IN THE final triumphant moments of Christian Lacroix's Paris couture show in July, the man himself emerged for the traditional accolade, which in his case meant a speedy sidle down the runway. Unlike the models, who were clad in the luscious swags and ruffles of his creations, he wore an air of pained diffidence. He looked about as comfortable with the setting as a lorry-driver who has been whipped out of his truck, compressed into a suit and ordered into the limelight. This, after all, is a man who was once described as resembling a retired matador and it's quite possible that Lacroix really does prefer the bullring to the catwalk. For those of a certain disposition, fashion can be the more testing option. Lacroix is that oxymoron, famously shy. Yeah, right, you mutter, but it's true. He is not shy in the paralysing, certifiable manner of, say, Yves Saint Laurent; he is shy in the way that any normal person might be reluctant to become public property. If you have always loved to draw, if you can barely sit still without doodling, if your first memory is of sketching, then you may well have the gifts necessary to become a great couturier. Although you may not always enjoy that life's strobe-lit trimmings. 'We are artists,' Lacroix says, simply. 'But we need to be salesmen.' Ah yes, business. It has not been a good retail summer in Paris - the franc is strong and the bombers have been busy - but the house of Lacroix is doing much better than most, according to its chairman Robert Bensoussan. This is fortunate because Lacroix is part of the luxury-goods empire LVMH, which is controlled by Bernard Arnault, who has given the house until the end of 1996 to break even. Bensoussan, who manages to convey both charm and a certain commercial ruthlessness, believes he is on track to succeed. The Lacroix diffusion line, Bazar, which was launched last year, is doing particularly well and the house has just unveiled its new jeans line, the first from a couturier, to general applause. Such vulgar reckonings, of course, do not sully the air of the haute couture salon which glides, swan-like, over the frantic, fiscal peddlings going on beneath it. There may be armed policemen at the end of the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore on this bright autumn afternoon, but no threat of reality intrudes at number 73. A wedding dress just inside the entrance sets the dream-like tone and the decor adds enchantment. The walls are the terracotta shades of the Camargue, the southern French region where Lacroix grew up; there are tiny chairs the colour of bon-bons and huge triptych mirrors edged in black which stand prepared to reflect gorgeousness. If you are a poor film-goer, you simply hold your breath and expect the divine Audrey or Grace to come wafting in. If, however, you are an unusually wealthy woman, you will see a different sort of film; a video of the autumn/winter couture show. The former model Marie Seznec, famous both for her prematurely grey hair and for being Lacroix's muse, and now the director of the salon, will talk you through your choice, which can be a matter of some tricky diplomacy. 'It has to be unique, so it is one dress per country only. Imagine a party with three or four dresses the same! It's not possible. If changes need to be made, we make another drawing but we keep the style.' The first step in the procedure is to make a special corset, which will guarantee that streamlined, drop-dead perfection of outline. And if the client's figure is not perfect? Seznec shrugs and smiles. Her response perfectly conveys the boundlessness of this strange, desirable world: 'In haute couture, we can arrange ...' Three fittings are the norm, although the client can have as many as she feels she needs. She is paying, after all. How much, exactly? 'I never tell the price,' murmurs Seznec. 'It depends on the dress, it could take 600 hours to make. There is a tradition in the haute couture world that we never give prices. It wouldn't be delicate.' She attends the fittings herself, wherever the client would like them to be. Recently, she flew to London twice to fit the Princess of Wales in a red Lacroix gown. (Bensoussan, who met Diana on her subsequent visit to Paris, is still swooning from the encounter, although it's fair to say that such wonderful publicity for the house helped to increase his ardour.) The transportation of such works of art becomes an event in itself, with special cargo arrangements, gigantic boxes and, in the case of wedding dresses, a personal assistant who accompanies each one to its final destination. The originals from the shows are kept in a cellar under the salon; the Metro sends up rumbles occasionally from further below, possibly the closest the clients will ever get to public transport. Under the ghostly gauze of muslin covers, there is the glimmer of silk, tulle, organza, chiffon and lace. Boxes contain corsets as elaborate as bejewelled sculptures. The models at the shows require dressers to help them climb into such fantastic confections, all of which have been constructed, a few floors up, by the 40 or so women of the two ateliers. Outside the door to these workrooms is a homely table crowded with irons, each marked, in felt-tip pen, 'LACROIX' - a different sort of designer label. Inside, the walls are covered with sketches, swatches, photographs of babies clad in nothing but smiles and several maps of the world. Three, probably cinematic, assumptions are shot to pieces: no one wears a white coat, the women are surprisingly young (they start in their late teens) and there isn't a hallowed air of silence. On the wall of one room, a small black and white photograph of the designer himself, like Puck with sideburns, keeps a droll eye on things. Lacroix's office - although he says he can work anywhere - is rather like the flea markets he loves to frequent. He had apologised in advance that it was a mess, which is the sort of thing people say as they lead you into an immaculate room, but its higgledy-piggledy quality is fairly staggering. Amid the incredible jumble, it is possible to pick out what looks like an ancient admiral's overcoat, complete with epaulettes, hanging on a crowded rail and, among a thicket of photographs, one of Lady Diana Cooper, the Diana who obsessed the British media 70 years ago. A tremendous Anglophile, it comes as no surprise that Lacroix is wearing a tweedy waistcoat and jacket, but he has, to his evident discomposure, recently discovered that a great-great-grandfather was, ahem, American. Never mind; in spirit and style he is entirely French - and southern French at that. When the house of Lacroix was launched in 1987, rather a lot was made of this deep-south spirit: the sun, the bullfights, the Spanish influence, the sizzling colours. While this made for good copy at the time, it became an image that Lacroix was soon reluctant to bear. His financial partner, Jean-Jacques Picart, admitted in an interview some years later, 'We did it too fast. I feel guilty that he is a little imprisoned by this identity.' But it is easy to see why they felt they had to do it. First of all, it was true; Lacroix did have a southern childhood in Arles, where he was born in 1951, and for some of it, he now says, he wasn't a bit shy. 'I remember in hotels on vacations getting other children to perform for the parents, in masquerades. But at five or six, something happened, I don't know what. I was unable to speak. My only way of surviving was sketching. It was very difficult for me to express myself until I met my wife. She's not shy at all.' He laughs at the very idea. Indeed, his wife Francoise sounds, as the French say, formidable, a force to be reckoned with. 'She is Parisienne but without my wife I would feel I don't like Paris. She has a wonderful way of discussing ideas and philosophies. I prefer to listen, to look - not to have the premier role.' He met her when he came to Paris in 1973, in theory to do a dissertation on 17th-century costume so that he could become a museum curator. But Francoise side-tracked him, encouraging him to design and introducing him to helpful people. Thus he met Jean-Jacques Picart, who landed him a job with Hermes. The two later worked together at the house of Jean Patou, where Lacroix invented the puffball skirt, a fashion idea with which he will probably forever be associated by the man (and woman) in the street. In 1986, he won the Golden Thimble; by the time he won it again, in 1988, he had his own couture house. Or rather, a house carried his name. It always was, as it continues to be, Arnault's house. The three - Lacroix, Picart and Arnault - met in the mid-1980s. Lacroix, who has a mischievous face when he is feeling relaxed, looks exceedingly sober when the business element comes up. 'Monsieur Arnault created Lacroix, he created a house from zero,' he says. 'We are like a child for him. We fought at the beginning but the three of us have a mutual respect and admiration. I will never forget that he invested in us, in 1987. I'm not saying this for sucking up. He is a genius, a visionary.' Which was the other reason Lacroix's deep-south element was stressed so heavily in the early days - it gave a memorable identity, a vision, to the fledgling house. The publicity was extraordinary but it has been both Lacroix's fortune and misfortune to be associated with a decade which it is now fashionable to decry. The 1980s boom made a new couture house possible but when things turned sour, critics accused him of excess. The launch of a fragrance in 1990 proved singularly ill-timed; C'est La Vie! died almost immediately. Lacroix sighs. 'Sometimes the pressure is so strong. I don't think I'm more tormented than others but I have to support my cross on my shoulder. The mistake we made was to have the fourth man, the seller, almost too late. Now we have Robert Bensoussan. He is the seventh chairman we have had here and he has given this house a wonderful impulse ... I needed not to be reduced to this bullfighter guy, always in pink and yellow.' And so Bazar was born, a vibrant, cheaper alternative to the ready-to-wear line. It has been so swiftly successful that it is expected to make as much money as the signature line sales this year. The haute couture, of course, brings in class rather than cash and is still Lacroix's principal joy. 'Haute couture is selfish, really, I can't stand the involvement of anyone else,' he says. 'It's like a drug, designing, designing - even when the mail arrives and I am sitting with my wife, I draw on the back of the envelopes.' He is helped with the Bazar and jeans lines by in-house designer Sacha Walckhoff. 'He creates and creates and creates,' Walckhoff says. 'At the show, it's the past, it's history. The best part for him is when he can see it before it's finished. Really, he has a third eye. He sees something that you will see in two years' time. Christian was talking about plastic three years ago. Now you see it everywhere.' There is already a whisper about doing another fragrance but the real attention will be focused on the jeans line, which should be in Hong Kong early next year. At the launch two weeks ago in Milan (the jeans are being manufactured in Italy), Lacroix chose to send the models out in a mixture of couture and casual. As they paraded around one of the beautiful reception rooms of Palazzo Visconti, they looked an amazing combination of the divine and the accessible. The theatrical atmosphere was enhanced by the background of opera, for which Lacroix has a passion. Like many couturiers, he has always loved the theatre and the possibilities of theatrical design. He is about to do the costumes for a production of Racine's Phedre at the famed Comedie Francaise, the French national theatre, in Paris. His face lights up as he talks of it, which makes him look disconcertingly like those fauns Picasso used to draw: 'The actors are like bullfighters. I know this is not a good subject for Anglo-Saxon people but I cannot lie. They give their voice, their gestures, all of the night.' Maybe this is where the exuberant child who loved to act and the silent child who loved to sketch find their common ground. And, even if he does not want it to be a perpetual reference, he cannot help making some allusion to the bull and the ring. Perhaps he sees himself fighting in another arena, as a toreador in a different world. Although he came from the sunlit south, he says his dreams are of an enclosed city in the dark. 'Yes, it's Arles, but it's not. It's covered like a tent. It's always night ... I never dream of things taking place during the day.'