'Rykiel has a very precise identity everywhere that I go,' says Nathalie Rykiel in her accented English. 'It's not just French elegance or Parisian elegance, or Left Bank elegance. It's really the elegance of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
Rykiel, daughter of fashion icon and label founder Sonia Rykiel, talked by phone just after receiving an honorary doctorate from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco - adding the award to a far greater one in 2009, when the Ministry of Culture named her a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.
The daughter of the 'Queen of Knits' is now a fashion notable in her own right. After taking the presidency of her mother's eponymous label in 2007, she stepped out sans Sonia for the third season of the autumn/winter 2011 catwalk show in Le Jardin des Tuileries in Paris.
In France, Sonia Rykiel is, incredibly, the only luxury fashion company that is still 100 per cent owned and creatively controlled by the family. 'Everyone belongs to a group now or is publicly traded,' says Nathalie, 'or else the family don't have creative control.'
The Rykiel fashion house now has more than 60 shops internationally. Apart from the main label are lingerie, perfume and Rykiel Enfant childrenswear, which Nathalie created during her first pregnancy in 1983.
There is also the Sonia by Sonia Rykiel diffusion label, created as Inscription Rykiel in 1989. This is a more affordable range. During the financial crisis, two collaborations with Swedish mass retailer H&M - in lingerie and knits - proved huge successes, too. 'It was such a treat for me for all these women to have affordable Rykiel. That was really amazing,' Nathalie says.
There is no doubt that Nathalie has big shoes to fill. But the approach of the Rykiel legacy has helped smooth the label's evolution. 'My mum today is an iconic person, and I'm now heading the brand. I'm also working with my daughter, Lola. It's part of our heritage,' says Nathalie. 'It's really about the three generations of Rykiel women. The evolution is really faithful to the story of our lives.'
The label is loved by women, not so much for its avant-garde intellectualism or raw sex appeal, but for its strong female spirit. Multifaceted womanhood, which Sonia Rykiel espouses, has gained loyal fans across generations.
'The brand incarnates an elegant woman, an intelligent, cultivated, free and decadent woman - a woman who works and who loves seduction and can be frivolous,' Nathalie says. 'It's a type of woman that talks to you, whether you are Asian, European or American.'
Nathalie's last trip to Hong Kong was two years ago, and she likens it to an 'Asian New York. It was fascinating, exciting, quick and full of energy.' She has visited the key retail centres of South Korea and Japan but not yet China, which she definitely wants to explore.
Nathalie never wanted to work in fashion. At the age of 20, she was preparing to study film when her mother asked her to model in her show. Nathalie did that for three or four seasons before realising she preferred to direct the shows.
Through working on lighting, direction, models and production, Nathalie became more and more involved, 'realising that fashion is just as interesting as other things as long as you do it professionally'.
In the 1960s, Sonia Rykiel also started her career in an unconventional way. She had never trained in fashion, yet she was the first designer to put seams on the outside of a garment, to do clothes without hems and to print words on her sweaters. Her boutique became a modern marker of women's fashion in France. It was known for being sexy rather than stiff. Fame and fortune ensued.
More than three decades later, Nathalie has revived the label's appeal. It was an interesting process because, she says, 'the brand has such a rich DNA. It's pioneering, free, seductive, with a lot of love for men.'
Nathalie brought a healthy sex appeal to the company, not only to the designs. With the controversial, headline-grabbing launch of a range of high-end sex toys called Rykiel Woman in 2002, the luxury label became the first to expand into the erotica sector.
'There was always some naughtiness in the brand, but yes, I have added my touch,' Nathalie laughs. 'I'm not the exact replica of my mother. The brand started in the 1970s, so I have also changed and added to the Rykiel DNA. I did Rykiel Woman for fun, and it was interesting.
'It was sort of a revolution!' says Nathalie. 'But Rykiel has always been a pioneer. It was also very efficient, because the sex toys were actually working. It was a success, and perfect for the new, independent woman.
'It really knocked people out, because the salesgirl in the store would be selling them a cashmere, and five minutes later would be explaining how a sex toy worked,' she laughs. 'That's what really killed everybody.'
It was only appropriate that a fashion house run by a family of women brought something so taboo into the luxurious streets of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. It wasn't sleazy, but a sign of female independence. They carried it off with glamour and a chic, humourous attitude.
Even Jean Paul Gaultier complimented Nathalie, telling her: 'You're the only one that could have done that. Anyone else and it would have been vulgar.'
And that, in a way, is exactly what makes Rykiel special. It celebrates women's happiness - 'not happy in a stupid way', Nathalie adds. It is more about a sense of humour. There's a truly a 'women designing for women' sensibility. That's in stark contrast to most catwalk shows, where ghostly models stalk the runway, Rykiel shows render the model/woman the subject.
She's animated, emotional and human. The autumn-winter 2011-12 show (pictured) saw models laughing and smiling. They chatted to each other on the runway, and flirted with the audience.
'This is a fashion philosophy; it's where life is possible,' Nathalie adds, a little more seriously, 'Fashion is not about being perfect. It leaves room for imperfection. That is what I find interesting. It's character. It's a luxury brand that's not afraid to be different.'
Sonia Rykiel is at the Landmark, Central and in Seibu and the Swank. Sonia by Sonia Rykiel is available exclusively at I.T