MILAN — Christian Lacroix has had a love affair with color since he was a toddler so taken with the multihued flowers in his family garden in Arles, France, that he tried to eat them. Now, after more than 20 years in the fashion business, the designer most often associated with the pink pouf-skirted excess of the 1980s is playing with color again as the new head designer of the beloved Italian fashion house Pucci.
On Saturday, at one of the most anticipated events of fashion week here, his debut collection was well-received for breaking with the old, dowdy image of Pucci and sexing things up, although the sportswear still needs refining.
Famous for its vivid, abstract prints, the label was founded in 1950 by Italian aristocrat Marchese Emilio Pucci di Barsento (the title dates back to the 1600s) and worn by Sophia Loren, Paloma Picasso, Grace Kelly and other jet-setters. Legend has it, Marilyn Monroe was even buried in a Pucci silk jersey dress.
The house has been attempting a fashion rebirth since Pucci died 14 years ago and luxury conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton acquired a majority stake in 2000. Soon after, Julio Espada, a virtual unknown in the fashion world, became head designer. Although there has been a lot of recent interest in vintage Pucci, Espada's three collections failed to generate much excitement.
"As soon as I heard that LVMH bought the house of Pucci, I thought, 'What a lucky guy who gets to be in charge of that,' " Lacroix said Thursday at the Pucci studio off Piazza della Republica. The Paris couturier was dressed in uncharacteristically drab colors--a gray vest over a white T-shirt and black pants--so as not to lose himself in the prints, he said in near-perfect English.
Lacroix made his fashion mark in 1981 when he landed a job as a designer for Jean Patou. Six years later, he set up his own couture house with the help of then-budding entrepreneur Bernard Arnault, who now heads LVMH and who also counts Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Givenchy in his fashion stable. Today, Lacroix, 51, has ready-to-wear, jeans, children's, bridal and table-top collections under his own name, as well as projects doing theatrical set design and decoration for France's TGV high-speed trains. It was Arnault who suggested him for Pucci.
"I think there is a synergy, a link between the house of Pucci and my own inspiration," said Lacroix, who recalls a time when, as a college student, kids threw stones at him for dressing like a dandy. (The style may have been at home on London's Carnaby Street but was apparently a bit too peacockish for the south of France.)
His admiration for the label runs deep: Some of his first fashion sketches were inspired by Pucci; his wife, Francoise, is an avid collector of vintage Pucci; and in 1988, Lacroix dedicated a ready-to-wear collection to the man himself, titled "Homage to the Marchese."
He met Pucci's daughter, Laudomia, presently the company's image director, when he invited her to the show in Paris. "It was like going home," she said Thursday at the Pucci studio. "We've done a lot since my father died, but it's always been an interpretation, not a re-creation. With Lacroix, we're starting to move in that direction," said the 41-year-old, who lives in Florence, where Pucci is based, and who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the company archives housed there.
Lacroix's task is to expand sportswear offerings and develop a winter image for a label that started with skiwear but eventually became known for resort wear. He tells the now famous story of how Emilio got his start in the fashion business when in a 1948 issue of Harper's Bazaar, Diana Vreeland published a chance photo of Pucci skiwear shot on the slopes of St.-Moritz.
"Skiing is at the beginning of story, so why not do printed fur or even printed snowboards?" asked Lacroix, who traces his own color consciousness to a lifelong love of bullfighting, Provencal and gypsy traditions and modern art.
At the debut show Saturday, he displayed his knack for combining tricky colors and patterns. Sexy, printed chiffon dresses with handkerchief hems will be brilliant in Ibiza, Capri and maybe even on the HBO series "Sex and the City."
But the sportswear wasn't as impressive. Lacroix's best pieces were his simplest: a short, fitted trench coat in a swirling pink, purple and lime-green print, and a classic, knee-length full skirt in Pucci's original 1954 black-and-white Palio print. Hooded, zip-front blouson jackets with strips of black-and-white print down the arm, and print leggings looked dated compared to the shrunken hooded sweatshirts and low-slung sweatpants that are today's wardrobe staples.
The collection was already in progress when Lacroix was hired in April. Hopefully, next season he will do even more simple, yet refined, sportswear--slim-fitting T-shirts, shaped oxford shirts and jean jackets, for example--and be more whimsical about how he uses Pucci's signature prints. After all, the formula worked wonders for Burberry plaid.