THE WORLD of haute couture, where individual clients pay upwards of pounds 5,000 for made-to-measure clothes, is in crisis. We've seen it all before, but the difference this time round is that even the couturiers are admitting that the end may be in sight. When the spring '93 haute couture shows open in Paris in a fortnight's time, the couturiers will be fighting to justify their very existence.

The mood of the times is firmly against ostentation and excess. Marc Bohan, former couturier at Christian Dior and, more recently, the house of Hartnell, the British couture house that went into receivership last year, put it succinctly on the day he resigned: 'It's not constructive to make dresses any more for the jet set. That life is out.'

The financial giants who back the big names of Paris couture are getting restless. When Jean-Louis Scherrer, the Paris couturier, arrived at his atelier in the avenue Montaigne on 26 November, he had exciting plans. Within days he was to leave for the winter sunshine of his home in Tangier, where he intended to start work on his couture collection for this coming spring. There was, however, an unpleasant surprise waiting on his desk: a letter of dismissal from Ilona Gestion, the holding company that owns 90 per cent of his business. Never before had a couturier been fired from the fashion house that bears his name.

Scherrer, who studied with Christian Dior in the late Fifties, is renowned for his lavish, extravagant evening wear - and he has an impressive client list to prove it. Madame Giscard d'Estaing, wife of the former French president, called when she heard he had been sacked. Sophia Loren sent a telegram. In recent years, Scherrer has dressed the sisters of the Shah of Iran, the princesses of Jordan, the princesses of Saudi Arabia and their daughters, Princess Astrid of Luxemburg and Rose Kennedy.

His daughter, Laetitia, is his treasured muse and another subject of contention between him and Ilona Gestion. In 1991 the company sacked her. All the same, Scherrer insisted on using her as a model in his final show last July, wearing the most elaborate of all his outfits, dripping with embroidery immaculately crafted in the ateliers of Francois Lesage and selling for the price of a central London flat.

To attend a Jean-Louis Scherrer couture show is to step back to a time when luxury was enjoyed for luxury's sake; a Rabelaisian celebration of excess and extravagance.

That world now looks to be on the way out, with the couture houses feeling the pinch and couturiers under pressure to cut down on the Lesage workmanship.

Nevertheless, the couturier's dismissal has shocked his colleagues. At an Aids benefit dinner, Pierre Berge, chairman of Yves Saint Laurent, publicly expressed sympathy and solidarity with the man who was 'evicted from his own fashion house'. The sacking certainly devastated the 58-year-old Scherrer, who sold off most of his financial stake two years ago to Ilona Gestion, which is owned by Japan's Seibu Saison and Hermes.

He is dismissive of his replacement, Erik Mortensen, the former couturier at Balmain. 'I don't know what Erik Mortensen understands about my style,' he told Women's Wear Daily.

According to Scherrer, his pay-off was a month's salary. 'I was fired like a street- sweeper. . . . No, even a street-sweeper, when he's fired, gets a warning.'

Street-sweepers, however, do not usually get taken to court after they have been fired. Last month, Ilona Gestion sued to annul its acquisition of Jean-Louis Scherrer, accusing the designer of allegedly opposing 'the economic strategy' of the majority shareholders. They want him to pay back the FF100m (equivalent to pounds 11.6m today) they paid out for control of the company in 1990 and another FF78m in damages.

Scherrer has responded by filing a suit against Seibu Saison and Hermes, seeking damages of FF200m and the appointment of an independent provisional manager to run the company. The legal battle proper begins today in the Paris Commercial Court.

The twists and turns of this bitterly fought saga are likely to keep the court busy for many months. But the broader implications are deeply disturbing for the entire couture market. The root cause of the tensions at the house of Scherrer was the company's disastrous financial performance: the firm reported a loss of FF42m in 1991.

The truth is that the financial giants behind most of the Paris couturiers are now increasingly reluctant to pour money into the most expensive promotions on earth (the primary purpose of dollars 3m-a-season couture shows is to promote the fashion houses' perfumes and beauty products).

Only a few thousand women worldwide can afford to buy couture, and even that small number is dwindling. Scherrer used to dress dozens of women in the Middle East, particularly Kuwait City. The Gulf war was a catastrophe for his business. The other big market - the United States - is also on the wane; the ladies who lunch don't flaunt their money in quite the same way. Ivana Trump and friends have slimmed down their budgets as much as their waistlines.

The French are doing everything they can to revive the good old days. However, much of it smacks of too little, too late, particularly the current revamping of the regulations of the 125-year-old Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne to make it easier for new, young designers to join the ranks of the couturiers. It may, at least, persuade Jean Paul Gaultier to have a dabble.

Even more tardy is the house of Pierre Balmain's recent appointment of Oscar de la Renta to design both couture and ready-to-wear from this season. De la Renta is an American (the first American to design for a Paris couture house) with a strong head for business and a bevy of admirers among the American social set. No one doubts that he has the clout to attract more transatlantic customers, but he faces an uphill task reviving the creative image of Balmain.

His comments on the day he signed up were less than encouraging: 'I don't know too much about Balmain yet. I spent last night leafing through the house's scrapbooks from the Fifties and Sixties to see what Balmain was all about in its heyday.' It doesn't sound like de la Renta is exactly imbued with the Balmain heritage.

Will haute couture disappear? Pierre Berge, of Yves Saint Laurent, has predicted it will end with Saint Laurent. Scherrer has privately hinted it will not last beyond the mid-Nineties.

Christian Lacroix, the great hope of the late Eighties, has signally failed to make money in the field of couture, despite the heavyweight backing of the French financier Bernard Arnault. Gianfranco Ferre, the Italian brought in at Christian Dior, has never quite cracked it in the view of many within the industry. Gianni Versace, an Italian now showing in Paris under his own name, has fared better. But the only couturier who continues to come up trumps in both creative and commercial terms is Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.

In 1989, the house of Lanvin made a bold stab at reinventing haute couture for a new generation, hiring an indisputably modern designer - Claude Montana. The press loved him; the clients less so. Lanvin has now withdrawn from couture catwalk shows.

If there is a future for couture, it may, ironically, lie in the approach offered by a handful of British couturiers: discreet salon shows for a few special clients, unspectacular collections that don't try to grab the headlines.

Catherine Walker, whose customers include the Princess of Wales, has pursued such a path with notable success in recent years. Bruce Oldfield, who once had ambitions for empire building, has also returned to basics, making clothes for a select but loyal group of clients.

Maybe the mid-Nineties will see the couturiers retreating to the safe havens of their workshops. Perhaps the future will see them spending more time on pleasing their regular clients and less on big-time gestures. The age of grandeur is past, but couturiers may still have a future if they, and their financial masters, can accept that small - and discreet - is beautiful.

(Photograph omitted)