The Frenchman Christian Lacroix will forever be ingrained in the cultural annals as the designer who debuted le pouf in 1985, when he was at the now-defunct house of Jean Patou.

The party dress, with its puffed-up skirt, was grand and elegant and harked back to a time of elaborate balls and waltzing couples. The design propelled Lacroix to fame, landing him on the cover of the international edition of Time, enabling him to open his own couture house in 1987 and transforming him into the closest thing to a household name that the French fashion industry had produced since Yves Saint Laurent in the early '60s.

But like all good ideas, le pouf was knocked off by a host of manufacturers until soon every party frock of the period seemed to be stuffed with an awkward crinoline and women looked like they had just tumbled from atop a music box. Indeed, complaining essays were written about how ballrooms could accommodate fewer guests because the average floor space required for each woman had increased due to the unwieldy volume of her skirt.

"I felt a prisoner, trapped in the '80s," Lacroix said. "At first I symbolized the high life, golden boys, 'Dynasty' and 'Dallas.' And then suddenly with the [stock market] crisis, I epitomized Hell."

The '80s were ruinous years for the fashion industry. Retailers now realize that the meteoric sales figures of a decade ago were an aberration and that no amount of discounting will bring a repeat of those numbers. Designer labels are no longer irresistible. So design houses like Halston and Christian Dior, which overexpanded and diluted their cachet, must carefully reconsider where their names appear and where their products are sold.

The reputations of such companies as Gucci and Louis Vuitton that crashed and burned with the demise of the '80s--transformed into metaphors for extravagance and ostentation--have only recently recovered.

For Lacroix, distancing himself from the '80s has been a slow and still incomplete process. His shift has been glacial in speed not because of his work, for it has evolved over the last decade--le pouf is a distant memory--but because his styles so epitomized an era of excess. The early '90s brought stark minimalism, monastic chic and deconstruction. In the midst of plain black frocks, frayed hemlines and nun's-cloth dresses, Lacroix's signature style was an anomaly.

"We have to be faithful to what we have in mind," he says. "Minimalism was not my role."

Lacroix has always celebrated femininity with an exuberant sense of color and a collage of patterns and prints. His fabrics are lush velvets, brocades and lace. His ready-to-wear collections can be a chorus of patterns, all trilling and undulating in a complicated harmony or a jarring cacophony. His couture work, with all of its handwork, is more refined and has an opulent, regal dignity. Lacroix's style is lavishly operatic in an industry more adept at selling modest ditties.

So it was appropriate that French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang asked Lacroix to provide the mise en scene for Washington's 41st Opera Ball, being hosted tonight by the ambassador and his wife, Anne, at their Kalorama residence. Tradition holds that the host country takes this opportunity to celebrate its history, its wares and its style. The ball will also give Lacroix a chance to show his work to an appreciative audience.

And so the decor for the soiree will include examples of Lacroix's couture designs as well as his costumes for ballet and theater. In addition to decorating the interior of the ambassador's residence, he designed the dramatic lighting for the building's exterior and the stately invitation to the ball. Lacroix and his wife, Francoise, will also attend the gala.

"When the ambassador asks for your help," he says, "it is your duty."

The globalization of the fashion industry has transformed Lacroix into a rare commodity. He is one of his country's few native designers working for a major fashion house there. Venerable names such as Christian Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent ready-to-wear, Chanel and Hermes are all under the creative direction of foreign-born designers.

Lacroix grew up in Arles, in Provence, and it is from that region that he draws most of his inspiration. While his collections may appear regal and haughty, his own interpretation of his work is anything but. He sees it as earthy and ethnic and alive with personal passions. His influences, he says, are more Mediterranean than specifically French.

"I have much more affinity with Italians. The French are too pretentious. They think they are the best at everything," he says. His faintly dimpled smile makes this remark sound earnestly self-deprecating rather than soberly self-hating.

He makes this pronouncement during a break in the early stages of his planning for the Opera Ball. He bides his time in a scarlet sitting room at the French Embassy. It is a space with enough ornate gilding and molding to make an industry filled with reformed maximalists go weak with envy. Lacroix's remark is at odds with his collection. His clothes come across as the sort of postwar French fashion created in the atelier and then delivered to ladies in the manner of a commandment. But contrary to appearance, that is not Lacroix's intent at all.

And his comment about the overconfidence of the French could be interpreted as an explanation of the company's business travails. The Christian Lacroix label is part of the LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury conglomerate. It is the only couture house that LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault, also a Frenchman, built rather than acquired.

And it has struggled almost from the beginning, even with the addition of a fragrance, a more lucrative ready-to-wear line and the secondary label Bazar. At one point, the Christian Lacroix company reportedly had losses totaling as much as $40 million. While that was a low point in its history, the firm continues to scramble for profitability. (LVMH doesn't break down its profit and loss figures by individual fashion companies.)

"The problem with Bazar was more of a problem of delivery," Lacroix says. Now, with a new commercial director, "I'm quite optimistic."

Lacroix acknowledges, however, that the emphasis on labels, on the designer as artist, is not the present or the future of the fashion business. "You can't be in an ivory tower just designing couture like that," he says with a finger-snap. "For most of the young generation, it's no more about the label, except maybe Calvin Klein. It's music. It's the Gap. Zara"--a Spanish chain of inexpensive clothing shops--"is as important as Saint Laurent, Lacroix or anything else.

"French people have to find a more efficient way [of doing business in fashion]. We have to compete with the Italians and the Americans. They share the same chemistry between marketing and design and commercial," he says. "In France, you have the designers--the creative team--and the others. It is very rare that both go on the same tracks."

While the business team behind the label has changed, sometimes as abruptly as the wind, Lacroix has never strayed from his own interpretation of fashion. Even when the epitome of style became the simple white shirt, Lacroix kept to his patterns and prints and his beloved colors of Provence.

Lacroix is not distant or grand or fussy--he wears sneakers with his velvet suit, after all. He is far more approachable, more engaging than his collections, which leads one to wonder if perhaps the collections have been misunderstood.

"I love when people create their own fashion," he says. "My favorite people on the streets in Paris are the ones who express their roots."

For Lacroix, a conversation about his design evolves into a dialogue on racism, prejudice and the worrisome influence of Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right movement in France. Lacroix supports the Green Party. And he laments that xenophobia in the face of rising immigration is becoming deadlier.

To be sure, each garment in a Lacroix collection is not a commentary on such weighty issues, if indeed any single piece of clothing could ever really be. But knowing that these thoughts run through his mind, one can't help but see the clothes in a new light. Just knowing that the designer had, in his words, "a hippie period with long hair, boots and a beard" somehow makes the brocade jackets seem more inspired by Jimi Hendrix than by Louis XIV.

Growing up, Lacroix, 48, "was very conscious of violence. It was the beginning of the end of the colonies. It was a very French France."

Algeria's war of independence from France in the 1950s brought Arab students into Lacroix's schoolroom. There also were Spanish pupils escaping from a Franco-dominated Spain and Italians who had fled Mussolini's dictatorship. Lacroix's vision of French fashion isn't purely French. It is a hodgepodge of colors and patterns reflecting North African mosques, baroque lushness, Spanish toreador jackets and mantillas, the patchwork remnants of Gypsies and a host of other influences.

Lacroix majored in art history in college and aspired to be a museum curator, so there is also the element of history in his designs, of pieces of the past incorporated into the cut of a jacket or the fullness of a skirt. He is not a dramatist in the manner of John Galliano, who whips up tales of countesses in exile and queens deposed. Lacroix doesn't create confections so much as he designs enormous, full-course banquets.

What is often lost, however, is that Lacroix does not expect a woman to consume all he offers. Like most other designers, he encourages women to pick and choose. To make that point, he says, he invites his wife and friends to come to his studio to mix and match his clothes, putting them together in ways that appeal to them but may not be obvious to him.

But if there is one undeniably French aspect to Lacroix's work, it is this: He is a couturier. His atelier houses the petits mains, the skilled fingers that hand-stitch his most indulgent designs for a handful of customers. Because the French federation of couturiers has rules dictating how many couture ensembles must be produced each season, how many workers must be on staff and how much work must be done by hand, "I have to fight with some workers because doing a very basic trouser by hand is silly," Lacroix says. Unlike the ready-to-wear collection, couture is not expected to make money because, with a single dress requiring hundreds of hours of work, it is too expensive to ever be cost effective.

But Lacroix regularly creates the bridal-party wardrobe for several society weddings each year. The clothes are so voluminous and delicate that they must be shipped on dress forms, upright in specially constructed wooden crates.

They are the grand dessert in Lacroix's sumptuous feast.

CAPTION: In his spring 1999 collection, the designer continued to mix patterns, fabrics and colors in ways that could hum or screech.

CAPTION: "Minimalism was not my role," Christian Lacroix says of his fashions.

CAPTION: The post-pouf Lacroix look is sleeker but still sumptuous: "We have to be faithful to what we have in mind," says the designer. At left, a suit from his spring collection.