A Tribute to Sonia Rykiel’s Famous Red Hair

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Sonia Rykiel, 1981Photography by Peter Knapp, Courtesy of Sonia Rykiel

For the fashion house’s first haute couture show, Stephen Jones created millinery in the likeness of its founder’s iconic copper coiffure

“Her instantly recognisable and quintessentially French flame-haired, alabaster-skinned, dramatically dressed appearance has captured the imagination of artists including Andy Warhol, Giacometti and Jean Cocteau,” wrote Susannah Frankel in AnOther Magazine’s S/S08 issue. Frankel was, of course, referring to the late designer Sonia Rykiel, whose personal appearance was emblematic of the eccentric joie de vivre celebrated in the namesake fashion house she established in 1968, on Paris’ Left Bank at 6 rue de Grenelle. Arguably, it was Madame Rykiel’s copper coiffure in particular that went on to symbolise the equally wayward nature of the women she dressed; a clichéd metaphor, perhaps, but one that rings true to this day, evidenced in a continued celebration of her iconic hair-do.

Of Ashkenazi Jewish descent – her mother hailed from Russia and her father from Romania – the French-born Rykiel embraced her halo of frizz of with aplomb. “It’s very, very simple. I just love red,” she once said. “I was born with this bright red mane. My mother tried to dye my hair. Nobody had fiery-red hair in our family.” Indeed, rather than opting to smooth its wiry texture, or dull its vivid hue, the young designer cut it into a shoulder-length bob which lent itself to a distinctive cloud-like buoyancy that remained a Rykiel signature until her death. Alongside Madame Rykiel’s pale complexion and large eyes over angular cheekbones, her tresses gave her an Elizabethan air. Andy Warhol immortalised The Queen of Knitwear on Polaroid film and in paint. “I think he was in love with my hair,” she recalled of her relationship with the pop artist. “I sat for hours, and he snapped hundreds of Polaroids.” 

Fashion also fell hard for Sonia Rykiel’s crowning glory: Maison Martin Margiela and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac looked to it as inspiration for the pieces each contributed to the label’s 40th-anniversary S/S09 collection as guest designers (an oversized sleeveless coat made from wigs, and a strapless dress trimmed around the bust with synthetic ginger hair, respectively).

For the house’s 50th birthday celebrations in March 2018, Julie de Libran – who took the helm from Sonia Rykiel as creative director in 2014 – re-visited the follicular elements of this show; furry ensembles were worn by beaming models, who also had a run-in with Sam McKnight and several pairs of crimpers. Earlier this month, De Libran presented the house’s first ever haute couture collection. “I wanted to create an inventory of Rykiel icons,” she said. Naturally, this included a striking ostrich-feather hat made by Stephen Jones in the likeness of Madame Rykiel’s hair. “The inspiration was Sonia’s hair within the firmament of fabulous French design motifs,” the milliner reiterated, proving that Rykiel’s famous red coiff never strays far from the moodboard of those who so admired her.