Liya Kebede’s design for Generous Sweaters/Sonia Rykiel. All photos courtesy of Sonia Rykiel.

Liya Kebede’s design for Generous Sweaters/Sonia Rykiel. All photos courtesy of Sonia Rykiel.

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For Fashion, For Good.

by Guru Ramanathan.

In May 1968, student protests were raging across France to attack capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism, and traditional institutions and values. To this day these events are considered a cultural and social turning point in French history. Amid this tumultuous but critical movement, fashion designer Sonia Rykiel opened her first store on Paris’ Left Bank, defying the traditional order within the luxury world on her own.

“Sonia Rykiel has always been a fashion house creating designs by women, for women,” said artistic director Julie de Libran, who has been a part of Sonia Rykiel since 2014.

As 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of both events, de Libran is unveiling Generous Sweaters, a new project that brings together a group of influential international women to support charities of their choice, with 10% from the sale of a sweater going to their chosen charities. The project focuses on the knit sweater which was the first design that motivated Sonia Rykiel to launch her own fashion house and has remained the house’s most celebrated item. Each design speaks directly to the collaborator’s personality and vision

“In my work and in my personal life, I enjoy bringing together extraordinary women who inspire me. To mark the anniversary of the house and of a year which changed the social landscape in France, it was important for me to create a platform for expression that was also an opportunity to give something back to society,” states de Libran.

De Libran has recruited a wide range of talented individuals from across the world and in different fields to take part in this empowering project: actresses Kirsten Dunst, Sofia Boutella, and Dame Kristin Scott Thomas; architect Kazuyo Sejima; model and activist Liya Kebede; artist and influencer Langley Fox; and artistic director of the Korean National Ballet Sue-Jin Kang.

“Generous Sweaters has been a very rich experience and the occasion to learn and exchange with these outstanding women, all of whom have a strong connection to the Sonia Rykiel universe,” explained de Libran.

Before working at Sonia Rykiel, de Libran was already working at major international luxury houses, using her skills to mold a particular vision that can help the woman of today. She is supporting La Maison des Femmes, an establishment in France where women who have experienced any kind of violence can come to regardless of age and situation. Her wardrobe consists of three little black sweaters, each suited for a different time of day: a cozy, wool crepe ribbed design to a sheer vicuna for evening. As a fan of black, de Libran took the opportunity to create a design that was as personal to her as it could be universal for everyday wearing.

Thomas has had an illustrious career spanning over three decades, most recently capturing audience’s hearts in the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour. Of all the participants, she perhaps has the strongest connection with Rykiel, dating back to Thomas’ arrival in Paris in the 1980s.

“I lived on the Rue Saint Benoit, a few yards from the maison. She was the heart of St Germain in those days. You would often see Sonia Rykiel herself, chic and energizing, leading the way with her long legs and flaming hair,” said Thomas.

Thomas is supporting Hope and Home for Children, a charity that finds caring and cultivating homes for orphaned children. As a mother for over 30 years, Thomas places a large emphasis on the importance of family and the influence of a loving, secure environment on a child’s life. Her design also has an important family connection. She was inspired by her family’s Royal Navy past, designing a traditional marinière with the inclusion of cashmere, lurex yarns, and a seamless collar closing with vintage Sonia Rykiel buttons.

 Sophia Boutella’s design for Generous Sweaters/Sonia Rykiel.

Sophia Boutella’s design for Generous Sweaters/Sonia Rykiel.

Boutella, who has recently made a breakthrough in Hollywood through roles in “Kingsman” and “Star Trek Beyond,” also recalls loving Rykiel before coming on board the project.

“I remember seeing Sonia Rykiel adverts on billboards and in magazines. I also wore a Rykiel sweater when I was dancing with Madonna, and I loved what it represented” said the actress.

She has chosen to represent Ving, an online community allowing young people to nominate adults in their community who they feel are deserving of financial assistance. Nominations are made online and $1000 checks are then hand-delivered by the applicants to the chosen nominee.

Boutella’s design is also a beautiful two-parter, but she has given the option of wearing the two sweaters together or separately. The first is an intricate, multi-colored butterfly design crafted in cotton yarn and created with a crochet effect finish. The second is printed with a kaleidoscope image of Sofia herself, dancing naked.

Dunst, best known for her performances in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” was a participant who went to her heritage for inspiration. Being of Swedish descent, the Cannes Film Festival award winning actress reinterpreted the traditional Swedish sweater by incorporating a poppy design, selecting different qualities of black yarn (e.g. wool, silk) to create contrasting textures. The actress is supporting Planned Parenthood, the U.S.-based organization providing medical and contraceptive care and advice for women.

“I am a committed advocate of Planned Parenthood,” succinctly put Dunst. “To me, every woman in the United States and elsewhere has the right to access correct medical care and contraception to ensure that she is in charge of her own destiny. Now more than ever, Planned Parenthood needs our support.”

Sejima is also supporting a charity based in her country of heritage, Okaeri-Gohan Shokudo (“Welcome Home Canteen”), which provides both free meals and a support network for single and working mothers and their families in Hitachi City.

“I have always admired the Kodomo Shokudo charities (a nationwide movement which provides free or reduced-price meals) and I wanted to support one in my local area. Not only does this charity provide food  for mothers and children, but it is a place for people to connect to their community,” explained Sejima.

The architect has created landmark buildings including New York’s New Museum and the Louvre-Lens museum. Her work is striking and her architect mindset focused on construction and technique applied seamlessly to the construction of her design. Like her usual projects, Sejima has taken painstaking measures to perfect the design, creating a multilayered design that also incorporates her Japanese heritage. Inspired by the ancestral Japanese technique of Junihitoe, or layering of kimonos, her final design for the project is a series of three dresses crafted by Sonia Rykiel’s historic Italian manufacturer in an airy, technical knit which required several days to create each dress.

Through her own lemlem Foundation, model and actress Kebede is also using her fame to give back to women. She has been striving to find lasting solutions to the challenges faced by women in Africa. She has involved lemlem artists in the creation of her sweater. The foundation has helped over 12,000 women give birth safely and is training artisan women and getting them into the workforce. She launched lemlem over ten years ago.

For her sweater design, Liya took inspiration from a favorite sweater she borrowed from her Dad, which became a reminder of home when she struck out to model around the world. The resulting oversized sweater features elements  of a classic men’s shirt and lemlem handwoven fabrics.

Fox, whose great-grandfather is Ernest Hemingway, is known for her black and white figurative style for international publications and exhibitions, but neither drew inspiration from family nor her ancestry. In complete contrast, she is using every color on the rainbow to create a bold, striped sweater in strong support of the LGBT community. The sweater is created in a mix of wool and cashmere stripes. Furthermore, she is supporting Le Refuge, France’s only state-recognized organisation providing emergency accommodation and support for young gay or trans people excluded by society or their families.

“I chose this charity because it houses and supports young people that are victims of homophobia and transphobia,” said Fox. “I myself am in a gay relationship and can’t imagine how it would feel to have my family punish me for that.”

 Langley Fox for Generous Sweaters/ Sonia Rykiel.

Langley Fox for Generous Sweaters/ Sonia Rykiel.

Finally, there is Kang, who returned to her native South Korea after an international ballet career to become the artistic director of the Korean National Ballet. Kang’s chosen charity is the Children’s Hospital of Seoul National University.

“Sometimes I visit the hospital and see kids who are suffering. I hope that through this project I will be able to help them,” said Kang.

Kang specifically designed her sweater as something that could comfort a dancer’s body after rehearsal. The cardigan and ribbed pants display a jacquard which is meant to “express the joy of dancing and life.” Kang spoke about the design is meant to insight hope and uniqueness for the wearer, which speaks to the overall hopefulness and magnanimity Sonia Rykiel is attempting to spread through this project.

The collection will be carried in limited edition at select boutiques and as well in Sonia Rykiel stores and online in time for the holiday season. But the purpose behind these designs go beyond the luxury and comfort that they will provide for a select few. Through art these individuals become activists, using their designs to represent greater causes that bring equality, love and opportunity to families around the world, breaking any barriers in their way — in a sense, they are continuing Sonia Rykiel’s original mission to defy tradition since her first opened store back in 1968.

Sonia Rykiel Generous Sweaters