For two generations Europe's elite have been conceived between Pratesi sheets, but the Italian firm's conquest of American linen closets is still in progress. Barbara Walters, the Johnny Carsons and Lee Radziwill all snuggle nightly into Pratesis, but Lee's sister Jacqueline rejects them as too darned expensive. Indeed, at $168 for the lowest-priced queen-sized percale top sheet, they are hardly a white-sale item. But when U.S. volume shot up by 50 percent in the first quarter of the year in boutiques in Manhattan, Palm Beach and Beverly Hills, president Athos Pratesi decided to go a little more democratic. Macy's began carrying his line this spring.

Pratesi now moves nearly $20 million worth of linens and coordinates annually—from trademark bedding to towels, napkins and bathrobes—and Athos plans to double that by 1985. "During the 1980s," he reasons, "people will go out less and use their beds more. You spend one-third of your life there, so why shouldn't it be comfortable?"

Pratesi began dispensing comfort in 1927, and shortly thereafter novelist Gabriele D'Annunzio sent an ecstatic note to Athos' father, Brunetto, the company's semiretired founder. "I have spent," wrote D'Annunzio, "the most fabulous night of love in my life on your sheets." Ernest Hemingway, according to the Pratesis, bought new sheets with the launching of each great romance. When it ended, Papa put the linens unwashed in the closet—taking them out every so often, he told Brunetto, "to smell the perfume of the divine creature who made me so happy." There have also been more decorous customers. Before an operation for removal of his prostate in 1967, Pope Paul VI ordered a set of white linen sheets with the papal seal embroidered in yellow for his hospital bed.

Today Elton John commissions custom-made linens and towels (his favorite colors are purple and pumpkin), and the most king-sized order so far came from Khalid of Saudi Arabia. His Majesty requested $600,000 worth of sheets, towels and table linens for his 18-stateroom yacht. Special machines were built to loom Khalid's 150-inch-wide sheets in one piece.

Athos, christened after the musketeer (53 years ago), graduated from Milan's Commercial Polytechnic University, apprenticed with the House of Chanel in Paris, and worked his way up in the family firm—from stock boy. "My father never did me any favors," he remembers. "He said if you want to be boss you have to be better than the others. He has never praised me in his life, and he's 85." Pratesi junior is also a taskmaster. He insists that sheets be woven at the dizzyingly high thread count of 240 to 300 per square inch (compared to the usual 180). His off-the-shelf cotton-and-polyester top sheets range from $182 to $420 king-sized; silk would run as much as $750. Asked about Porthault, his equally expensive prime competitor, Athos replies: "Our designs are similar but more modern, cleaner and stripped to the essentials." Like an old haute couture house, Pratesi presents his new collection annually at Florence's Pitti Palace, no less.

Pratesi complicates life for his wife, Dede, by insisting that they test-sleep every new design. Heavily into market research, too, he phased out a line of luxurious nightgowns for young women after one recent finding: "Sales of sleepwear have gone down because 80 percent of women under 20 sleep with nothing on." The questing Pratesi is hardly daunted and is now developing decorator fabrics, wallpaper, lamps and even ashtrays that coordinate with his sheets. "I would like," he sums up, "for Pratesi to become No. 1 in the world, to be known everywhere as the ultimate status symbol."