin crepe has been used at Sonia Rykiel since the early days, which is something that is very relevant today – you can wear it close to your body. Mohair, wool, cashmere and silk knits are also so important to that central idea of femininity. We have also done funkier things like bouclé threads that were knitted to look like a 3D summer fur – we are playing with some really interesting techniques. Hems are another thing that Sonia never really liked – so I think it is great to be able to take out things like linings and hems. It keeps things immediate and light, with a certain liberty.

DT: But it is not all lightness, is it?

JDL: There was a part of the show that was much more related to men’s tailoring, and I think the Rykiel woman borrows from her man’s wardrobe as well. It is that idea of la garçonne, the same way that if you are wearing flat shoes or heels it completely changes your mood. I always say that wearing high heels for a woman completely changes her day; the way she walks, everything. Perhaps for a man it’s the difference between a suit and a sweatshirt?

So to answer your question, there are definitely things that are soft and supple, but also a lot of tailoring, which is just as important.

DT: What is your relationship with the Rykiel family?

JDL: Well, Lola Rykiel [Sonia’s granddaughter] is working in the press office in New York, and we speak a lot. We work together in different ways, and I think it is wonderful having the family around because I like the intimate atmosphere of it – it makes you feel strong and involved. They are the link to the history of the house, and ultimately they have the stories. I like a good story. I also see Nathalie [Rykiel] often for lunch – she tells me a lot of stories, too, as she worked with her mother for so many years. And now it is also a family who has bought the brand, so it still feels like a family affair.

So much of that history is linked to the rive gauche.

DT: Do you think the idea of Left Bank bourgeois bohemia is still relevant?

JDL: I don’t think the boundaries are the same at all today. Globally, people travel so much more. You can find Sonia Rykiel and other brands all around the world now – we live in another time. What is important is what was going on in her time, when she started in Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1968, it was a big moment of rebellion in culture and art and literature. That is why this area is still so ingrained in her story – she was so influenced by the street, and the people, and by everything that was going on at the time, like I am today. But I have broken boundaries, too – I have travelled since I was very young; I have lived in different parts of the world; I am interested by many different cultures. That’s why I want to take Sonia Rykiel to another level. I want to take it all around the world – I want it to be present in the streets again.

DT: How can you globalise Sonia Rykiel’s Parisian flavour?

JDL: The thing for me is that the Sonia Rykiel woman doesn’t really have an age. It’s why I want the collection to be attractive and desirable, and very open to all women who are attracted to something that is perhaps more fun and funky, with a certain spirit, and also a certain risk. At the same time she should be glamorous and sexy, for women with a certain character who like to dress and have fun with their clothes. I don’t want to limit women.

All clothes by Sonia Rykiel

Hair and make-up Eva Ronçay using M.A.C Cosmetics
Model Anna Cleveland at Next Model Management

  • Sonia Rykiel #1
  • Sonia Rykiel #2