By  on January 14, 1994

PARIS -- "Monsieur Klein," purrs the host of the Plaza Athenee's posh, fashion-filled restaurant. "I'd like to present to you my livre d'or one day, where I have designs of the grandest couturiers. You must take part."

"After the defile, s'il vous plait," replies Michel Klein, lowering his eyes with a bashful smile.

For the house of Guy Laroche's baby couturier, who makes his widely anticipated and highly publicized debut on Jan. 18, life on the swank Avenue Montaigne wasn't always this sweet.

In fact, it was only four years ago that Klein was refused lunching privileges at this same restaurant for not wearing the required jacket and tie. Now, after moving up to the highest ranks of fashion's grand army, he is treated like a prince -- even sans cravate.

Klein himself, at 36, is rather impressed by the weight his new status carries. Recently he came to the restaurant with designer John Galliano.

"Did he have a skirt on?" Klein says. "I don't know, but he had something strange on, and a silk blouse unbuttoned to here, and a pink mutton jacket." "Your guest is not dressed properly for the situation," the manager said, but when Klein turned to go, the manager demurred and led an eager Galliano off to fetch one of the hotels "leftover" jackets. Galliano came back jacket-clad.

"Only he took off his shirt and was bare-breasted, fur hat and all," Klein says, laughing. "Then we sat down."

Even with his new influence, though, Klein's not pushing his power to shock as his good friend Galliano does. He has but one simple goal in his challenging new post: to deliver clothes that "correspond to daily life." "The idea is to refine the things we wear every day. There's an imbalance between the couture and what women want now," explains the designer, who was asked to take over the house's couture after Guy Laroche's hand-picked successor, Angelo Tarlazzi, bowed out last season.

Now one of the youngest Paris couturiers, Michel is not only out to change the face of Laroche, but also to rejuvenate couture.

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