couture hip again. By Tamsin Blanchard. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photograph s by Donna Trope
Haute couture had its heyday in the Fifties and Sixties, when ladies became clients because there was no designer ready-to-wear. In those days, Yves Saint Laurent was a young gun, experimenting with sheer fabrics, snakeskin boots, and androgyny. At the haute couture shows in Paris 10 days ago, Saint Laurent's customers were still entranced by the fabulous dresses and immaculate tuxedo trouser suits with which he made his name. But clients such as Nan Kempner and Betty Catroux - pin thin and stylish though they are - are no longer trail-blazers in the fashion world. They are of pensionable age, after all. But then so is Yves.

Of a different generation altogether is Jean Paul Gaultier, the designer invited to take the seat of honour at Saint Laurent's show in the Hotel Intercontinental, next to the master of couture's close friend and long- term client Catherine Deneuve. Gaultier, at 46 years of age no longer an enfant terrible but still a formidable avant-garde force, watched the show enraptured. He marvelled at the YSL signatures - the powerful mixes of colour, the prim day-skirt suits, the Helmut Newton "smoking" suits, and the seemingly effortless evening gowns. Why was Gaultier given the place of honour? Does Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent's business partner, have plans for Jean Paul in the future? "Ee 'as the place d'honneur seemply because we love 'eem," snapped M Berge as a journalist posed the question in the after-show chaos when frail liver-spotted clients, photographers with long lenses and ladders, and sharp-elbowed journalists tussle to get backstage to pay their respects.

Gaultier represents the new guard of haute couture. So, too, do Viktor & Rolf, the Dutch designers, whose debut couture collection - shown safely off the official couture schedule - blew through Paris like a breath of fresh air. Viktor & Rolf are more likely to attract the sort of woman who might buy Comme des Garcons, as well as owners of art galleries who could display Viktor & Rolf's work like pieces of sculpture. Already, a Dutch millionaire has shown interest in buying a white fox fur coat by the designers for his 30-something wife.

The way for Viktor & Rolf has been paved by the British designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, who have been allowed to wreak havoc at the revered French houses of Christian Dior and Givenchy. Jean Paul Gaultier himself is a relatively new name on the couture circuit, with a new young clientele to match. Catherine Deneuve and Joan Collins are both Gaultier couture fans, but then so too is Ms Collins' daughter, Tara Newley (who was married in a Gaultier wedding dress) as well as Elton John, Madonna and Dana International, the transsexual Israeli winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. Gaultier's clothes have broad appeal. His early experience working with Pierre Cardin and Patou in the Seventies gave him an insight into the couture world; to the proud French, for whom the couture is as precious and protected as good champagne, he represents the future.

Not for Gaultier the all-singing, all-dancing showtime extravaganzas of Dior and Givenchy. His collections are shown in intimate salons where the press and buyers can reach out and touch the mohair of a skirt, see the volume of a crisply pleated, floor-length nun's habit, and gasp at the intricate Lesage beadwork on a blouson jacket, or a Fair Isle jumper made entirely of feathers. Gaultier's couture is a fusion of the traditional art and craftsmanship which make couture "haute", and a witty sense of modernity. His clothes have a relevance to what is happening in fashion and (if you are rich or famous) in the real world. Of course they are still fantastically luxurious and deliciously expensive.

A lot has changed in the fusty old world of hand-spun designer confections since John Galliano was made designer-in-chief at Givenchy just over two years ago. For a start, less attention is paid to the customer. In the days of Hubert, the couturier who dressed Audrey Hepburn so exquisitely and who had a loyal following among the titled blue-rinse brigade, only a handful of press would bother to turn out to see his collections of neat air-hostess suits and respectable day dresses with matching hats. Then Galliano got the job and the world's fashion press and news camera crews could not apply for their tickets fast enough. Two seasons later, when Alexander McQueen was given the keys to the house and Galliano was ushered into the money-spinning House of Dior, the old-time couture buyers had never seen such hysteria.

Without the new boys, media interest in haute couture would have fizzled out. New blood has ensured that the couture - the female equivalent of Savile Row, where monied women go for discreet fittings for a suit or a cocktail dress - has never generated so much hype and publicity as it has the past few seasons.

Both McQueen and Galliano have all but turned their backs on their houses' core clients. Such as Jocelyne Wildenstein, the 53-year-old facelift-addict doing a bit of shopping therapy while she awaits her final divorce settlement. Or a Texan vision in pink wearing the biggest earrings an earlobe could safely support, who hid behind her huge, dark, gilt-edged Dior sunglasses. Most of these women do not have an ounce of style in their bodies. Why would either designer want these women to wear their clothes?

The simple answer is that they don't. Which explains the historical costume, the Pocahontas feathers, the showgirl head-dresses, the Henry VIII robes, and the Blackadder doublets and hose. The strangest thing is that supposedly the most avant-garde designers in Paris seem not to look to the future but to the past. At least Donatella Versace is trying to move her atelier forward, although oxidised horsehair and threads o f copper wire are perhaps not the answer.

Viktor & Rolf, meanwhile, are in the business of putting haute couture back on the map and subverting everything about it in the process. "This is the high couture of anti-memory," declared their show notes. "Couture without any limits of form - all nostalgia pulverised ... style's acid rain destroying all forms of nostalgia, to put an end once and for all to this waning century." A silk chiffon drawstring blouse filled with balloons on pale blue silk strings might not be everyone's idea of the future of fashion, but their collection, based on the atomic bomb (the silhouette of the clothes followed the shape of an atomic mushroom cloud) and New Year's Eve celebrations 1999, was uncompromisingly modern and bizarrely beautiful. "We're changing eras not seasons," they say. Thank the couture gods. There is a future after all