By  on November 28, 2005

PARIS — "I realized this week I'm crazy about fashion," Christian Lacroix declared with one of his big, infectious smiles.

While that might not sound like a revelation, coming from one of the world's most celebrated couturiers, it reflects a sea change in attitude at his house, which 10 months ago was bought by Florida-based travel retail firm Falic Group.

After 18 years under LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton ownership, the last few particularly disquieting, Lacroix said things are going well with his new parent and that he feels energized and inspired anew.

"It's a totally new culture," the designer said this month over coffee at the Bristol hotel here. "At last, we have some chemistry with people who are on the same wavelength."

In a wide-ranging interview, Lacroix disclosed fresh details about his new store concept, announced plans to speed development of men's wear and described a step-by-step approach to bolster women's ready-to-wear, the core of his brand.

Also, Lacroix said he would soon travel to Florida for the first time to meet the Falics on their home turf — and take in next month's Art Basel Miami fair, as well.

"It wasn't buying a couture house just for the sake of buying a couture house — and then putting it on a diet," he said, alluding to the specter of layoffs that often haunt businesses after a takeover. Lacroix revealed that the Falics have bolstered staffing in key areas such as marketing, merchandising and production coordination.

The designer stressed that his house is still untangling itself from LVMH, and that the spring-summer collection shown last month was still produced under its auspices. Yet, "We worked at it with a new spirit, so much lighter," he said, citing a 5 percent increase in orders.

The firm is searching for new manufacturing partners for its rtw collections and taking a "measured, analytical" approach to the task, Lacroix said. That includes ensuring that each item in his collection, such as a jacket slated for Neiman Marcus or Barneys New York, is "at a price that would be clever."

Effective with spring, Lacroix merged his top rtw line and his Bazar diffusion line to better reflect how women shop. "I know that our customers mix and match not only our clothes, but with other brands," he said. "I much prefer to have the buyer facing one rack with everything from a fur coat to a T-shirt."Lacroix said a new store environment is also key to rejuvenating his business and a forthcoming boutique at The Forum Shops in Las Vegas, slated for a March opening, will feature a concept he's developing with Paris design guru Didier Krzentowski, whose Kreo gallery commissions the world's leading industrial designers to make furniture, lighting and home objects.

Lacroix said the Falics immediately accepted his collaboration idea, which will see 18th-century consoles cohabit with sleek, modern elements with glossy automotive finishes. The designer described a freewheeling mix of stone, concrete and ceramic, mixed with red — a signature Lacroix color — and "soft and sweet" colors. "I think it will be astonishing," he said.

The company is zeroing in on a location for a New York flagship that should open in the second half of 2006, at which time the historic Paris location on Faubourg Saint-Honoré is also slated for a facelift.

The U.S. is a priority for the Falics, who aim to grow its share to account for 35 percent of sales, compared with the current 10 percent.

In recent years, Lacroix's extra-curricular activities multiplied, from airline uniforms and high-speed train interiors to hotels and even book jackets. The extent of his moonlighting led some in the industry to question whether he was still interested in fashion.

The designer confessed he simply found it easier and more rewarding to work outside LVMH, and he will honor commitments to design more hotels and theater costumes, including for a Mozart opera in Brussels that opens a few days after his couture show and a production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" at La Comédie-Française here next spring.

But now, also freed of his duties as the creative director of LVMH-owned Emilio Pucci — an awkward tie he severed last September — Lacroix said he's pouring all his efforts into his signature house.

In fact, he has already finished designing his fall-winter 2006 collection, which will be unveiled to the trade in January, and will now plunge into the couture, a prospect he relishes.

"The idea that I'll be in the couture house until midnight every night is as pleasant for me as waking up and realizing, 'Oh, it's Saturday,'" Lacroix said.His enthusiasm is reflected in growing sales at the couture. Despite fewer weddings this year in the Middle East, orders for his winter couture collection, shown last July, were up 10 percent, the house said.

Men's wear, lingerie and swimwear are all areas Lacroix considers development priorities, and he would like to enter the eyewear business soon.

And while he has not yet poured his heart into the fragrance business, Lacroix said he relishes the prospect. "For the future, I'm very confident, too. If (the Falics) know something, it's fragrance," he said.

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