December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

He can be spotted taking the metro to work, but that is one of the few bourgeois indulgences for which Christian Lacroix can still find the time. As the newly crowned king of French couture, the 36-year-old Provençal has been overtaken by the brilliance of his own reputation. At his shows in Paris, fashion editors weep with joy while socialites shower him with carnations, his favorite flower. In a country where attitude is all, his iconoclastic creations have enthusiasts crying “Oo-la-Lacroix!” Declares Hebe Dorsey, renowned critic of the International Herald Tribune: “He is now the most influential designer in the world.”

Not since Yves Saint Laurent stepped into the spotlight 25 years ago has the jaded fashion world been so shaken by one man and his work. Lacroix’s spirited short poufs and petticoats and frocklettes hung with bustles and ruffles have revitalized French haute couture, an ailing grande dame sorely in need of nips, tucks and, above all, frivolity. His work was quickly copied, and his client list has gone international, embracing Faye Dunaway, Diane von Furstenberg and a gaggle of society gadabouts.

Why Lacroix? Perhaps the affable onetime art history student was inspired by the ambience of his native Aries in the sumptuous south of France. But Lacroix has no patience with such analysis. “I’m not a creator, I’m not a revolutionary,” he says. “I’m more of a decorator.”

Whatever he is, his touch is a sure one, and his year has been a stunning success. In February, with pledges of $8 million from confident backers, he announced he was leaving the House of Patou, where he had worked since 1981, to start his own maison de couture. Not satisfied with capturing France, Lacroix, who is married to style consultant Françoise Rosenthiel, journeyed this fall to New York, where he was greeted with all the rites attendant on a conquering hero. Bergdorf Goodman launched his line in the U.S. with a lavish blowout—Calvin Klein and Donna Karan came to pay homage—and took in $330,000 in advance orders.

Is everybody happy? Of course not. Detractors claim Lacroix creates not dresses but un wearable costumes for surreal operettas; his puffball skirts, they say, are a logistic nightmare. (In that, at least, they may have a point. Not long ago German jet-setter Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis wore a voluminous Lacroix to a gala and found herself stuck among the tables and chairs as her husband awaited her on the dance floor.) Lacroix shrugs off the criticism; he worries more about overexposure. “People talk too much about us,” he says of himself and the House of Lacroix. “We risk becoming boring to them.”

Not yet. Madcap clients with champagne tastes and budgets to match (a made-to-order Lacroix can cost $50,000) continue to pour through the doors of his salon. Take Paloma Picasso: Thrilled with her latest Lacroix, she asked him to whip up another—for her bulldog, Martha. Ever the gentleman, Lacroix obliged, delivering a royal blue taffeta suit with a ruffled neckline. Paloma was pleased, Martha no less than exquisite.

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