PARIS, JULY 26 -- Christian Lacroix, the 36-year-old designer who changed the course of international fashion with his poufs and bustles and woke up the sometimes sleepy world of haute couture with injections of wit and youth, opened his first signature collection today, poufs and bustles intact, skirts still high.

In one of the most highly publicized openings since Yves Saint Laurent started his own couture house in 1962, Lacroix became only the sixth designer in 20 years to form a major couture house.

Despite widely published statements that he would leave his poufs and bustles at Jean Patou, the firm he left in February, Lacroix apparently had a change of heart. There are enough poufs, puffballs and petticoats in this fall-winter collection to insure his reputation as the master of madcap fashion for at least another six months. And the only thing really new about his latest bustle is that it rustles on the front of the skirt instead of the back.

If Lacroix had not promised a new fashion direction, it would be difficult to fault his decision to continue doing what he does best -- fashion hyperbole at its finest, costumery at its most chic. The audience may have left the Intercontinental Hotel ballroom surprised by the clothes' obvious kinship to their predecessors at Patou, but no one seemed any less pleased to help Lacroix celebrate the opening of his $8.3 million business backed by Financiere Agache, the same French company that owns Christian Dior.

In a world where a dress costs as much as a Ford and an evening gown can sell for the same price as a Cadillac, it takes a lot of high-octane talent to ignite someone to buy. Lacroix has already proved he is such a talent. Today he helped his cause along with such clients as Paloma Picasso, one of the few women in the world who can afford to pay her own haute couture bills. She said after the show that she especially loved the clothes inspired by the bullfights in the Camargue region of Provence in southern France, where Lacroix grew up. "They invoked the idea of Spain without being Spanish," said the Spanish-born heiress-jeweler-perfumer.

"And it will be difficult to pick which ones not to buy."

Using lavender flowers and olive branches, the shawls and matador colors of his native Arles as his inspiration, Lacroix opened the show with a fairy-tale queen of Provence and her two attendants, announcing that he considered their presence on the runway "the most beautiful of good luck charms." Their long gowns in white, pink and blue taffeta shawled with white lace fichus were the obvious prototype for many of the gowns that followed.

The Provence olive branches turn up as gold metal appendages on velvet skullcaps, lavender appears in a floral print, and the shawls and capes top skirts afloat with chenille embroidery, tassels and pompons, fringe and furbelows.

In the wonderfully wacky world of Christian Lacroix, it's always time to dress to the nines. A coral wool daytime coat, for example, is made with one gigantic, waist-length ruffled collar and a skirt that poufs out as if it were going to end in a train, but gets cut off well short of the knees. A simple little daytime suit comes in a patchwork of olive-green tweed and gets a full petticoated skirt. A red tweed jacket overprinted with black triangles and sheltered by a plaid taffeta shawl skims a short full skirt of multicolored quilting mixed with navy blue.

The simplest designs in the entire collection are short velvet sheath dresses, often covered by such fur extravaganzas as a long pastel mink coat or a chocolate brown alpaca coat with fichu collar, brown satin belt and beaver cuffs.

While most of the clothes are short, there are several "midlength" dresses that stop at midcalf. A typical example has a brown velvet strapless top and a body-swagged salmon taffeta torso that erupts into a trumpet hemline layered in tulle.

Some of the furs for Birger Christensen, Lacroix's first licensee, are worn with crushed suede high-heel boots, but most of the other clothes are shown with simple pumps and dark sheer stockings. Hats range from tall fezzes to giant cartwheels. The most applauded gowns were a black velvet boatnecked dress with a diagonally ruffled horsehair skirt embroidered with red roses, and a gold embroidered jacket sprinkled with red flowers and worn over a long full skirt of fuchsia moire taffeta decorated with salmon and red chenille passementerie braid.

Lacroix is definitely bullish on bright matador colors, as in vermilion with blood red, and coral with flamingo pink. His new maison de couture, located right across from the Bristol Hotel, also reflects his strong sense of color imagery. The building that was erected for one of Napoleon's generals now looks like a kind of haute Halloween mix of orange and black -- a quirky, highly personal expression from a quirky, highly personable young man of the couture.