PARIS (AP) _ How does one become a top designer?

Look around, says Gianfranco Ferre.

``Observe painters' palettes, let yourself be infused with their light; then observe, observe,'' he writes in a new autobiography, ``Letters to a Young Couturier.''

Ferre, who replaced Marc Bohan as Dior's chief designer five years ago, doesn't talk much about clawing your way up through the ranks of competitors or fawning to please big-time executives. Instead, he sticks to the inspiration and the art of creation.

``Color is a very big point with me,'' said Ferre, 50, at a book-signing Thursday.

Ferre thinks highly of French schools that teach clothes design. But he started out with an architectural diploma from the Milan Polytechnic Institute.

``I didn't like what was happening in Italian architecture in the late 1960s,'' he writes.

So he drifted into fashion via costume jewelry ``in a very primitive workshop I improvised in my hometown of Legnano.''

After jewelry and accessories, Gianfranco began designing ready-to-wear, then went to India to set up a clothes manufacturing venture for a Genovese firm.

He was dazzled by the greens of the saris, the cinnabars he saw in Bombay and the rich furnishings of the Srinagar hotel, once a maharajah's palace.

``Travel and learning how to look at art are important, too,'' says Ferre, an inveterate traveller who has poked into everything from the London flea market to the great museums of New York and St. Petersburg.

He cherishes his own creations, but truly appreciates the ``little hands'' _those skilled artisans who work at an atelier like Dior's.

``The original idea is mine, based on a mood, a desire, the way a woman should look in my dream.'' But then, on execution, it becomes a cooperative work, he says.

His advice to a woman is to ``personalize her own style.''

The ultimate sin, Ferre says, is to stick slavishly to labels, to resort to artifice or camouflage without being sure of one's own charm and personality.

``A mere detail like a pearl necklace or primitive bracelet might do the trick,'' he says.

His advice to an aspiring young designer: ``Stay in Paris.''

``He told me to forget Morocco,'' said Patricia Jacobs, a freelance designer. ``He said it was so important to walk around Paris, up to Pigalle and Montmartre, where they still have little workshops making corsets by hand. I should imbibe the colors, the atmosphere of this city.''