Back in the ring: King of Eighties excess Christian Lacroix has once again succumbed to the fashion world (kind of)

 

Christian Lacroix doesn't look like an haute couturier. He never has. Back in the Eighties, his glory days, he looked a bit like a matador recently retired from the corrida, with his beetling brows and brightly-coloured suits, luckily still with all limbs intact. It's a fitting comparison: not only did Lacroix mine the bullfighting rings, fusing the hot colours of Spain with the grandeur of Parisian couture, but his early collections were traje de luces for the Eighties nouveaux riches, giddy with colour and exuberant decoration.

Lacroix's own-label haute couture house launched in 1987, the first since Yves Saint Laurent. In the late Eighties, Lacroix was fashion's king, inventing the puffball skirt and epitomising the excesses of the decade. 'Crash Chic' was New York magazine's headline of a Lacroix profile, running four months after his debut own-label collection and just weeks after Black Monday. The crash deflated Lacroix's buoyant fashion (literally, in the case of those puffed-out pouf skirts). But he soldiered on, right through until 2009, when a second economic slump sounded the death-knell for the house Christian built. After 22 years, it had never made a profit. In 2009, it filed for bankruptcy. Lacroix presented an emotional final haute couture collection in July, refused the offer of financial backing from several clients, and retreated from the limelight. He's now dressing operas.

Today, Christian Lacroix looks pretty much the same. His always-receding hairline has receded entirely, the black brows are now salt-and-pepper flecked. His voice is thickly, richly accented. Perfectly nuanced. Even to a non-French speaker, his intonation sounds different from the polished Parisians. Lacroix is from Arles, in the South of France. He doesn't resemble a bullfighter any more though, dressed as he is in faded pinstripes with a brightly-coloured handkerchief spilling out of a breast pocket. Rather, a natty art academic or museum curator – which is what Lacroix originally trained as, before being pulled into the orbit of fashion.

However, when we meet it's because Lacroix has once again succumbed to the fashion world. Kind of. In July, he presented an autumn/winter 2013 haute couture collection to re-launch the Schiaparelli label, established in 1927 and shuttered back in 1954. Lacroix's are the first clothes created under the label since then, under the backing of multi-billionaire fashion magnate Diego Della Valle, of the Tod's Group.

The collection had been unveiled two days prior to our meeting in the Marais: a romp through original designer Elsa Schiaparelli's back-catalogues. Schiaparelli, for those who don't know her, was a Surrealist par excellence. She inverted a shoe and proposed it as a hat, studded a suit with 'drawers' in homage to Salvador Dali's Anthropomorphic Cabinet, and collaborated with the artist himself on prints and décor for her Parisian boutiques. In the Thirties, she was the only couturier to rival Chanel, inventing the era's broad-shouldered silhouette, the shade of hot-pink still known as 'shocking', and bottling her perfume in a glass flacon modelled on Mae West's torso.

Lacroix's sketch for Schiaparelli, a/w 2014 Lacroix's sketch for Schiaparelli, a/w 2014
All of which, naturally, was grist to Lacroix's creative mill. If anyone was seen as the natural inheritor of Schiaparelli's mantle, it was always Lacroix. And he confesses, this "proposition" was the only thing that could coax him back to the fashion world. "This was a dream. It was not connected to reality, it was not something to be sold... I love to be a cuckoo in the nest. To be in someone else's universe. I was quite embarrassed when I was at my own house." He grins, and laughs. Lacroix has a gurgling, charming laugh, like a contented baby. It's as joyous as his clothes. "I was happy to be in the Patou nest [the house of Jean Patou, where Lacroix designed haute couture from 1981-1987], and I was happy to be in the Schiaparelli nest."

Lacroix speaks in the past tense because, even three days after his show, his stint at Schiap (as the label is often abbreviated – it's pronounced 'Scap') is already finished. Unlike the ever-faster revolving doors of high fashion, this rapid entrance and exit was planned. First, there's the fact it's haute couture – a loss-leader, a dying art form, high fashion at its highest level, and highest price. Jolting a house to life via haute couture is daring and unprecedented – as daring as the young Bernard Arnault launching a couture house for the even-younger Lacroix back in 1987.

What is even more daring is that Lacroix's Schiaparelli launch was, as he says, a "one-shot" thing. The line was never intended to be commercially produced, and Lacroix had already bowed out of the house when we met. He was travelling back to Arles to supervise work on an opera, then returning to Paris the next day to throw a party – not for the fashion bigwigs who ooh-ed and ah-ed over his clothes, but to thank the embroiderers, fabric suppliers and passementerie makers who helped make his collection a reality. As for that revolving door? It's brought in Marco Zanini, formerly helming the Rochas label, to head up Schiaparelli. He shows his first designs – again, haute couture – in January 2014.

The collection Lacroix presented was pure Schiaparelli – every outfit's name began with 'S', and the collection was packed with details inspired by her career, like her famous Dali-inspired lobster motifs, insect jewellery, whimsical hats in the shape of satin turbans and Pierrot cones, and that still-shocking pink. "At the very beginning, I said perhaps I have to find a link with nowadays fashion," reasons Lacroix carefully. "But when Diego [Della Valle] said he was sure he didn't want to sell it ... he wanted kind of an homage, like a museum." But it was a museum filled with wit, whimsy and sparkle, the way Lacroix has always reinvented history to chime with the here-and-now.

Everything was so perfectly honed and thought-out – despite the fact Lacroix only began working on the collection two months prior to the 1 July presentation – you couldn't help but feel he'd planned it all out in his head years ago, a dream project finally coming to fruition. His approach to the homage? "Let's do a musical: Elsa Schiaparelli is the main character, and I am in charge of the costume!". Hence the fact that there was a hefty dose of Lacroix: ruffled taffeta, rich embroideries, the shots of chartreuse duchesse satin, and indeed a few poufs. After season after season of safe fashion, even at haute couture, we were all ready for a dose of Lacroix.

Lacroix's first 'luxe' ready-to-wear collection, s/s 1988 Lacroix's first 'luxe' ready-to-wear collection, s/s 1988
Timing, however, isn't usually Lacroix's strong point. Which was maybe why he kept this excursion into fashion short and sweet. He took his hyper-high-priced ready-to-wear line, called 'Luxe', to New York in October 1987. He staged a fashion show of multi-million-dollar expense in the courtyard of the World Financial Centre, Battery Park – the eye of the economic storm, with models dressed in the kind of frills and furbelows last seen by the tricoteuses of 18th-century Paris.

And people, indeed, lost their heads over them. There was the same sense of excitement in Paris's Les Arts Décoratifs, where Lacroix showed his Schiaparelli creations. Lovely as they were, no one imagined they could buy them, not even the salivating couture clients who always bought Lacroix feverishly – however, his success in haute couture never translated to fashion's true money spinners, the accessories and ready-to-wear lines.

Unlike most designers, that suits Lacroix just fine. Does he miss working in fashion? The brows knit together, then Lacroix shrugs in that peculiarly French manner. "Frankly, no. Last week I was in Austria, at Graz Opera, working on the costumes for Lohengrin. And I have 200 'customers'! Each different!" Two hundred outfits equates to four collections, or a year in fashion. "Costume is my favourite thing," confesses the man who put women back into corsets and crinolines in the 1980s, somewhat unsurprisingly. "Not fashion".

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