A designer cut out for the job

PIECES OF A PATTERN: LACROIX BY LACROIX (THAMES AND HUDSON, $554) HE hit Paris in an explosion of colour, drama and ruinously expensive luxury in July 1987 and the fashion heavens opened, pouring a seemingly endless deluge of women who looked like escapees from the Paris Opera, the Arabian Nights and the bull-ring.

Yes, the drought had finally ended and never had a designer's timing been more perfect, observes Patrick Mauries in his introduction to Pieces Of A Pattern .

Just as everyone was beginning to despair that the ''minimalism fit for Armageddon'' foisted on them by the Japanese would never end, that the only excitement they could look forward to was the ''cultural anarchy'' provided by the British, the saviour arrived - ''a sensualist addicted to fabrics, captivated by different materials and motifs, aware of the history of fashion...'' Christian Lacroix, proclaims this book, ''is now the world's most admired and influential fashion designer, the embodiment of the style and glamour of French haute couture''.

''Kaiser'' Karl Lagerfeld and even the deposed Yves Saint Laurent might have a few words to say about that, but never mind. What can't be denied is that Lacroix has a mighty cult following. But an autobiography after less than six years in the arena? Swallow your cynicism. In fashion, a season is a millennium, every minute of it a fight for survival - a fight that has never been more bloody as the recession claws at Europe - so let's hear it from Lacroix.

What a visual treat this volume is, with its delightful sketches and collages - nearly all done by the author - fashion illustrations and photographs, even pictures of the Paris apartment Lacroix and his wife Francoise have made their haven.

Each chapter is done in one of the colours he so adores and should be required reading for every student of fashion.

The first thing to understand about Christian Lacroix, born in 1950 in the village of Trinquetaille - in Arles in southern France, not far from the Spanish border - is that he is overwhelmingly a product of his time and place.

Reared in middle-class comfort and surrounded by all the good things - affectionate, cultured parents, ancient traditions, picturesque trappings - the young Lacroix never doubted the importance of his heritage.

In Arles, old ladies like his great-grandmother still clung to the garb of the 19th century, little country girls wore kilts over their flannel trousers and young and old lived for the excitement of the bull-fights.

Mingled with all this was the brisk air of sophistication - his mother was the epitome of ''sporty elegance'' - and the heady presence of the great heroes. Visiting Arles' famous bull-fighters' hotel, the Nord Pinus, as a child with his father ''I saw Picasso and Cocteau at apres-corrida cocktails,'' Lacroix recalls.

All this was later to be distilled in the fashions of the man who reached adolescence just as the world erupted with Warhol and the Rolling Stones; who failed his examinations at university but effortlessly made the grade when he discovered his calling, and who has dedicated himself to a tradition all but lost in today's mass market-dominated culture.

How glorious was that time when fashion was ''like a treasure chest, an extravagant pot-pourri'' and how depressing is the crushing mediocrity of the 90s with its ''almost instant availability of copies of copies''.

Great leader or not, Christian Lacroix is the real thing.