His designs are baggy and rumpled, or so fitted that they scrunch up and shimmy on the torso. Coats and jackets button askew, and vests look as though they were shrunk and felted in the hot cycle of a washing machine. Splashy tartans, ginghams and paisleys clash in pants costumes, dresses mix lace and wool. Sleeves sometimes inch over the fingers, kilts are cut with "penguin hems," turtleneck sweaters have cutout backs and what looks like a jacket over a jacket or a trench coat over a trench coat is actually one piece. Men and women wear some of the same clothes. Occasionally a man wears a skirt.

Is this cross-dressing, tailored-not-to-fit style a sort of fashion through the looking glass, a Dickensian carnival -- or serious clothes?

"I am not serious because, maybe, life is not serious," says Jean-Paul Gaultier.

But for the art and fashion students who parked themselves in front of Bergdorf Goodmans' windows recently to study and sketch the Gaultier clothes on display, he is the designer of the moment.

For Dawn Mello, president of Bergdorf's, which presented his collection under a big tent in Battery Park last month, "he is the most inspirational and directional designer at this time."

Polly Allen Mellen, fashion editor of Vogue magazine, stood up spontaneously at a dinner in his honor after the show, clasped her hands and proclaimed breathlessly, "He is the future."

"I make fashion with a twist," says Jean-Paul Gaultier with a smile. "Classical with a new proportion."

It is a few days after his successful presentation of his fall collection in Paris, and the 31-year-old designer is sitting quietly in a corner of the tea salon above W.H. Smith's bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli. His perennial student appearance and quiet, joking manner quickly dismiss his common tag as fashion's enfant terrible.

He is known for playing with the once sacred, untouchable classics. In fact, his name has entered the fashion lexicon -- in Paris, London, Milan and New York, the stylized rumpling of clothes is referred to as being "Gaultiered."

"I start with classical, traditional clothes, like a blazer, a kilt, things like that. And I go on to destroy them," he says, then quickly catches himself. "Not destroy, which is absolutely negative, but rather deliberately distort them. In reality it is classical with new proportions . . . a new appearance.

"I think life is made of past, tradition and modernity, so I don't reject the past, but I like also what happens now and what will happen," he says. "I don't try to make abstract or artistic clothes. I don't try to make futuristic clothes. I try only to make pretty clothes." The clothes, in fact, are handsomely tailored -- the distortion is more in the ways they are worn.

"I'm not sure it is possible to invent something new in clothing, other than a new technique with fabric," he says. "At least for the moment, I haven't found anything to invent. Besides, it is not so modern to put an idea into clothes. A dress with no idea, with no detail, that is good. What is important is the fabric. What is interesting is the way of wearing clothes."

He is inspired by what he sees on the street, the way his friends wear clothes, his interpretation of the London kids. "I am far more stimulated by people on the street who love to wear terrific clothes than by all these bored models you meet in our business." Ideas are triggered by mistakes people make, he says, and the funny things models do with his clothes on the runway.

His Paris show turned out more than 2,500 at the Cirque d'Hiver, and the repeat performance in New York, sponsored by Bergdorf's with an assist from American Express and the International Wool Secretariat, was a sellout at $25 a ticket.

"For me, the show is indispensable -- clothes are meant to be worn, not meant to be on a hanger," he says. "By the show also, you see the ambiance, the music and the models -- the way they walk. The way you walk goes with the way you live, with the way of the life you are, with the way you move."

His models include big-name professionals, friends and "ingenues" recruited off the street. For the New York show a call went out for Caribbean models and other ethnic types to give a different look to some of the snobbish hunt clothes, chesterfield coats and the like. "I think he hired every messenger in New York," whispered one buyer.

During the show, held circus style under a big tent, models pranced, danced, twisted, galloped and played with the clothes, sometimes flipping skirts over their heads, wrapping and tying and untying the designs. One model circled the big tent on his hands.

In contrast to the almost giddy presentation and the humor of his designs, Jean-Paul Gaultier is a serious, skilled craftsman, trained in the haute couture.

"He really understands what clothes look well and what moves well on the body," said Bergdorf's Dawn Mello, who at the show wore a beautiful navy wool Gaultier dress with a wrapped midriff. "His clothes don't have to be worn the way he shows them. And he has an eye for color and texture and pattern that is superb. I have the feeling we are going to see him rise to the top ranks of designers."

Gaultier's interest in clothes was encouraged by his grandmother, "my best friend and accomplice." For her clients she performed a kind of magnetic massage, applied beauty masks and told fortunes with Tarot cards. "I studied her clients and sketched them as they were and how I thought they should be," says the designer, who was 6 or 7 when he started.

One day he told his grandmother that he wanted to be a hairdresser, and "she let me work on her clients' hair . . . tinting, cutting, massaging the scalp. I became quite good at it, but soon it bored me and I wanted to try something else."

He sketched from magazines, and his grandmother was his critic. "I dreamed of making haute couture. Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent were my heroes," he says. He drew and made cutouts of a full collection for his grandmother, then wrote his own review -- rating his designs the "most Parisian collection" and "the best thing I've seen."

Through family connections, an editor at Jardin des Modes looked at his designs. She didn't think much of his sketches, but liked his ideas and suggested he show them to some couturiers. "I was too shy to take them to one designer, so I divided them up and sent one each to Cardin, Courreges, Saint Laurent and Ungaro," he says.

On his 18th birthday he got a phone call from Cardin, and started to work with him immediately. "Cardin was okay because there was a modern spirit in the house -- it was not a bourgeois house like Dior. Cardin was always open to new ideas."

He moved on to the house of Jean Patou at the moment designer Michel Goma was leaving to be replaced by Angelo Tarlazzi. "Patou gave me a great deal of confidence in myself, and I learned my disgust for couture," he says, laughing. "No, I mean, it's a joke," he adds without much conviction.

In 1975, with Francis Menuge and a friend named Donald (who uses no last name), he started a business making glow-in-the-dark clothing and jewelry. He visited London and was amazed at the ways young people were expressing themselves. "It was extremely stimulating, a breath of fresh air. I loved the lively atmosphere of the streets. In London people dressed as individuals. Paris was very boring by comparison."

Although fashion magazines began to pick up his sketches, his clothes, often running contrary to what others were showing, were ignored by buyers. In 1976, while the the rest of the world was showing loose, billowy shapes, often in gauzy fabrics, he showed tight, sexy clothes. The press took note, but the collection was a financial disaster. The next year his Robin Hood theme and the black-and-white collection that followed won press raves, but still no business.

"The trouble was, we knew nothing about marketing clothes," says Gaultier, who remembers that they sold the clothes for less than they cost to make. "All of us were working very hard, yet financially we seemed to be going nowhere, though the fashion press thought we were great."

The encourgement of their pals kept them from giving up. Models, hairdressers and makeup artists offered to work for free, some fabric was donated and even halls were loaned without charge.

In desperation, Gaultier submitted sketches to other design houses. Kashiyama, a large and wealthy Japanese house, gave Gaultier carte blanche to design for its Paris boutique called Bus Stop. "It was a fabulous moment for us. Everything was paid for. Whatever we needed we received. For the first time I could create in a free atmosphere without spending my own money -- we could do alost anything we wanted."

Until 1981 Gaultier designed exclusively for Kashiyama. Then GIBO of Italy began to manufacture a line of his clothes. While American stores were reluctant to pick it up, shops in Europe and Japan started to sell his things well. And the influence of his designs -- the bold plaids, the laces, the cutaway styles, the fezzes -- began to take off, not only worn by kids but reinterpreted by other designers.

Since both men and women bought the clothes originally designed for women, Gaultier added a line of menswear that ignored the old ideas of dressing by sex. They all hang together in his new shop in Milan. "There is no difference between my men's and women's clothes," he says. "A tailored jacket in a proportion that is not classical is not effeminate. Men buy it because they don't find it in a very classical men's shop . . . All things can be mixed. Everything can be beautiful, small and big -- small girls, big girls, big boys, small boys.

"This is a generation of men -- not ambiguous or homosexual or anything like that -- but that care about themselves. And they care about being beautifully dressed. Perhaps they are more fragile in reality -- always men are fragile in reality. They may not be after a John Wayne look, but they care about their looks. They know that they have to seduce, they know that they have to take care about how they are looking for their rapport with their girlfriends or with other people, and with themselves, too."

He has given up jeans for himself, and now likes to wear suits -- everyone wants to be more elegant these days, he says. "In a moment of crisis you need to be beautiful, for yourself, for the others, for the effect you produce for the others." That crisis, he says, is economic and psychological stress.

The new suit he wore for the dinner in his honor in New York was quite baggy, a holdover, he says, from his flea market days. It was a brown pin stripe -- with a skirt. "A masculine skirt, don't you think?" he corrected, pointing out the cuffs on the pants under the skirt that wrapped only around the front.

Men in skirts are the future, he says. "Of course men will wear skirts. It is coming. Among more of the young generation the codification of what is masculinity has changed a lot. You don't wear your masculinity. You are masculine or you are not -- it is not the clothes that make you masculine or feminine."

Unlikely? Because Jean-Paul Gaultier has said so, it is worth noting.