“The only thing that made me weak was seeing the models cry,” Christian Lacroix says.
The designer is sitting in the reception room of his Paris atelier not even 24 hours after the haute couture show that could well be his last. Lacroix showed under an order of protection from a French court, in spite of the fact that his American owners have basically pulled the plug. He says he hasn’t been paid in eighteen months, and neither have his suppliers. “People say I am a crazy French,” he says, “that I need this for my ego.” Lacroix talks with his entire face, his whole body, bending and extending and waving and wiggling around. “Non,” he says. “Non. This is not for me.”
The collection is hanging on racks in front of him, and a television is running, on a loop, the basically flawless exposition of 24 looks: Each model an exact representation of traditional chic, this one in a nearly backless evening gown, that one in a strong-shouldered cape. The palette is dark, somber: navy blue and black and gray, with exuberant bursts of color here and there. The models are wearing their hair in dramatic chignons covered by black jersey and cinched with large diamanté brooches. There’s a slight air of mourning about some of them, but they are all impeccably elegant. These are clothes that do not experiment with irony or with whimsy or with the sometimes “modern” idea that to be ugly is to be chic. They announce themselves as fashion; they announce themselves as, above all, French.
What you cannot hear on the video is the applause as each look is paraded through the three salons of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs: There is a diplomatic silence in the press room, and then, like a summer storm moving across a very still lake, comes the muted patter of applause from first the customers and then, softer still, the friends. Nor can you see, on the video, the view outside the museum’s long windows of the Tuileries, where a terrific periwinkle cloud became too heavy for itself and began pelting large, splashy drops on the garden’s sandy paths.
The models take their final turn, with tears running down their pale, pale cheeks, and in the front row, journalists (who are clapping now, and standing up) and clients and friends are crying, too. Behind them, a homemade CHRISTIAN LACROIX FOREVER! banner is held up by the designer’s oldest customer, a statuesque French aristocrat named Pia de Brantes; her white-haired mother and her very tanned daughter have the other side. The sad-accordion soundtrack gives way to a strangled Spanish version of “I Did It My Way,” and then there is Lacroix taking his bow, in a lilac shirt with an open collar and a sharp, dark suit. On his arm is his grand finale, a “bride” dressed as the Andalusian Virgen de Rocío.
“I didn’t cry!” he says proudly, raising his enormous dark eyebrows and pointing at the screen.
“But, oh, look at my big ears!” He lets out a sheepish peal of laughter—his ears, indeed, are huge.
Christian Lacroix has had his own fashion house for 22 years, ever since star turns designing for Hermès and Jean Patou led to backing by Bernard Arnault, the chairman of the most powerful fashion conglomerate in the world, LVMH. It was the ultimate fashion nod. Lacroix had loads of buzz. It seemed like a safe bet.
And, for a minute, it looked as if it would all pay off: Lacroix was like the court designer to the eighties nouvelle société. During his first runway collection, he debuted the skirt that is still his signature: the pouf. It’s a giant meringue of fabric with a hem that turns in on itself. His were made of sumptuous taffetas and silks, and were the perfect symbol for all that was maximal and decadent about that era, and quite an appropriate vehicle for understanding his design ethos. Lacroix does not shy away from heavy brocade; he has no qualm with beadwork or lace or anything resembling medieval tapestry. If you had been invited to, say, Saul Steinberg’s for dinner, you would definitely wear Lacroix; he was a great friend to Princess Di.
The pouf got knocked off all over the place (still does), and Lacroix became such a part of the fashion vernacular that he was a punch line on Absolutely Fabulous (“It’s Lacroix, sweetie!”). WWD famously reserved its largest-possible headline font to declare LACROIX TRIUMPHANT! after one of his shows.
But he never, not even for one year, managed to turn a profit. Certainly LVMH knows how to take critical and popular success and turn it into a lucrative handbag, fragrance, ballet pump—they do it all the time, with Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Givenchy. But in the case of Lacroix, it never worked. The perfumes crashed—there was one effort called C’est La Vie, released by Dior Parfums, but it faded quickly in the early nineties, and there was another licensing arrangement with Inter Parfums, and another still with Avon, but none was Opium; none was Shalimar.