Something was happening at the pricey Paris parlors of haute couture, and it wasn't good. Sales were sluggish and styles had become, well, as flat as a runway model.

Enter Christian Lacroix, 35, the spirited couturier for the honored house of Patou. Lacroix's madcap mix of elegance and razzle-dazzle—he jammed bustles up the backside of strapless evening gowns and created a flowered minidress to be worn with black lace Bermuda shorts—has electrified the industry. In addition, his spring/summer collection, which starts at $2,800 (for a simple afternoon dress) and zooms to $26,000 (for a beaded gown), was judged best of the season by fussy French fashion critics. Says Lacroix: "I'm very happy that women who can afford couture want to be out of the ordinary."

The son of an engineer, he grew up in Arles, the beauteous slice of the South of France that inspired painters such as van Gogh and Gauguin. An avid sketch artist, Lacroix remembers seeing Picasso and Jean Cocteau draw toreadors at parties after the local bullfights. "I always drew clothes," he says. "I had a taste for what was sumptuous and baroque."

Lacroix, hoping to become a museum curator, studied at the Sorbonne but was unable to crack the field. Instead he landed a job as a fashion assistant at Hermès. Later he worked in Tokyo for a Japanese couturier. Then, in 1981, the 67-year-old house of Patou, which had been selling more of its $200-an-ounce perfume Joy than its clothes, began searching for a new designer. "What he is doing at Patou is fun, a kind of fashion pastiche," says designer Karl Lagerfeld. "Couture needed some fresh air."

Lacroix, who shares an apartment with Françoise Roesenstiehl, 45 and director of a boutique in the Louvre's new fashion museum, doesn't like his savior status. "I don't want to be a prisoner of success," he says. "After all, fashion can go out of fashion."