It was a sweltering summer, even by New York City standards. The subways felt like the world’s filthiest saunas, and any confined space without air-conditioning immediately became a health hazard. I was 25 years old, and I had just moved into a decaying brownstone in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with holes in the floorboards and a broken front door. I heard rumors that my former neighbors had been Breaking Bad-style drug cooks and fled without a trace. Just a few years out of the recession, the economy was slowly starting to rebound and I was paying my rent by working odd jobs, mostly in fashion—copywriting, answering phones, and other assorted gigs.
The industry seemed like a dazzling world far from my mundane existence, and I savored every glossy magazine page I flipped through or product launch I was invited to attend. Back at home, I would feverishly check the mail for freelance checks—which always seemed to come late—so that I could buy groceries. And since I rarely had more than $75 in my checking account, when presentable clothes were needed for a work event, I shopped mostly at vintage and consignment stores. Combing the racks for a shift dress that could pass muster, or a blouse that would distract from the holes in my pants, rare finds became treasured possessions.
One particularly steamy day, sorting through endless racks of pilled sweaters and polyester track jackets, I came across a $14 black Sonia Rykiel tank top. It had a tiny breast pocket lined with rivets, and was made from the softest materials. Trying it on over a pair of cut-off jean shorts, I felt, somehow, different. The item was basic, but the material was of such fine quality, the cut so perfect, it seemed to have its own life. Rather than a struggling freelancer of limited means, in that moment I was the star of a French new wave film, on her way to St. Tropez. Sort of like Bridget Bardot without all the fascism.
This is the true power of fashion. While the billion dollar industry is fraught with complications, it also holds the promise that, with one costume change, we can feel bolder, stronger, extraordinary. It offers adults a chance to play make-believe, but instead of a princess, you can transform into a confident and employable woman-of-the-world.
I'm sure other women have similar stories about finding a treasured piece from Rykiel, who died last week at the age of 86 due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. I’m sure many even have memories of the formidable flame-haired woman herself. Known as the dark-lidded “queen of knitwear,” Rykiel is credited with creating the "Parisian look of cool" that dominated the late 1960s, clothing everyone from Francoise Hardy and Audrey Hepburn to Catherine Deneuve, and yes, Bridget Bardot. These women were wealthy, glamorous, and realistically could have afforded to wear any designer they wanted. But I imagine they were drawn to Rykiel for a similar reason as me: Her pieces, though simple, allowed you to be your best self.
Taking the crown from Coco Chanel, Rykiel eschewed fussy formal womenswear for breezy knits and bold stripes, meant to be worn on Vespas tearing through the streets of Paris or marching in a student protest. Famously, she shocked Parisian society by creating a body-hugging maternity dress to flaunt her “baby bump,” rather than hiding it (as was the fashion). Designing for the “fragile, but strong,” today she is considered the Simone de Beauvoir of leggings, a radical feminist who used breathable fabric as her medium. When she passed away on Thursday, French President Francois Hollande declared in a statement, “She invented not only a style, but also an attitude, a way of living and of being, and gave women a freedom of movement.” You could easily argue that we can both thank and blame her for the rise in athleisure, and the ubiquity of leggings as appropriate everyday attire.
But the creator of French cool was also the consummate outsider. Born Sonia Flis in 1930, she was the eldest daughter of Eastern European, Jewish immigrants who had fled anti-semitic pogroms to settle in Neuilly-sur-Seine, only to later find themselves living under the Nazi-controlled Vichy regime. Able to survive the occupation by moving through remote villages of France as a refugee, a painful experience she later recounted in her 2012 memoir, Rykiel lamented that “the war stole my childhood. I was six, and felt that everyone around me was afraid. My father and uncles had left, and we women wandered from house to house… .”
This experience most likely impacted the designer in ways we’ll never know, and would be unfair to speculate—but perhaps it made her acutely aware of the need to manifest one’s own destiny. At 17, in post-war Paris, she secured a job as a window dresser at a dry goods store. Here, she drew the eye of painter Henri Matisse with her display of colorful scarves (of which he bought all of them). In her early 20s, she married a Paris boutique owner. Disappointed with the women’s fashion market, she slowly began to design and sell her own clothing at his shop; mostly for women like herself who were career-oriented, sexually and intellectually adventurous, and in pursuit of actualization. In one of my all-time favorite quotes, she once told The New York Times: “I think creativity is inside you. 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.’”
In the days after Rykiel died, dozens of reporters penned obituary pieces. Most discussed the famous people with whom she had clothed, collaborated, or dined; who her daughter had married, or how many of her pieces are in museums. But few seemed to touch on how this woman, who spent her childhood in abject horror, had transcended both her own circumstances and the era’s small minds. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors myself, and the child of a father born in a displaced person’s camp in a rural German town that no longer exists, I marvel how Rykiel was able to ascend from being marginalized to becoming one of the most celebrated women in France. (A country which, today, it should be noted, is not particularly embracing of either Jews or immigrants.) I also know, as a former outsider in the fashion world, the dazzling allure of the industry’s exciting, secret society, even when its fruits are financially out of reach. I know why it would appeal to someone looking to reinvent themselves—which she did, magnificently.
I never met Sonia Rykiel. I do not claim to know how she felt. I can only go by her words, of which she was generous in leaving behind. But I do know that for a generation of women, especially female entrepreneurs, her lived experience proved that you could transcend a meager existence—the poverty, hate, or sexism that confined you—to rise above. That you were worthy of being happy in your own skin. That you could be playful and adventurous, but also a smart, sophisticated woman.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but I later sold my Sonia Rykiel top to pay my rent after too many months of late freelance checks. As I laid the gorgeous blouse in front of the ambivalent buyer at Beacon's Closet, to be inspected like a piece of bruised fruit, I knew there was no way she could fathom what it had meant to me—a rare taste of glamour during a decidedly unglamorous time. I also remember secretly hoping that another woman would find it and appreciate it; that she would be similarly moved.
Today, even though I have a full-time job (and fully secured floorboards), I still frequently go vintage shopping. Sifting through the racks is a quiet meditation for my anxious mind. Sometimes I even find the odd Sonia Rykiel piece here and there, and it always feels like running into an old friend I’ve lost touch with.
For me, fashion has always been a sort of lifeline, a source of hope and beauty in darkness. Like Rykiel, it set me on a path to a more fulfilling existence. So if you are ever lucky enough to come across the perfect Sonia Rykiel piece, one that feels just so and fits like it was meant just for you, I sincerely hope that you’ll pick it up, try it on, and never, ever let it go.
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.