King of Cling

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN HIS OPULENT PARIS SALON, SURROUNDED by lilac taffeta drapes, crystal chandeliers and walls painted to depict the break of day, Hervé Leger is musing about the nature of elegance. "Thank God, we're out of grunge," says the 37-year-old designer, who is dressed in classic Comme des Garçons pants and a navy polo shirt, while thoughtfully puffing on a Rothmans. "I'm in favor of seductive clothes. Seduction isn't diabolical—it's essential. It's so much more pleasant than seeing people in rags."

Bandages, though, are something else. Leger has gone white-hot with his sexy, signature robes à bandés—or bandage dresses—those shoulder-baring, bosom-boosting, derriere-draping frocks made of stretchy strips of rayon and spandex. They've become a fashion essential for body-beautiful celebs including Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Geena Davis and Meg Ryan. "It's a modern girdle—it reshapes the body and puts your bottom and breasts back where they belong," says Leger, whose new collection of pastel pantsuits, bustier tops, short shorts and skimpy dresses charmed crowds in Paris last week. "I don't want to walk down the street in a Leger dress—I'd get mobbed," says model Tyra Banks. "I want to get in a car and go to a party. Hervé is very Hollywood. I feel like a star in his clothes."

One of four children born to husband-and-wife restaurateurs in the country town of Bapaume in northern France, Leger developed a taste for fashion from his mother and aunts—who followed the haute couture collections and had copies made for their wardrobes. As a youngster he learned to sew. After studying art history for a year, he decided to become a hairdresser; shortly afterward, while working with fashion models in Paris, he realized that clothes were his calling. "It was love at first sight," he says. "I said to myself, 'That's what I want to do.' " Soon he was designing hats and accessories, and in 1981 he had the good fortune to meet Karl Lagerfeld at a dinner party. "We talked about corsets," says Leger. "I had some at home; they fascinated me. Karl said, 'Come and work with me.' " Leger became the German designer's assistant at Fendi in Rome, then at Chanel. But in 1983 the two parted ways in what was rumored to be a less-than-amicable split. "They didn't need me anymore," says Leger, refusing to elaborate. "So I left."

After doing freelance design for Charles Jourdan and Lanvin, Leger opened his own boutique in Paris in 1985; financially strapped, it closed in 1989. Within months, Leger, who had stumbled on a box of synthetic fabric strips at a clothing factory, was at work on a new creation. "I made hats, which involved using a mold," he says, "and I thought I'd do the same for a dress." Voilà! The bandage dress debuted later that year, and Leger was hit with more orders than he could handle. These days, in addition to custom-made numbers that require a body mold, two fittings and anywhere between 30 and 80 hours of manual labor (plus a minimum price tag of $5,000), Leger also offers off-the-rack swathings, with strategically placed strips, that start at a mere $1,200.

Success has allowed Leger, who is single, to splurge on a spacious Paris apartment and a country house in the Loire Valley, where he gardens to unwind. "My goal is not to be rich but to live well," he says. Still, business is his top priority, and he is working on adding lingerie, shoes and jewelry to the Leger line. Not that anyone should forget his name is synonymous with sexiness. "When a woman wants something sophisticated and décolleté," he says, "I want her to keep thinking of me."

JANICE MIN
CATHY NOLAN in Paris

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