This season's collections have finally put the `haute' back in couture. Dream of the dresses, but swoon over t he price tags
Those who adore haute couture have feared for its well-being in recent years. First, it seemed this highest level of French fashion, where exquisitely crafted clothes are made for individual clients with £20,000 to spend on a frock, would lie dow n and die because of lack of interest. Then it looked as if it would turn into nothing but a glitzy publicity stunt to peddle perfume by designer names. Now, at last, the most interesting thing about haute couture is the clothes.

The best news from Paris this week is the return of the slim, structured tailoring for day and lighter-than-air gowns for night: clothes that women, albeit wealthy ones, can wear without looking like boulevard hookers. For couture clothes have sometimes seemed so suffocated under geegaws, so overblown, that no self-respecting woman, even an off-duty supermodel, would want to wear them. As for supermodels, there were few of the usual gaggle in town and hence less fashion chat over who was doing what withwhom. Ditto movie stars, who have diverted attention from the purpose of the haute couture shows in recent seasons. This time, they, too, stayed away. So we could focus on elegant daywear and spell-binding eveningwear. Suits were nipped at the waist, Fifties-style. The looks for night ranged from jaunty belle epoque ruffles and bustles to flighty drifts of chiffon.

As in the case at all levels in fashion now, haute couture had a touch of retro fever. The inspiration for many couturiers was the heyday of Christian Dior; those slender jackets with bracelet-length cuffs, those powder-pale bags, gloves and shoes.

Hubert de Givenchy opened his couture house while Dior was at his height. But this week, while Versace, Valentino, Lagerfeld at Chanel and Ferre - today's designer at the House of Dior - showed many Fifites styles, Givenchy stuck to the present and the requirements of a woman who has grown up with him. Elsewhere, all talk of Givenchy is of the future. Will he retire this year? And will Claude Montana or John Galliano take over?

Galliano's very Fifties ready-to-wear collection, shown to acclaim in October, was "almost couture", and even Karl Lagerfeld believes the Briton should get the top job. If he does, he won't be the first Brit - Charles Frederick Worth, English emigre to Paris more than a century ago, started what is now the haute couture in the first place.

The German emigre Karl Lagerfeld has made his mark on Paris in more recent years and some would say it has at times been a blot. Lagerfeld has stood accused (sometimes by me) of betraying the spirit of Chanel. Yet this week's collection might have pleased Coco. It thrilled me, with its sophisticated, impeccable tailoring, clean of vulgar accessories; its perky matelot stripes made of hundreds of tiny beads and worn with black chiffon; and its seamed and structured cocktail glamour. It was ele gant, spirited - the best Chanel collection for years.

The sound track was, as ever, amusing. "Put those shoulders back, girls, you have no idea how important it is," scolded Kay Thompson in her role as fashion diva in the Fifties film Funny Face - in which Fred Astaire played Richard Avedon, the photographygreat who is now enjoying something of a revival.

Avedon, with his New Yorker magazine contract is still very much "at it". And now his archives are attracting attention alongside his current work. A Fifties photo by him has been chosen to advertise the relaunch of the fragrance Ma Griffe.

Another name central to Fifties imagery is that of Rene Gruau, the illustrator who created the vibrant image for Christian Dior's first fragrance. The illustrations here are our hommage to Gruau, who we hope will reappear (though he is in his nineties), just as Roger Vivier, Dior's shoe-making collaborator, is about to do. Vivier, 87, created the exquisite shoes that accompanied Dior's finest creations. He is opening a new shop in Paris tomorrow.

Yves Saint Laurent was Dior's protege, but his work since then has been pure Saint Laurent. Yves is Yves and here again this week were square-shouldered suits, "Le Smoking" for evening and fluid gowns with a Grecian theme. The only retro Yves is interested in is his own, as he reissues and rejigs more than 30 years of designs. But they still work, and still flatter.

Perhaps it takes a braver woman to wear a gingham satin suit with a perky peplum by Christian Lacroix. But like Saint Laurent, he does his own thing and the result is so delicious you find yourself thinking quite extraordinary thoughts in the face of hiscreations. Yesterday, sitting two feet away from a gala gown of weightless swags of mint duchesse satin with a parma violet girdle and a corsage of Irish pansies on the shoulder, I mused about running off with a South American tin magnate, a German industrialist, hell, a wealthy old bore, just to be able to own such magnificence. Surely many of those packed in the salon of the Grand Hotel felt the same: at the end of the show well-wishers stormed the catwalk. Lacroix found himself in a sea of breathless fashion folk shrieking "Merveilleux!"

What we saw in Paris this week were clothes that spoke for themselves. At Chanel, for the first time in so long, they spoke of sophistication; at Lacroix, of zestful exuberance; and at Saint Laurent, of a timeless elegance. Whether your taste is for a body-skimming little jacket and pencil skirt in dalmation dots by Versace, or a neat navy suit by Valentino, seemed like a corset at the back, there were clothes to want at haute couture. The only problem is where to find £20,000.