French designer Sonia Rykiel, dubbed the "queen of knitwear" for liberating women's fashion in the 1960s with her relaxing style, has died at the age of 86.

"Sonia Rykiel was a free woman, a pioneer who forged her own path," a statement from President Francois Hollande's office said on Thursday.

"She not only invented a fashion, but also an attitude, a way of living and being, and offered women a freedom of movement," the Elysee Palace said.

The Paris-born designer became one of the French fashion scene's biggest names after opening her first boutique in 1968.

Her career kicked off amid the counterculture protests of the 60s with designs that replaced frumpy suits with relaxing loungewear, external stitching and seamless skirts.

While her designs often sported bright stripes, Rykiel was rarely seen in anything other than black, with a triangle of shock-red hair completing her own striking look.

"Her style is known to the whole world. It will remain as a symbol of the remarkable alliance between colour and the natural, between fluidity and light," the statement from the presidential office said.

It gave no details on the cause of death. Her daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, told the AFP news agency that the artist had died following a long battle with Parkinson's.

Rykiel was diagnosed with Parkinson's at the age of 66, choosing to keep her diagnosis private until 2012, when she released a book about her struggle with the disease entitled "N'oubliez Pas Que Je Joue" ("Don't Forget That I'm Acting").

Rykiel's brand blossomed into a multimillion-dollar family business after she opened a five-storey fashion house in the 1990s catering for women, men and children with a range of knitwear and accessories. Her stores later spread to dozens of countries worldwide.

The designer was prolific until the end of her life and her love for colour endured. Working together with cosmetics house Lancome, Rykiel created a bright make-up range for this year's autumn/winter season.

She inspired fans not only with her designs, but also with her own unique look and rambunctious style, not least pop art founding father Andy Warhol, who photographed her against a vivid red background in 1968.

Responding to news of her death, the Twitter page of fellow French designer Jean Paul Gaultier carried the message: "All my admiration for the revolutionary work that you gave to women. Thank you for the inspiration and style."

Meanwhile, fans flocked to the Sonia Rykiel Facebook page to reminisce about her much-loved designs and write messages of condolences beneath a black-and-white portrait of the designer.

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