FASHION / Darling of the catwalk

EVERY season, a porcelain-white woman sits in the front row of the fashion shows. On her lap, or on the chair next to her, sits a white-blond, dark-lashed boy. The fashion pack is fascinated: by her multiple changes of super-white outfits (including gloves), but more so by his pre-pubescent adoration of Claudia Schiffer.

Little boys are rare in the fashion world. Barring a few newborn babies of models just out of their teens, this is an uninterrupted child-free zone; especially the haute couture where women are always thin, preferably blonde and between 25 and 45 (or at the least they make the effort to look that way), and men are silent, sitting not next to, but behind their partners, ready to pick up the bills. Children, with the exception of this little blond boy, are not seen or heard.

Leander Hirsch is 12, but he is a veteran of couture: he's done two seasons a year since he was five. 'It started when my Mummy couldn't get a baby-sitter and she said 'Come and see the beautiful girls.' Then came the models with nice dresses, and diamonds fell off one and I say 'Mummy, here, I keep them for you.'

'I still have them in a jar at home,' says Mummy, dreamily. She is Renata Hirsch, and she says she's been shopping at the couture since she was a girl. 'The first outfit was from Marc Bohan, when he was at Dior.'

But these days, although every couturier gives mother and son a front-row seat, or two, no one claims her. 'I think she is German, she comes to our shows but is not a customer,' says one insider when I call. 'I think she's Italian . . . ', 'She's Austrian . . . ', 'Yes, she comes to the shows, but she doesn't shop here' are other replies.

This is pretty strange, for in the small world of fashion, people know after a while who people are. 'Her husband is a textile baron . . .' 'Her husband is in computers . . . ' In fact he is in construction, in Italy, 'where he works so hard, even in August]' Mrs Hirsch tells me. He is called Hans Giacomuzzi. 'But I keep my own name and so does Leander,' she says. The matter is then, clearly, closed.

They live in Bolzano, in the southern Tyrol, where Italy meets Austria. But they spend their lives travelling to St Moritz, to Las Vegas, to Venice, 'where we stay at the Excelsior, just 800 metres from the Thomas Mann hotel, but it is not as nice as ours.'

Renata is referring of course to the author of Death in Venice, both book and film of which, predictably, she adores. 'I wanted to name my son Tadzu, but then I thought, he will be blond and good-looking. It is too much. ' Predicatably his nickname in the fashion world is Tadzio, after Mann's beautiful lost boy.

Today we are sitting chatting in the Paris Ritz. Japanese tourists bow at the serene Renata, whose flouncy skirt completely covers an over-padded Louis XV settee. 'They think I am Mrs Ritz,' she giggles, 'They say 'Bonjour Madame Ritz' and take my photograph. For we are here so often.' She is delighted.

They are in Venice often, too, for the spring, though not for carnival 'where there are too many tourists', and for the film festival in the autumn, where Leander 'gets to see the films that are suitable for children.'

It is perhaps debatable whether a Versace show in Paris is suitable for a young boy. But now, less than one hour before it begins, Leander is squirming with excitement. 'When he has no fun with fashion anymore, then it is enough. Now he is just longing for the shows,' says his mother.

We meet again, two hours later, after a typical Versace glamfest of shimmering sheaths held on to fabulous physiques by little more than a wing and a prayer. I ask Leander what he would buy for his mummy. 'You mean something sexy or something for daytime?' he counters, like a Seventh Avenue garmento. 'Sexy is difficult this season. There was not enough glamour at Versace this time,' intones this child, who has just witnessed Naomi in snakeskin, Helena in chain mail, Carla Bruni dangerously decolletee.

No glamour, Leander? What about all the celebrities in the audience? Elizabeth Hurley, Hugh Grant and Bryan Ferry? He shrugs, non-plussed. Did he perhaps get his picture taken with (the singer formally known as) Prince? 'No. He was talking, talking with a girl and then he was picking his nose.'

At that moment, the goddess of glamour herself sashshays by. Leander bolts, shouting at a grown-up photographer to follow. 'Guten Tag, Leander,' says Claudia Schiffer as she pauses to be photographed with him for the first of many times this season.

'She is the best. She smiles and she is tall. But now she spends much too much time with her boyfriend who I do not like,' pronounces our expert in his grown-up blazer and bow-tie. He pulls himself back up on to a plump Ritz chair. 'Still, the old generation of models are the best.'

Old, Leander? Like whom? 'Like Claudia Schiffer. When I am 25, maybe she will be my grandmother. And I like Cindy Crawford and Karen Mulder. But the new generation, they are not so glamorous . . .'

This doesn't stop him jumping up and having his picture taken with catwalk teenager, Brandi, already famous among the fashion pack for a particularly mobile bosom. She hugs him to it and announces loudly: 'He is so sweet]' Most of the men round about look like they'd like to change places.

'What do I think of fashion? echoes Leander. 'I like it sometimes. I am happy to have my picture taken with the most beautiful girls. I like clothes with glamour. The best are Chanel and sometimes Versace.'

'When Leander first was coming, he had this toy electric car, and he was playing with it here and the models all had to jump over it and he was not interested at all. But now, I am glad. I know he likes beautiful girls,' says his mother. But she looks wistful. It was, she recalls, 'easier in the past, for he could always sit on my knee.' Maybe she is aware that this is perhaps the last season he could attempt to sit, innocently, on Claudia's.

He's off again. This time it is Sylvester Stallone, whose girlfriend, Janice Dickinson, is sporting a Versace sheath with a perilous rear cleavage. 'My friends at school told me I will not have my picture taken with Sylvester Stallone and now I just have,' he crows. At this point Claudia Schiffer breezes back. She treats Leander's constant attentions as one would those of a small, yappy dog.

We meet again after the Dior show. Leander gives his opinion: 'The leather was good. This I thought was rather pretty.' The party dresses remind him of the Grimm's fairytale of the ten dancing princesses who wear their shoes out every night. At Emanuel Ungaro, he loves the flounces and furbelows; at Jean Louis Scherrer, he collects more glittering rhinestones that have fallen on the catwalk to add to Mummy's jar back home. Meanwhile, Mummy has been taken by two ornate dresses, one at Ungaro and one at Scherrer. (She will leave Paris without deciding on either. When I telephoned her last week, she still hadn't made up her mind. 'I will decide in September. Right now it is hot and I can't think of being dressed up.')

Back at Valentino, Renata's picture hat, gloves and party dress (all different from those she wore to Yves Saint Laurent a few hours before) are attracting attention. Leander didn't like Saint Laurent. The small boy's verdict on a show judged a standout by the cognoscenti is 'boring. I was very disappointed. Only Karen Mulder was a good model. The clothes were just old material, all Japanese.'

After Valentino's super-slinky finale, Leander hops up on the catwalk and beats a path backstage. He squeezes past Joan Collins, which no one else dares to, and I get stuck behind her. She is not in the best of tempers. We are wedged between the flats separating back stage from front-of-house and it is steaming hot. A timid French journalist grabs her chance at a quote. 'Madame Collins,' she quakes, 'may I please ask you what you thought of the defile?' 'What's a defile?' Joan snaps, though she knows well enough it means catwalk.

By the time Joan and her chap, and Elle MacPherson and her chap and I have received backstage benediction from Mr Valentino, I get a chance to scan the scene for Leander. I need look no further than the voluminous skirt of Claudia Schiffer's ballgown. He is preparing himself for a picture. Claudia, now posing with joyous bonhomie with Elle MacPherson (who she may or may not know), appears not to have noticed that he will also be in the shot.

Is there anywhere he would rather be? I ask him. 'The circus, at Las Vegas,' he replies. 'Where the best are Siegfried and Roy.' They are illusionists, like Claudia's intended, David Copperfield. But Leander doesn't want to talk about him. He gives me a look. Then he returns to the task in hand - another photo-opportunity with the lovely Claudia. ]

(Photographs omitted)