PARIS — Could Olivier Theyskens be zeroing in on the top design job at Rochas, the Paris fashion and beauty house owned by German cosmetics group Wella?

That’s the word building steam in Paris. Rochas principals declined comment and Theyskens could not be reached at press time.

But the house is on the hunt for a new designer. It did not renew the contract of its longtime designer, Irishman Peter O’Brien, this season.

Sources said Rochas began searching for a replacement early this year. The house is also believed to have contacted Jean-Paul Knott, who later signed at the house of Féraud.

Landing Theyskens, who was a top contender for Givenchy before Julien Macdonald was hired, would enhance Rochas’ tarnished image.

Theyskens burst on the scene as fashion’s wunderkind after Madonna donned one of his dramatic black satin coats forthe Oscars in 1998. His star continued to ascend with each intriguing, darkly romantic show.

But Theyskens, now 25, fell on hard times this year when his backer, Isabelle Stevens, reined in her financial support. Stevens owns 51 percent of Theyskens’ business and is seeking a buyoff before freeing him to design for someone else.

Marcel Rochas founded Rochas in the Thirties when he opened a couture atelier on Paris’s Avenue Montaigne. The designer was known for his special bird- and flower-patterned fabric and feminine silhouettes. In the late Forties, he invented a new corset called the guepiere, which cinched the natural waist. He died in 1955.

In recent years, the house had floated in a fashion no-man’s land. O’Brien was an accomplished tailor, but failed to give the label a modern vibe.

Meanwhile, Wella has made public it intends to develop the Rochas business. In September, it launched a new youthful fragrance, Absolu, which is slated to bow in the U.S. in 2003.

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