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A Design Legend Rises From the Ashes of the '90s

Christian Lacroix, whose couture personified that flashy decade, positions himself for a comeback.

February 11, 2001|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

With a new contract, a new business structure and a new outlook, designer Christian Lacroix is aiming to step beyond the boundaries of his own legend.

"We are trying to start the renaissance of the house of Christian Lacroix," said Jean Pierre Debu, worldwide president of the house, as he buzzed among guests at Lacroix's appearance in Beverly Hills last week, his first in the United States since starting his collection in 1987.

In the years since, Lacroix has become something of a French national hero for the acclaim he brought to the country's fashion industry. Scores of fashion iconoclasts and old-money socialites alike clamored for his '80s pouf dresses, which symbolized the excesses of that decade. Lacroix lavished his designs with mixes of luxurious fabrics and vibrant patterns gleaned from history books and the streets of his boyhood home in Arles, in the south of France.

Today, he belongs to the small fraternity of haute couture designers who maintain a full range of businesses. He also designs a signature ready-to-wear collection, a jeans line and a contemporary sportswear line called Bazar. Yet the rise of minimalism in the 1990s made his trademark clashing patterns, unrestrained flourishes and lavish fabrics a thing of the past.

Now he confronts the challenge of resurfacing in a different fashion era, when marketing and entertainment values have often superseded quality design and couture-level craftsmanship. That Lacroix is a living designer still creating his own collections is almost a disadvantage in a time that values newness.

As embellishment, color and unique designs return to fashion, however, Lacroix is starting to raise his profile anew in the United States. He traveled from Paris to L.A. to revisit the town where his career took a dramatic turn. The designer hasn't visited the city since 1986, when as a designer at the house of Jean Patou he presented a show here. When a reporter asked him back then if he was open to other employment propositions, Lacroix responded, "Yes." Word spread, and within months, the designer met Bernard Arnault, the head of the powerful luxury brands conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, who put Lacroix in business under his own name.

"I think that this is a movie city, where anything is possible--fantasies come true," said the soft-spoken designer last week. "Now, we are like a Sleeping Beauty. We need to be promoted with more energy."

He's on his way, having earned huge publicity by making 10 dresses for Catherine Zeta-Jones' November wedding to Michael Douglas, as well as the dress she wore at the Golden Globes in January. His refurbished shoe collection has just arrived in U.S. stores, while plans to import his new children's clothing and semiprecious jewelry collections are also underway. Lacroix also is hoping to launch his first menswear line and expand the presence of his other collections as well.

"It was a little difficult during the minimalism years," confessed the self-effacing Lacroix, recalling the period when his label became a punch line in shows such as the fashion spoof "Absolutely Fabulous." "Yet I was convinced that there were so many people who wanted to be not so minimal.

"During these more difficult years, I was like in hibernation--not in my inspirations," he said. "I was still trying to translate what was sincere, authentic and genuine. I have no enthusiasm or pleasure working on something fake or forced."

As the designer relaxed poolside at the Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel on Tuesday, wearing not his beloved Ralph Lauren pinstriped suits but a thermal pullover and drawstring pants, he recalled that Los Angeles customers were his earliest supporters--and hoped that they may be again. Just a few blocks away at Neiman Marcus, staffers put the finishing touches on a luncheon and fashion show of his spring collection for 256 members of the Blue Ribbon, the well-heeled volunteer supporters of the Music Center of Los Angeles.

"I'm here because Neiman Marcus has my best, best, best customers in the world," said Lacroix. His often elaborately cut clothes are pricey: $1,000 for a finely knit sweater, $1,600 for a jacket in an innovative fabric, $900 for pants in an exotic print.

For the Blue Ribbon members--all clad in conservative, tailored suits--the price isn't a deterrent, but the bold designs may be. Though it may be hard to believe, his spring line was actually more restrained than other Lacroix collections. The women watched politely while models in one-sleeved corset tops, silver glittery pleated skirts and multicolored patchworked coats, dresses and pants sashayed down the store's runway.

"I loved the colors and the courage he has in his contrasts of prints and colors," said Constance Towers Gavin, wife of former Mexican ambassador John Gavin, who echoed the sentiment of others in the audience. However, not everyone said they planned to rush to the following day's trunk show.

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