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.Shoestring budgets being a fact of life in the theater, Lacroix often fashioned costumes from old clothes found at flea markets. For "Othello,' he gathered coats from the Forties, slashing the sleeves and the backs to impart a Renaissance look. For "Les Caprices de Marianne,' he took fabric swatches donated by famed St. Gallen fabric house Jakob Schlaepfer — plus a few discarded toys — and created an eye-popping tunic composed of car wash-like strips.

In the exhibition, Lacroix and set designer Michel Albertini arranged his costumes in vast cases with moody lighting, the backdrops a jumble of computer-altered imagery. Occasionally, music is piped in to evoke the mood of the performance. In one large room, tutus on mechanized ropes whirl overhead, showing dense and colorful ruffles, as appealing as candy floss.

The vast museum, housed in an 18th-century building once used to store arms, boasts a collection of some 8,500 costumes donated by the National Opera of Paris, the Comédie Française and the National Library of France. These include colorful, hand-printed dresses from the Ballets Russes, the legendary company that inspired countless designers, including couturier Yves Saint Laurent.

And although the museum is located in the dead center of France, far from the runways of Paris, the town has its share of fashion lore. Legend has it that Gabrielle Chanel, once an aspiring singer, tested her pipes at Le Grand Café, a spectacular Belle Epoque brasserie in the town center, where she earned her nickname from one of the songs in her repertoire, "Qui a vu Coco dans l'Trocadero?' or "Who has seen Coco in Trocadero?'

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