fashion: Life and soul of the party

Understated glamour is Sonia Rykiel's hallmark, and that makes her collection perfect for a millennium-night extravagance

For those of us not sickened to the stomach by endless fashion twittering over what, and what not, to wear to "that party", here's a simple but effective hot tip: it's safe to say, ladies, that we could all do a lot worse than opt for a little something courtesy of Sonia Rykiel.

It's not too obvious a label - rather, to this particular fashion editor's mind, it is somewhat under-rated - but it is reassuringly expensive nonetheless. Neither is it so sparkly or saucy that those wearing it are likely to resemble nothing more than the proverbial Christmas tree come midnight on 1 January 2000.

Instead, any woman wise enough to invest in what has now become one of the great classic French brands can rest assured that she will a) be unlikely to run into anyone wearing the same thing (quelle horreur!) and b) have just that sexy je ne sais quoi, that Gallic sense of drama that ensures she wipes the floor - sartorially speaking at least - with anyone else in the vicinity.

Rykiel's autumn/winter collections are always her strongest - she remains queen of the knits - the super-skinny, body-conscious look that has been her signature since she started out in the late Sixties is always good to see. This season's offering is particularly impressive with Rykiel in full-on party mood.

The 69-year-old, flame-haired, alabaster-skinned Rykiel is the quintessential French fashion designer. Along with Yves Saint Laurent, she was responsible for dressing the bright, bra-less, androgynous young things that earned the Rive Gauche its elitist and bohemian reputation. Fashion legend has it that she opened her first boutique on the Left Bank during the student riots in May 1968. Her flagship store remains just a stone's throw away from the original location to this day.

Certainly, her loosely formed, long and lean clothes - mainly in black, with the odd flash of colour in the form of the classic Rykiel stripy sweater and the occasional scattering of diamante - are a far cry from the more structured looks that came before them. But Rykiel's formula is one that has worked, beautifully, and endures to this day. In 1997, Rykiel sold no less than 90,000 sweaters. Her turnover that same year was an impressive 450m francs. Not that they are recommended for just any old woman - far from it. Mme Rykiel is very specific in her likes and dislikes, famously eschewing what she describes as "the natural look" for herself or anyone else, for that matter.

"I love the woman who has built her own personality into her appearance," she once told me, safe in the knowledge that she numbers herself among them. "You have to make the best of yourself. My clothes are just a reflection of me. I'm interested in fashion as a way of life."

The eldest of five daughters, Rykiel attributes her strength and intelligence to the fact that she was the least beautiful of her siblings. "Because I wasn't pretty, I had to be fantastic," she says. "I turned it to my advantage. I was so strong, I didn't care. I thought to myself, I'm a red-headed girl and I'm strong, so don't touch me."

Renaissance woman

Rykiel is also a novelist (Je La Voudrais Etre Nue, Les Levres Rouges), artist (she's illustrated fairy tales), interior designer, and singer (she recorded a duet with Malcolm McLaren).

(Left to right) crepe apron dress with camellia, pounds 405; angora tie- neck sweater, pounds 205; cashmere-mix wrap skirt with leather belt, pounds 450; crepe dress with lace bodice pounds 405; crepe button-through dress with camellia; pounds 610, devore velvet coat, pounds 495

(Opposite page, left to right) angora tie-neck sweater, pounds 205; wool wrap skirt with leather belt, pounds 450; faux-fur blouson, pounds 520; cashmere-mix wrap skirt with leather belt, pounds 450; cashmere-mix halter-neck top, pounds 150; crepe apron dress with camellia, pounds 405

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