PARIS -- Christian Lacroix well remembers the afternoon his grandfather asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. "Christian Dior," the 5-year-old Lacroix shot back at once.

No more. Although Lacroix's designs for the house of Jean Patou, and his departure from there to open a house of his own, have ruffled the fashion world -- much like the impact of Dior's new look 40 years ago -- Lacroix is uncomfortable with the comparison. Particularly since Agache, Dior's parent company, has become sole backer of the new house, Christian Lacroix.

But to take the place of Dior's designer Marc Bohan? No way. "Everyone says I'm here to be the successor to Marc, but I must tell you that I don't want to be Dior," Lacroix told Bernard Arnault, head of Group Financie`re Agache. "It's too big shoes for me."

Others would disagree. Bill Blass calls Lacroix "the man who changed the course of fashion," and the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave him its highest accolade at a dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in January "for inspiring a host of international fashion designers to loosen up, take chances, and find less classic new solutions to dressing women." And from the French press he received the coveted Golden Thimble award.

Christian Dior would have liked to have been in Christian Lacroix's shoes.

Christian Lacroix, 35, is slouched in a formal, wing-backed chair in his suite at the Hotel Crillon, informally comfortable in spite of his perfectly tailored Saville Row plaid suit, striped shirt and boldly dotted tie. It is the time of the last ready-to-wear showings, and Lacroix, a man who had yet to produce the first garment in his new house, is already being wooed by retailers, fabric designers and the press.

Gustav Zumsteg of Abraham Fabrics has come from Zurich to show Lacroix the fabrics he made for Balenciaga in the 1950s and '60s. An Italian silk maker, Setarium, brought him archives from spring 1861, "with fabrics that seem to be born yesterday," says Lacroix. "I chose flowers that I will make more today -- making the pattern wider or smaller, changing colors, of course. But not changing the quality of the silk."

He chats comfortably and quietly in English, choreographing what he says with the movement of his hands. Intermittently he slips his right hand in his pocket to play with a good-luck coin. He is superstitious, consulting a medium regularly, except of late, when he has been so busy. He used to wear an old lapis lazuli ring given him by a friend, but it is broken, and it is now in a box on his table. Before it broke his medium told him, "Your luck comes from this ring. Put it on your finger, even if it's broken." Three is his lucky number, so every dress detail is in threes -- three bows, three ruffles, three colors.

When he recently told his old friend, Franc ois Lesage, who creates the most beautiful embroideries, that he was opening a new house, Lessage gave him a gold Tolstoy coin that grand couturie`re Madeleine Vionnet had given Lessage's mother for luck. Now it is always in Lacroix's pocket with other coins, but he never confuses them. Still, he hasn't had time yet to tell his medium about the coin or the new house. "Maybe I'm not quite so superstitious after all."

Perhaps for luck he will say little about his upcoming couture collection to be shown in July 26, and the ready-to-wear de luxe that will follow soon after. "My problem is that I'm so tired with bustle and pouf and everything, even though that sounds ... unfashionable," says Lacroix, with a grin. "But ... I will have to do it at least three more times and I have no regret about that." He would like to find another way, though, of being soft and romantic. "Romantic is not, perhaps, a good word," he says.

Nostalgic suits him better. "I don't want to do a revolution in the way of cutting or the way of creating new materials. It is not for me," says Lacroix. "We are not in a period of creativity from nothing. I don't think fashion now is a story of just a different way of cutting a sleeve as was true in the '50s."

It's not the moment for change, he says. Even YSL -- "For me, Saint Laurent is king" -- rather than breaking new ground, is the heir of Chanel and Balenciaga and Dior. Lacroix singles out Courre`ges with his space-age look, the Japanese designers with their bizarre designs anchored in tradition and Azzedine Alaia as the rare ones who have found new ways to create clothes. "Designers today, except Azzedine {Alaia}, don't work on inspiration. You have some references ... it's a cultural thing much more than a technical."

During the collection showings in Paris in April, Lacroix met with some American buyers and executives, including Marvin Traub, chairman of Bloomingdale's. Lacroix asked what these people expected from him. "I was very touched and very grateful because they didn't say anything about a sleeve or a collar."

He asked Traub if American women are waiting for "the exuberance of my Patou couture or the translation of this spirit into a ready-to-wear? Do they want what I have done before or something different?" Lacroix recalls Traub saying, "Do what you have a mind to do and they will follow."

Because of American movies, books and TV programs he sees in France, Lacroix feels at home in the United States. "We are of the same mind." Being from Arles in the south of France, as a child he dreamed about Paris. Now, he says, he designs for the woman who wants to look as though she is from Paris. "But it's a dreamed Parisian woman as in the musicals of the '50s, like 'An American in Paris' when everything is so idealized. And perhaps American people have the same eye on Paris and the women of Paris as I do."

So he has begun his collection with sketches and research. "Perhaps in life you have to go where you are less good and perhaps it is good that I have to work on architecture and research on the cut," he says. His greatest pleasure is sketching with all the details -- the accessories. "The allure of the sketch," he calls it. "I think that fashion is allure. It's a way of being, an attitude, and a sketch translates very well."

What makes something new for today, he says, is the way of putting things together ... the unexpected mixing of materials, like gold lame' and tweed, or a way of doing accessories, or working on proportions, of mixing shapes.

But everything must be done with a sense of humor. "I love it when people smile and laugh when they see one of my shows. Humor is something we need in our lives and in our wardrobes. By humor, I don't mean something aggressive, but rather a little wink that shows one is having a good time. Fashion must be amusing, positive, uplifting."

His designs are anchored in his three-year study of fashion history at the Ecole de Louvre. He had hoped for a job in a costume museum. His dream was to be in charge of a museum for provincial costume, an idea he had long before there was a substantial costume museum in France. With letters of recommendation from teachers and friends, he made the rounds of designers, showing his dossier to Yves Saint Laurent's partner, Pierre Berge, to Karl Lagerfeld and to many others. Lagerfeld liked his sense of fashion and encouraged him to forget the museum idea and work in fashion.

That was the start of the summer of 1978, and Lagerfeld told Lacroix to come back to see him in September. "But I needed to prove to my parents that it was possible to go on in life without finishing my studies, and so the first job offered I accepted," says Lacroix. He became an assistant at Herme`s, working for the fashion coordinator. In six months he learned the basic things -- how to do a color range, how to plan a whole collection.

Jean-Jacques Picart, now Lacroix's associate for marketing the plans and image of the new company, was in charge of publicity and image for Herme`s at the time. They were thrown together and told to make the image of the house of Herme`s younger. Lacroix was impressed by Picart. "He had a very huge white office where he took charge of many designers -- Thierry Mugler, Popy Moreni, everybody. It was like an accelerated lesson of fashion."

A Picart client, designer Guy Paulin, asked Lacroix to assist him in Italy and France, and another Picart client, a Japanese designer "who needed some fresh air to have a French look," took on Lacroix as well. Lacroix won't reveal the Japanese designer's name "because he wasn't supposed to be helped." Even after he went to work for the house of Jean Patou, Lacroix continued to work in Japan.

It was 1981 and just the time Patou's head designer, Roy Gonzales, was very ill. Jean de Mouy, head of the house, was looking for a successor. "There were several candidates, and I was lucky," says Lacroix. It was a good match. Lacroix knew well the work of Patou, who had died in 1936, and admired the way the house encouraged the wit and daring of designers Michel Goma and Angelo Tarlazzi.

At the beginning he had to show his sketches to all the family and executives of the house, then show the toiles (canvas patterns) and even the first fittings. He tried to control his dissatisfaction with this arrangement. "I prefer to be quiet and polite, but doing {things} exactly my way when I'm sure I'm right. And each time anybody tries to tell me ... oooooo," he says, with a huge grin.

The very first dress he made for Patou couture was a neat, bias-cut white jersey -- simple with no extraneous details. To Lacroix, elegance at a conservative house meant purity. But the old-timers at Patou complained his dress wasn't couture enough. Still, Lacroix held his ground. Soon after, the management presented many sketches to Lacroix -- he doesn't know by whom -- of variations on his dress, but re-created to look more couture. "They added a button here, a pleat there. Everything was so ugly," he remembers.

The controversial white dress survived exactly as he originally designed it, and it was the first Lacroix design sold at Patou. He won't reveal the name of the client who bought it except to say she was a very elegant and aristocratic French woman who said -- and he recalls her words, "Oh I want this dress. It's so simple, so classic and so elegant."

Lacroix describes his entire first collection for spring 1982 for Patou as very "quiet."

"We didn't want to be violent with the image of Patou and its calm and conservative clientele." But step by step, season by season, it conformed more and more to Lacroix's idea. "I tried to give the line the idea I had of couture, adding some details, some accessories, some bright colors and va va va ... And four seasons later we start on the style that you know."

Says designer Karl Lagerfeld, "Christian is a real breath of fresh air in a couture environment that is half-asphyxiated."

Lacroix doesn't understand why some found his witty and charming dresses, with poufs and bubbles, tulle and trains, so shocking. "I wanted to be faithful to the couture feeling, because for me couture was like the clothes of Saint Laurent and Balenciaga that I saw in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue as a child. They were very glamorous, elegant and daring."

He made these extravagant styles, he says, because women were tired of clothes too sexy -- "too hot," he says. "Perhaps women are free now, not only with fashion, but free with social things, I think. Now women dare to be themselves and don't need any proof to prove they are rich, or happy with their husbands. Their clothes are just the way they are." He admires the sculptural, body-conscious clothes of Azzedine Alaia -- "but I must say that often women in those clothes are little too sexy. And so I think women dare now to be soft and romantic. Perhaps it is a daring thing now to be soft and romantic."

Since age 7 he has been a Saint Laurent fan; he remembers a Paris Match article with pictures of a model in a red trapeze coat and a picture of Saint Laurent and his bridal design. "Since then I always just love everything he makes ... even his errors," he says. "Always I am a little shocked," he says, with a smile, "but it's so wonderful."

Last year Lacroix and his friend Picart went to see the YSL exhibit at the Muse'e de la Mode. "I got so stressed by the exhibition. I told my friends leaving the museum, I will stop working with fashion -- Saint Laurent, he did everything. He did everything, African style, 18th-century style, everything."

Fortunately, he kept on going.

Lacroix was itching to change jobs when he was tapped by Agache financial's Arnault. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Dior's first collection, Arnault wanted to open a new fashion house in Paris. Arnault has promised Lacroix an investment of $8 million.

In spite of his great success at Patou, Lacroix was disappointed he was permitted no input in the Patou fragrance business, the main support of the house. He also wanted to make ready-to-wear. "I think a designer needs both; haute couture is a dream, and ready-to-wear is everyday and weekends."

He adds, "I want to do in haute couture only shapes which need haute couture techniques. Some things can only be done in couture, like all the bustles and yards of tulle and all the hours sewing." He's trying to figure out what from the couture could be translated into ready-to-wear and made in an industrial way.

He had wanted his new fashion house to be on the Left Bank but kept bumping into zoning restrictions. "For me the Left Bank is more elegant and less pretentious, and more genuine." He finally settled on a house that previously belonged to designer Jacques Esterel, located at 73, Faubourg Saint-Honore', across from the Bristol Hotel.

He talks about his new house like a young bride. "We were looking for a house with charm. I wanted to fall in love and I did. I didn't want anything too pretentious because we are just starting. I didn't want to seem to be the baron ... a big banker." The house reminds him of a country house in the south of France, with a very beautiful floor of 18th-century terra cotta. "Its simple and elegant."

It's also got good working space, some clear rooms for the seamstresses and an elegant office for Arnault. Lacroix is working with a team of decorators, including Elizabeth Garoust and Mattia Bonetti, who several years ago did the Privilege restaurant downstairs in the Le Palace disco. He considered using Gae Aulenti, who designed the inside of the new Quai D'Orsay museum, but "she was too expensive for me," he says.

Meanwhile the house of Patou is steaming mad. It has turned down a request to lend a Lacroix-designed dress for an upcoming exhibition on Surrealism and Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. De Mouy at Patou is suing Lacroix and Arnault for 85 million francs ($14 million) damages for leaving the firm and cashing in on the departure with considerable publicity.

Lacroix is befuddled by the company's anger. "I was just a salaried man at Patou," says Lacroix, who was paid 35,000 francs (about $6,000) in January, the last month he worked at Patou. "My only fault is that I quit them without giving them two months' notice," he says a little sadly. "But everything went so quickly ... It's really unbelievable."

So quickly that he has had no time for shopping, a passion of his when he was younger. Still, Lacroix is as careful and as whimsical about how he dresses himself as his clients.

"I never find my pleasures too conservative. I like to mix colors and patterns, but in a quiet way, but not quiet every day. Not today," he says, checking his bold pattern mix. He likes stripes and dots and paisleys but they are hard to find in menswear in Paris. That's why Ralph Lauren is his favorite designer for his own clothes. His shirts comes from Turnbull and Asser, and other things from Herme`s, of course. "I love genuine clothes like sailors' pants from the south of France and Oshkosh stripes with huge pockets."

His interest in fashion did not come from his family. His father, who died seven years ago just as Lacroix was starting in the fashion business, was an engineer -- "many generations of bridges and oil refineries," he says. His mother still lives in the south of France, in Arles where Lacroix was born.

Lacroix met his wife Franc oise when they were both working at Herme`s, where she was a fashion coordinator for accessories. "She quit Herme`s a year ago and now she just lives," says Lacroix. "She wants to have fun."

On the contrary, he describes himself as sauvage, meaning unsociable. "I don't like very much to nightclub. But she loves it. She goes out representing me to a dinner party and everywhere." There are many dinners he must attend for business, but he would rather be at home reading. "I have several books on my table now. And I began all of them and since five months I have only no time." He has started Patrick Modiano's last novel -- "he is very nostalgic; we are of the same universe," he says. "My mind is attracted much more by images than by text and words." These days he reads a page or two and falls asleep.

For a distraction he watches television including "Dynasty." "I view it like an anthropologist, as a document of our time," he says. And he sketches.

"It's the only thing I really know."