For Lacroix, a stylish show of adornment

Fashion: It would seem an odd match. But in D.C., designer's flashy clothes and courtly demeanor send the Opera Ball crowd over the top.

June 05, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Fashion designer Christian Lacroix's motto is "Too Much is Never Enough." Ivana Trump, no champion of subtlety, is a loyalist. And the very mention of his name gives Patsy and Edina, the fashion victims on the Britcom "Absolutely Fabulous," haute flashes.

"It's Lacroix, darling," is their mantra.

Last night, the darling emperor of excess breezed through the Washington Opera Ball like an ordinary guest, having been invited by French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang. The ambassador had personally asked Lacroix to lend his lush touch to the ball decorations.

At the ambassador's residence, the tuxedoed designer and his wife, Francoise, attracted flash bulbs and ambassadorial attention, but no unfashionably lavish outpouring.

Lacroix's decor theme, couture from past to present, was illustrated through 40 mannequins wearing his creations, including ballet and theatrical costumes. Guests entered to baroque decadence, the mannequins swathed in sharp black tulle and chiffon sleeves, and on one, a bodice so thickly encrusted with gold sequins it resembled armor.

Pastel flapper dresses draped in airy capes lined an outside balcony, and the fashion odyssey ended in the party tent with futuristic patchwork peasant dresses and mermaid sheaths in shiny sea tones. The main tent was chaotically chic, bathed in electric blue, pink and red light with massive, draping sheets of fabric culled from old opera sets.

The partygoers, although formal, couldn't come close to Lacroix' featured frocks. The funkiest statements ranged from a metallic Judy Jetson dress with 3-D Saturn rings to a silver handbag resembling a miniature jeweled Hindenburg to a pink froufrou hairdo that eerily resembled the circular flower arrangements that served as the mannequin heads.

A day before the ball, Lacroix attended a preview of his fall line at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase.

"I feel a bit speechless," he said, smiling down at his feet as he was introduced to a bubbly crowd. "I am very impressed by your coming."

They were simple words and muted gestures from a designer whose creations are anything but.

Poufs, petticoats, sequins, lame and every element of excess possible are Lacroix trademarks. And yes, he is responsible for that green silk intergalactic dunce cap in the far corner of the Saks' showroom.

His clothing may be out there. But Lacroix himself -- humble, hard-working and kind of sexy -- is right here. He's dressed rather tamely in a classic black Eric Bergeres suit, set off by an old bright green and yellow tie from his dad. With his strong brow and dark eyes, he's almost primitively handsome yet exudes a sweet, approachable energy.

"He's one of the last great gentlemen of French fashion," said Mary Lou Luther, a syndicated fashion columnist. "He's very elegant, courtly and sweet."

He extends business cards to reverent fashion design students, signs purses and simply mingles in such a way as to inspire admirer after admirer to place a hand on his arm, hug him or otherwise gush. At every turn, there's another photo opportunity. Another flash. Another smile.

"He's a touchable person," said Nazanine Atabaki, 30, who lives in Washington and came to the show. "He's not so far off."

He is lionized for his over-the-top haute couture. In the mid-'80s, while a designer at France's now-defunct Patou fashion house, he invented and immortalized the pouf skirt. The creation made him a household name -- at least with anyone who cared about fashion.

When he launched his own line in 1987, the fashion world oohed and aahed at his wild, baroque, not to mention expensive (a custom Lacroix dress may set you back $75,000) vision.

His was a blindingly energetic departure from the nuclear-winter palettes of Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garcons. "He was the prototypical designer of the '80s. It was a decade of excess," Luther said. "He had a hard time in the '90s living through minimalism."

Lacroix concedes that the monochromatic waif wave did not suit him. He's had much more success with his originals in Europe, where couture never died. And he definitely sees a place for his vision in the new millennium, not just in Europe, but everywhere.

He predicts three strands of style will dominate. One group will go totally avant-garde, another will rehash the politically correct themes of the '90s, and a third will go all out, Lacroix-style.

The ready-to-wear collection at Saks represented the more subdued side of the designer: a pumpkin-colored prom dress with ruffles, a graphic black mesh T-shirt with neon pink curlicues, even an office-appropriate fuchsia sweater set. The styles may have been slightly risque, but rarely ridiculous.

"I try to be faithful to myself, but with an evolution," Lacroix said. "Not being stuck with the pouf. It's still very couture and colorful."

His designs have also become significantly more graphic and geometric. But you wouldn't quite call them conservative.

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