Chic but Affordable : Famed Designer Guy Laroche Dies

Times Staff Writer

Guy Laroche, the world's celebrated "commercial couturier, " died Friday in Paris after a long battle with intestinal cancer.

The diminutive haute couture designer, renowned for his casual chic creations at affordable prices, was 67.

"Guy Laroche dressed women, he didn't disguise them," said designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac in one of the first tributes to surface after Laroche's death at his home in a fashionable Right Bank neighborhood.

At his death he was surrounded by his family and friends, said a spokesman for the international House of Laroche, which has 50 boutiques throughout the world, hundreds of licensed distributors and produces the perfumes Fidji and Clandestine.

Jumpsuit Pioneer

Laroche was the first designer in the 1960s to put fashionable women in then-unfashionable garb--shorts and jumpsuits. Such male athletes as tennis stars Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase wore his creations, which, like their designer, were generally quiet and discreet.

During the last showing of Paris haute couture three weeks ago, Laroche won the prestigious Golden Thimble award for the season's most beautiful clothes. It was the second time he had captured the prize.

The designer was greeted with enthusiastic applause when he appeared on stage with his models Jan. 25. He looked gaunt, and it seemed evident that the show would be his last.

"Thank you, I am very tired," was all he could whisper in appreciation.

Laroche once said of his style, "What I like best and what I make best (are) sexy ultra-feminine dresses which show the body to advantage."

But he also said that "eccentricity is not the synonym for elegance," and he avoided the exotic constructions that priced other lines out of the reach of most.

He was credited generally with knowing how to translate a fashion mood into clothing that was elegant, vibrant, yet affordable. He introduced a line of menswear in 1967.

At his death he had turned a once minor couture house into the largest French ready-to-wear designer label in terms of sales, which in 1987 amounted to about $270 million.

The clientele included film stars Melina Mercouri and Mireille Darc, Charlotte Ford, writer Francoise Sagan and Bernadette Chirac, wife of Jacques Chirac, Paris' mayor and former premier.

Laroche was born the son of a hotel owner in the Atlantic port of La Rochelle.

"My inner sense of happiness I owe to a privileged childhood. My parents were loving, affectionate, considerate parents who gave me strength and balance," he told an interviewer years ago.

The young Laroche planned a career in medicine but became fascinated by clothes at the age of 19, when a friend took him to see a fashion show.

"Dazzled by the clothes, I then began to sketch myself," he said in an interview.

Laroche showed some of his sketches to the couturier Jean Desses and became his assistant in 1949. He spent a few months in New York studying manufacturing methods, becoming inspired by Dior, Balenciaga, Fath and Balmain.

In 1957, Laroche opened his own couture house in a small Paris apartment featuring a line filled with his favorite colors, orange and salmon pink. Two years later, Macy's awarded him its prize for outstanding creation.

In 1961, Laroche launched a ready-to-wear line, which soon earned renown among discriminating women as elegant yet reasonably priced.

Ready-to-wear is "a calculated creation," Laroche told Women's Wear Daily in 1984, "a gymnastic of the spirit" whose success depends on wearable, restrained garments at a price.

Laroche's prices for the most part were lower than those of many of his American counterparts, with suits selling for $250 or less and evening clothes for less than $400.

"For what you pay for one dress somewhere else, you know, you can get two or three at Guy Laroche," Guy Laroche loved to say.

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