Fashion: FRENCH DRESSING

Sonia Rykiel may be in her sixties, but her clothes are as desirable, and as quintessentially French, as they were when she began designing 35 years ago. Tamsin Blanchard reports
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The Independent Culture
Sonia Rykiel (left) has now spent over over three decades designing clothes with her very personal stamp, on the whole ignoring the ups and downs and ins and outs of fashion. And, as is often the way with classic labels that never really go away, clothes by the "Queen of Knitwear" suddenly look just right again.

Hers is a way of dressing that is pure Parisian. It is chic in that oh-so-French way: unashamedly grown-up, but with a touch of the coquette. The Sonia Rykiel woman is as French as the Ralph Lauren woman is all- American, and exports just as well, taking a little piece of Paris wherever she goes. In fact, if you could bottle the essence of Left Bank life, it'd probably smell something like Rykiel's eponymous third perfume, launched this autumn.

The 60-something, flame-haired designer began her career in 1962, when she was pregnant and unable to find anything to wear; if she couldn't buy it, she reasoned, she would just have to make it herself. The results touched a nerve with other women, who found her soft, fluid lines - knitted or in draped jersey - flattering, comfortable and stylish. By the Seventies, Rykiel had become the first designer to sell her clothes in a mail-order catalogue, Trois Suisses; at the same time in London, Joan Burstein, the owner of Browns, introduced the label to her South Molton Street emporium, where it soon became a firm favourite.

Two decades on, Burstein remains a dedicated seller (and wearer) of Rykiel's casual but elegant knits - but these days the two women have more than just a business relationship: they are mothers-in-law to each other's offspring. Simon Burstein and Nathalie Rykiel are both involved in the Rykiel business - she looks after the diffusion line, while he is vice- president. Sounds like a soap opera? Well yes, but this is a real-life family with all the makings of a great fashion dynasty. With a little luck, the Rykiel label should be providing women with beautiful, wearable clothes for many years to come. !

Facing page: black long-sleeved jumper with stripes, pounds 199; black pencil skirt, pounds 132; matching stripy socks, pounds 15; black patent wrap-around high heels, pounds 162. This page, clockwise from top left: black sheer floral dress, pounds 255; wool wrap-around coat, pounds 610. Grey turn-up trousers, pounds 215; grey sleeveless shirt with grey tie, pounds 110; grey jacket, pounds 440; trilby, pounds 80; clutch bag, pounds 295. Maroon, grey and black check suit, jacket, pounds 525, trousers, pounds 205; V-neck black jumper with orange block stripe, pounds 178; matching clutch bag, pounds 184; shoes as before. All by Sonia Rykiel, from Browns, 23- 27 South Molton Street, W1 (enq: 0171 491 7833), and Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, SW1 (enq: 0171 235 5000)

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