PARIS — Talk about unfortunate timing.

Piloting her solo fashion career after the retirement of couturier Yves Saint Laurent, Loulou de la Falaise opened her first signature boutique here in mid-February — just in time for the Iraqi war, the outbreak of the killer pneumonia, SARS, widespread transportation strikes in Paris and one of the most difficult periods in recent memory for European retail.

No matter.

“We’ve been very lucky. It’s done extremely well,” the designer said over lunch, putting down her utensils to cross all her fingers for continued good luck. “We’re the French exception. We did not expect it to do as well. [Last week] I was told we’ve sold more than 100 necklaces so far, which is a lot.” De la Falaise, who had designed Saint Laurent’s couture jewelry for more than a decade, sells her signature necklaces for about $400 to $2,185, converted from euros at current exchange.

De la Falaise declined to give figures for the 1,600-square-foot boutique, but industry sources estimate that, based on the neighborhood and type of clothing, sales could reach between $750,000 and $1 million. She would not comment on that, except to say sales for the first four months were double what had been forecast.

Encouraged by her early success, de la Falaise is gearing up to present her second collection, for fall, at a cocktail party Monday. Although she has not yet determined when she will begin wholesaling the line, she already has expanded it to include fur coats and select men’s wear items, like sweaters and scarves.

“When you do things that are very much based on boys’ wear, sometimes it goes back to the boys,” she mused. “It’s the idea of people making presents. Because it’s a winter collection, there’s a bit of a Christmas spirit.”

Inspired variously by the Scottish landscape and “Nordic gardens,” the collection boasts deep colors and rich textures, including tweeds and plaids, with Art Nouveau touches.

De la Falaise considers her venture a true cottage industry and is the first to admit her shortcomings on the commercial side of the business. Asked if she spends much time in the boutique meeting customers, she replied: “No, I am the worst sales person in the world. I always end up telling people, ‘You don’t need anything.’”But her instincts tell her that the colorful, home-like store, and fashions that lean toward the whimsical, are proving a good combination at a challenging time for fashion.

“People love [the shop],” she said. “It’s friendly. It’s not grim. You’re not looked up and down. The atmosphere’s friendly and that’s really a part of the success.”

As for the merchandise, de la Falaise mused: “It’s not awe-inspiring. It’s more amusing. It’s luxury in that it’s not anything that you desperately need.”

For spring, bestsellers included silk jacquard pants with buttons running the length of the outseam for $1,130 and kimono-style blouses for $1,100. De la Falaise also cited strong sales of knotted, reversible handbags, which retail for $530. “We’ve sold more clothes that are a bit more fantasy,” she said. “We’ve done less well with sportswear, unless it’s tailored.”

As for her customers, de la Falaise said many of the YSL faithful have followed her, but neighborhood women and tourists have all been finding their way to 7 Rue de Bourgogne. She described most of the customers as “35 and up.”

Representatives from most major stores in the U.S., Japan and the U.K. also have come calling, and some requested invitations to her couture-week presentation, where models will wander the store and the fall clothes will be displayed on racks.

Joan Kaner, senior vice president, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, requested an invitation. “I’m interested to see what she’s doing,” she said.

“It’s very timely,” added Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “The feminine, Parisian kind of style has been very successful for us at Bergdorf’s and we don’t see it slowing down.”

De la Falaise acknowledged she will have to speed up her design and production calendar in order to meet retailers’ needs. “Stores are buying spring-summer [2004] already, so it’s too late,” she said. “But we’re catching up.”

Indeed, de la Falaise hopes to soon be able to present her collections according to the ready-to-wear calendar. Not that she wants to get back into the whole drama of a runway spectacle.“We just put the collection in the shop,” she said. “We don’t do fashion shows.”

Indeed, de la Falaise confessed that her small team, numbering fewer than 10, is already outgrowing the office and studio space above the shop. “Assistants,” she quipped with a laugh, “are chosen according to their size.”

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