Fiery designer Sonia Rykiel revolutionised the fashion world in more ways than one when she appeared on the Parisian scene in the 1960s. Over the next few decades, she liberated women with her unconventional yet timeless designs, including comfortable striped knits and sweaters, culottes and braless dresses. Forty years on, her legacy has been entrusted to a different type of adventurer and the unlikeliest of candidates - a Sino-Portuguese designer by the name of Geraldo da Conceicao.
Change at Rykiel had been afoot since last year when Hong Kong investment firm Fung Brands acquired 80 per cent of the label's business. Rykiel had already taken on a lesser role due to Parkinson's disease, while president and daughter Nathalie stayed on as a consultant. In November, Fung Brands president Jean-Marc Loubier announced that da Conceicao would replace April Crichton as artistic director.
After his first show, da Conceicao already says he's aiming for further expansion in Asia, a region he hasn't visited for years.
Choosing a relatively obscure name to design for a successful fashion house is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, da Conceicao seemed perfectly primed for the role thanks to previous stints at Saint Laurent, Prada and Louis Vuitton.
After joining the company officially in January, he made his debut at Paris Fashion Week earlier this month.
The result was an autumn-winter collection that paid homage to Rykiel's signatures albeit with a modern twist. Her famous knits were transformed into skinny suits and tunics with trompe l'oeil lapels and buttons, while oversized jackets and cardigans came in beaver fur. Black fitted dresses featured a single stripe across the breasts and pink mohair triangles covering parts between the thighs - a tongue-in-cheek attempt to preserve modesty.
Some models wore knee-high socks emblazoned with such slogans as "warm cheri," "hot joie" and "play amour," a playful reference to Rykiel's T-shirts from the '70s. At the finale, the girls took to the catwalk in whimsical sweaters decorated with daisies and seashells, paired with leather trousers.
"I saw Madame Rykiel two days before the show, and she was elated when she saw the underwear with the pink triangles. I love the world of Rykiel, but if I am going to develop an idea, I will go right down into it. The first thing I knew I had to do was knitwear," says da Conceicao when we meet a few days after the show.
The designer couldn't be more different from his flame-haired predecessor. While Rykiel is treated like a celebrity everywhere in Paris, da Conceicao goes relatively unnoticed when he slips into the famous Cafe de Flore, a place that Rykiel frequented so much, they named a sandwich after her. He sits quietly at her designated table, dressed in jeans, trainers and a big jacket.
"I don't like being in the limelight. Even when I do interviews, I prefer one-on-ones. Some people revel in it, but I just want to make the brand powerful so I don't have to do it so much," he reveals in a soft Canadian accent.
Da Conceicao was born and spent his early years in Macau before emigrating to Canada at the age of 11. When he was 19, he decided to pursue a career in the arts - "I didn't have good enough grades for biology", he jokes - and studied fashion at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto. He then launched a career working for what he calls "wealthy women's brands" in Toronto and, in 1993, he headed to Paris.
"I always thought Europe was the hub of the world, so life became very different when I came to Paris. At first I lazed around, soaking in the environment. Then I got a job working with Martine Sitbon. It was interesting working with her because she has a cosmopolitan French outlook, but her femininity is very modern," he says.
In 1998, he joined Alber Elbaz at Yves Saint Laurent, then went with Tom Ford and then Stefano Pilati. This was followed by a five-year tenure at Miu Miu, and a four-month stint as women's design director at Louis Vuitton. Then Rykiel came into the picture.
"I was always curious about Rykiel, although I don't believe in destiny. I knew [Rykiel] as an independent spirit with a lot to say. My thing right now is to explore the human experience of creativity rather than the object. It's a very Prada notion," he says.
Da Conceicao prefers female designers because their design is not so linear, and they "naturally embody the world of women".
Rather than delve into the archives, he took a different approach and started by reading Rykiel's books (she has written more than 16) and watching old films in an attempt to understand what her designs stood for.
"The brains behind her designs are more interesting than the archives," da Conceicao says. "The writing, the films ... these things talk purely about her, but also how she wanted to project herself. She was designing for an avant-garde woman but not in the sense that they were intellectuals. They were placing themselves in a dangerous position in that culture and time, such as fighting for women's rights.
"Rykiel was the one who really pushed the modern vocabulary of dress. The Rykiel woman is never aggressive; she works and plays with society. I want people to see that what she proposed in the 1970s is still valid, which was giving women uncomplicated clothes to help them frame themselves as they like."
As such, his first collection referenced popular creations of Rykiel's, including the first sweater she ever created - the Poor Boy, which she designed while she was pregnant. Da Conceicao's interpretation is more modern.
"I absorb inspirations from everywhere. It's more abstract and intuitive, and it becomes more authentic rather than easy to read," he says. "I have a bit more drastic tendencies in my design. I want to project a strong woman who can play with these so-called feminine aspects in a very graphic way."
While many critics said da Conceicao's first outing echoed some of his previous work, for him, the real test is going to come when the collection lands in stores.
He is aiming to attract new customers rather than just placating the old.
"New is always better," he says. "The new will also attract the old eventually. I've seen a lot of other designers push a brand to create a new projection. Over time this new projection becomes the brand. After a while people do forget. Of course you still have the codes of the house - but to me it's about the right place and time."