January 30, 1989 12:00 PM

The market is bullish for bears. Teddy bears, that is. In Europe, where bear mania is at a peak, teddy bears have moved out of the nursery and onto the fashion runways. Those cuddly companions of childhood have emerged as the latest status symbol in couturier clothing, a chichi way for adults to show they are young at heart.

Sonia Rykiel, Patrick Kelly and the fashion house of Benetton all have designs on bears. But there is no more brilliant practitioner of teddy-bear wear than French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, 39. He has produced this season’s ursine qua non, an acrylic-and-polyester winter coat festooned with 38 identical bouncing bears. “From a distance, they look like a homogeneous pattern. To get the full impact of the individual teddy bears,” says Castelbajac, “you need to snuggle up to the wearer.”

Potential snugglers seen wearing the exclusive bear togs include Lauren Hutton and socialite Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. Recently a guest at the Élysée Palace in Paris received a standing ovation simply for wearing her Castelbajac creation, and the coat is going to be included in an exhibition of animal sculpture at the Musée d’Orsay in 1990. Castelbajac’s teddy bears come in two colors, dark brown and pale taupe, and two styles, jacket and coat. Bear minimum: $2,500. Bear maximum: $3,400. So far only 69 have been sold, and Castelbajac has no plans to license a department store version.

“To me, it’s a dream coat, with roots in my childhood emotions and memories,” the designer says. “If I ask myself what kind of animal I’d like to come back as, I would say a bear. They are thoughtful, endearing creatures.” Over the years Castelbajac has demonstrated a striking flair for the unconventional, encouraging women to wear his chic jogging outfits to board meetings and his glittering parkas to balls. In a simultaneous foray into zoological fashion, he designed a Noah’s Ark coat that comprises 12 different animals.

Meanwhile, 10-year-old Guilhem de Castelbajac, the designer’s elder son, is learning how complicated adults can be. Guilhem asked his father to make him a teddy-bear coat to wear to school. After all, his mother had worn one to an AIDS benefit. No luck: Guilhem will have to go to school in his windbreaker. Papa’s teddies are strictly for grown-ups.

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