By  on June 5, 2007

MOULINS-SUR-ALLIER, France — Even from across the room, Christian Lacroix's striking drawing of a costume for "Don Giovanni' — a black cloak, hat and mask — broadcasts mystery and intrigue.

According to the couturier, clothes for the stage are all about "symbols, effects and illusions' and they must "speak outright when the actors, dancers or singers enter the stage.'

Still, a retrospective here of Lacroix's 20 years of costume design also trumpets the designer's finesse, all the while showcasing his knowledge of fashion history, not to mention opera, theater and ballet.

The exhibition, "Christian Lacroix, Costumer' at the year-old National Center for Stage Costumes, spans a range of styles, from elegant, sinuously draped gowns to much campier fare, including a gaudy cocktail number made of red foil wrapping paper for a Venice production of the

ballet "Cendrillon' that the designer described as "very drag queen.'

Lacroix began designing for the stage around the same time he left Jean Patou to set up his own couture house in 1987, backed by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. (Falic Group, based in Florida, currently owns the Lacroix fashion house.)

The designer recalled being astounded by the dressmaking capabilities of the Comédie Française, whose ateliers rival a couture house, he said during a walk-through of the exhibition, which runs through Nov. 11. Indeed, his costumes for "Phèdre' are pileups of ornate riches, with one gown made of lush velvets trimmed in embroidery, a cross of gold lace and beads splashed across the bodice.

Fans of Lacroix's couture and ready-to-wear collections will recognize many of his favorite themes and signatures — bullfighters, gypsies, the pouf — some of which first appeared on the stage, some after. Two dresses from "Carmen,' framed in wooden structures that are actually antique apparatuses for lifting sets, proclaim the riot of colors, patterns and Baroque decoration for which Lacroix gained fame, the stiffened ruffles of the skirts sheltering tassels as an extra flourish.

Lacroix noted many stage productions operate with precarious financing, and costumes are sometimes sold afterward to raise money. "In some cases, only the sketches remain,' he lamented.

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