One morning last June a select group of Neiman-Marcus' best clients gathered at the Texas emporium for a private preview of designer Oscar de la Renta's fall collection. As Syd Shaw, wife of de la Renta's partner, Jerry Shaw, was showing off the elegant, high-priced wares, she suddenly spied Dallas-based designer Victor Costa hovering nearby. Although Costa later claimed that his presence was merely a coincidence, the outraged Shaw demanded that Costa leave the store. Afterward she explained: "I'm very protective of our clothes, as everyone is when [Costa] is around."

Victor Costa is a shoplifter of sorts, and he doesn't care who knows it. The undisputed king of the fashion knock-off, he unabashedly pilfers the opulent $5,000 to $15,000 designs of top couturiers and translates them into inexpensive I-dare-you-to-tell-the-difference duplicates. (As a general rule, dress designs are not protected by copyright laws.) Costa, who has been known to study newspaper photos with a magnifying glass, sells his dresses for between $250 and $800.

Not surprisingly, de la Renta isn't the only designer who is peeved by Costa's peeking. "It's ridiculous; he copies exactly," sniffs the press relations director for Emanuel Ungaro, who refused to comment himself. "We don't want to give Costa any publicity," says the aide. But others, such as Vicki Tiel, have a different reaction to Costa. "I'm always flattered when people copy my designs," she says. "There's got to be a price range for everybody."

Costa couldn't agree more. "I think some of them are completely off the wall," he says of high fashion's even higher prices. "Last fall Karl Lagerfeld made a red satin dress with gold embroidery that sold for $100,000," he says. "I make it for $1,000." How does he do it? Even though he buys many of the same materials as his higher-priced competitors, Costa buys the material in bulk and has all the work done in his factory in Dallas, where 250 Costa-trained seamstresses can churn out as many as 500 Costa creations a day.

Costa's gowns can be found in the closets of ladies of all ages and income brackets. His creations appear regularly on such shows as Falcon Crest, Moonlighting and Dynasty and also find their way into movies (Holly Hunter's black-and-white ball gown in Broadcast News was a Costa). "I don't want to put down anyone who spends thousands on clothes," says actress and former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, a longtime Costa customer. "But if I'm going to spend $7,000, I'm going to buy land."

Costa believes that attitude is due in part to recent problems in the economy. "The Black Monday ladies and the oil-impoverished ladies have husbands who have said, 'Basta,' " explains Costa. "They've had to reeducate their pocketbooks, and they've discovered V.C." Even Ivana Trump, not known for her penny-pinching, cottons to Costas. "I go out and entertain a lot," she has said. "You wear a dress three or four times and that's it. But at $300 to $350...it's okay."

A fixture on the charity circuit, Costa crisscrosses the country nearly every week of the year presiding over shows featuring his creations. Dressed in a natty Ralph Lauren suit, he is the most affable of emcees, interspersing his patter with dashes of light opera. Part P.T. Barnum, part Placido Domingo, he exudes a charm that draws ladies into such stores as Saks, Nordstroms and Bergdorf Goodman, which opened a Costa boutique last August. Costa expects to gross $50 million this year.

The 52-year-old designer comes from humble beginnings in Houston's Fifth Ward. The middle child of a metalworker born in Sicily and his American wife, Victor and his family lived in three rooms behind his grandparents' grocery store. Victor got his first taste of the rag trade when he designed paper doll dresses at age 10 and sold them to his classmates for two cents apiece.

Costa's copycat days didn't begin in earnest until 1965, when, following stints at New York's Pratt Institute and the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicate de la Couture Parisienne, he went to work for the New York firm of Suzy Perette. His job: "Going to Paris and picking a dress out of a collection and developing the equivalent of a Ford automobile. Those were the eyes I developed."

It's a vision that has served him well ever since. In 1973 he left Perette and moved to Dallas in part because of his then 12-year-old daughter Adrienne's asthma condition. (Costa and wife Terry, who were divorced after 28 years of marriage in 1986, also have a son, Kevin, now 29.) Costa bought into a dress business in Dallas and within a year had reestablished his ties to Seventh Avenue in addition to becoming the darling of local debs and dowagers.

Although he spends about eight months a year in New York, where he has a showroom, Costa considers Texas his home. When there, he lives alone in a two-bedroom cottage in the exclusive Greenway Park section of Dallas. The cottage is decorated in blue and white to match his delft collection. The bedroom is notable for another reason: It's a replica of Costa's favorite suite at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

—By Bonnie Johnson, with Lee Powell in New York