The first morose-looking model slinked down the runway in a puffy white silk trench coat over an organza T-shirt and shorts. The crowd frowned. Next up: a metallic and leather bolero. The crowd squirmed. Then came a gold silk coat that seemed fairly conventional—except that the back was missing, replaced by lattice strips. Designer Claude Montana called it a "cage." By the time 73 such far-out fashions had marched enigmatically onto the Paris runway, the verdict was in: Montana's first couture collection was a flop. Women's Wear Daily sniped that he "flunked his entrance exam," and even the usually kind New York Times called his debut "a disaster." After the show Montana, who is said to have watched the audience reaction through a peephole, disappeared. An aide described him as "in despair."

Clearly, Montana, 40, had made a major misstep. After designing mass-produced clothes for 17 years, during which time he set the trend for mammoth shoulder pads—and picked up such celebrity clients as Cher, Princess Stephanie and Diana Ross—Montana was seduced by the "total freedom" made-to-order couture promised him. In October, chairman Léon Bressler hired him to revive the stale image of the once grand House of Lanvin. If it was attention Bressler wanted, he got it in spangles. But the space-age selections were hardly what was expected from the Paris haute couture—a tradition of custom-fitted dressmaking geared to 3,000 ladies able to spend $35,000 or so on a single dress.

Was he out of his mind or simply ahead of his time? "Claude has intuited the haute couture of the year 2000," one French journalist declared. Indeed, the designer had never promised to travel the glamorous route followed by Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix and others. "He wants to do modern couture for a younger clientele," defends his sister and publicist, Jacqueline. "He has no passion for frills." Show-off singer Grace Jones, who sat in the audience compiling a shopping list, was on Montana's wavelength. "It was like architecture," she said. "Hard and soft lines at the same time."

This was not the first brush with controversy for the Paris-born Montana. The press was horrified in 1977 by his "Nazi-like" leather suits complete with chains. But let the record show that Montana eventually turned leather into a nonhostile fashion staple. If he can't do the same for cage coats, the haute road will not be forever barred. Montana's next couture show for Lanvin is scheduled for July.