IT came as no surprise to Hemant Sagar when he was reprimanded for turning an exquisite 100-year old brocade sari from Benares into a jazzy jacket. After all, the Indian-German designer - together with his French partner Didier Lecoanet - have attracted more than their share of controversy thanks to their trademark use of unconventional fabrics: a Bhutanese prayer rug one time, a Sri Lankan rope wall hanging the next. But it was the kerfuffle over the design duo's use of the antique sari that allowed them to prove their point the most emphatically. ''The fabric had the most beautiful 'Tree of Life' design based on the tree under which Buddha sat, so it was considered sacred,'' said Sagar. ''Someone said to cut it would be a crime. She said the fabric should be placed on a shrine instead. I told her: 'This is my shrine and fashion is my religion'. We didn't do anything outrageous with the fabric. To us, our treatment of it was a homage to its history. ''We give something that is valuable, more value. We don't desecrate fabrics.'' That sort of mild polemic has become second nature to the duo who make up Lecoanet Hemant, a Paris-based couture house that has placed itself streets ahead of the others because of the sense of adventure found in their clothes. For a long time, they found themselves either defending or explaining their choice of materials - horsehair, sea-shells, straw, feathers. They stuck to their own rules and eventually earned the notorious distinction of being high-fashion's eccentric outsiders. But a few weeks ago, all that changed, and Lecoanet and Sagar were awarded the Golden Thimble - the French fashion industry's Oscar. ''We were shocked. We just didn't expect it,'' said Sagar. Perhaps, but the recognition is well-deserved. Lecoanet - the quieter of the two - is a masterful designer who weaves fabrics and textures together seamlessly, structuring clothes as if he were an architect. Sagar, with his Indian background, has a keen eye for detail and colour, softening lines with delicate embroidery and beadwork. As a result, Lecoanet Hemant's pret-a-porter and haute couture lines have won them some high accolades. ''Fashion is not just about pretty clothes. It is a reflection of the times we live in. Plenty of people do pretty clothes, far less do pure fashion. It's like art versus decoration,'' said Sagar. He and Lecoanet were given the Golden Thimble award for their most recent spring/summer 1994 haute couture collection which showed a few weeks ago in Paris. Using the sea as his basis, Lecoanet created a stunning range of soft chiffon dresses which encased the body in such a way it was hard to tell where the dress ended and the skin began. Previous collections have shown the same meticulous attention to detail: yards of fabric drape the body like a sari (Sagar's Eastern background again); suits are geometrically cut; jackets made of pineapple fibre billow around the body; trousers skim the legs in a sheen of golden ostrich feather; bodices that glimmer with hundreds of tiny mirrors. The ready-to-wear line, while reasonably priced given the stature of the label, remains a reflection of the signature haute couture collection. ''Our concept comes from Asian clothing in general and the sari in particular, pieces of material placed and tied around the body . . . drapes are not held back by stitches. The basic idea is continued in each collection, modified by a seasonal character which demonstrates the influence of travels or cultural periods,'' said Sagar. Although one of a select band of 20 couturiers, Sagar will be the first to admit that the name of his label has yet to be said in the same breath as the ''big boys'' of fashion - Chanel, Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent. ''There are certain types of people who run to big names, buy an expensive dress and say: 'There, I'm well-dressed'. ''Most other people see Lecoanet Hemant for what it is, a very unique label with a basic philosophy of mixing East and West. Every house has its own style - you see a dress that looks like a wedding cake and it's Christian Lacroix, you see an iceberg and it's Claude Montana. ''But fashion should still be about perfection in making things, especially high fashion. You think of workmanship and you think of Chanel, Givenchy, Saint Laurent. Imagine wearing a dress that has been made only for you. Two hundred hours of making have gone into it, and it's only for you.''