PARIS -- Christian Lacroix, whose couture collection last July rocked the fashion crowd around the world, has proved he is not only a very good designer but a brilliant marketer, which is almost as important as being creative in this competitive business. For five days during the week of ready-to-wear shows here, he has presented a small "luxe" collection of 17 styles -- each in several fabric and color combinations -- to buyers and the press. There are no real surprises. The clothes are spinoffs -- but none an exact copy -- of the short and colorful designs he showed for couture. The collection is the hottest ticket in Paris.
By midday yesterday, at least four Washington stores were in the running for the honor of selling these whoppingly expensive "jeune-fille" party dresses. Garfinckel's was eager; so were Henri and Micheline Peker of La Boutique Francaise. Saks-Jandel owner Ernest Marx was hoping he would be selling them alongside other top designers. Saks Fifth Avenue, which will have the clothes for its Beverly Hills store, wanted also to sell them in Washington.
The winners were chosen by the designer at day's end: Both Saks Fifth Avenue and Garfinckel's will carry the Lacroix clothes. "I don't expect a line out the door waiting to buy them, but Lacroix has made a strong statement, and Washington is a fashion-minded international city, so it is important that his clothes be represented here," said Neal Fox, chairman of Garfinckel's.
Lacroix says his designs are not meant to be serious and are not for the shy. "Well, maybe for the fake shy," he said, laughing, after the first show. "The fashion I do is fashion from the heart." He was not referring specifically to the heart-shaped embroidery on several of his dresses, but rather to the upbeat, whimsical spirit of his deluxe styles. "The day of intellectual fashion is past," he said. "The fashion I do is fashion you have to fall in love with. It doesn't depend on the price."
Yet price is an important issue in the current collection, which will retail for an average of about $4,500 a dress -- the cost of a blouse in the Lacroix couture collection. The new line will be made either in his own atelier or in the finest workrooms in Paris.
No matter that these clothes will be produced in limited quantity. They are not for everyone, certainly not for those who want to blend into the crowd. And they are not clothes with which you can wear your family jewels or your most comfortable pumps. Lacroix has designed colorful accessories including bowl-shaped or big-brimmed hats filled with fake flowers, patterned bags and shoes with spool-shaped heels in patterns that are really essential to carry off the look.
Although these clothes are for a limited audience, Lacroix has up the sleeve of his Ralph Lauren suit a plan to make a ready-to-wear collection for next fall, to be introduced in March, for a far larger group of consumers; the collection would be manufactured in the same factories in Italy as the labels that make Genny and Byblos. "With my fall collection, I want to prove that I can make simple, easy-to-wear and affordable things."
But for the time being, the new deluxe collection is for those who want a little fun and a lot of color in the clothes they wear. All the dresses are short, though according to Ellin Saltzman of Saks Fifth Avenue, Lacroix will add five centimeters to the styles sold in stores. That will make them 21 inches from the waistband, still a generous cut above the knees.
With this collection, presented in Lacroix's new house a block from the Elyse'e Palace, he has reassured retailers that the pouf-skirt fashion he prompted will go on, at least for another season. And while he has revived vintage concepts like panniers and fichus and medieval sleeves, his versions are strictly 20th century. Though some styles are positively giddy with puffs and bows, ribbons and embroidery, the bright colors and cropped length make them look far more modern than, say, a gala ball gown. The ideas may have started in the 18th century, but no one then would have thought of putting a warp-print taffeta strapless dress with a short bell-shaped skirt over a black lace T-shirt. Or a red flowered pique' bustier over wide-legged pants in another print.
It clearly makes Lacroix uncomfortable to be told he has influenced many designers. "Maybe the influence I have had is to inject a bit of color into clothes. I love color," said Lacroix, "and I am always amazed at the models who come here dressed entirely in black. They look like they were raised in an orphanage."
A former student of costume history, he boldly takes fashion ideas from other eras and interprets them in a totally modern way. Like the fichus, which for Lacroix are set on zippers. Or the panniers, which in Lacroix's lingo are charming puffs of fabric on the side of a pink cloque' dress caught up in a bow. With his hankering to play with old styles, he will never run out of ideas. "We must go back to our roots. There are so many things in French fashion history that we can learn from and craftsmanship that we can use."
Lacroix will tap ideas from French fashion history when he starts his newest project, designing for the ballet. He will shortly meet with Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has asked him to design costumes for the production of "Gaiete' Parisienne," a ballet set in Belle Epoque Paris. In November, Lacroix will come to New York to collaborate with scenic designer Zack Brown. "The truth is that I prefer costume to fashion," Lacroix said. "Now I hope that creating costumes for ballet and opera will become my relaxing pastime."