This is the story of the little black suit. Like the little black dress, it has never gone away. At times it has been unsung, it has been laid low, but it has never been out.

As the twice-yearly pantomime of catwalk shows, with their fake fur and dayglo colours comes to an end, it is with relief that we present a few simple black pieces which are clean and streamlined. With them, a few simple white pieces (summer is approaching, after all), plus this season's teeny-weeny dress, but worn here under the cover of a suit jacket and with black tights instead of those pop sox most of us would shy away from. Also, a sporty top, for sports stripes are another key look. But worn this way, you won't look as if you want to play centre field.

So these are not fantasy clothes, but clothes for going to work, popping into your local supermarket, going out for supper - in short, clothes in which you won't feel silly.

They are easy, spare and - in a youthful, modern way - elegant. The black suit, at its most stark, has longevity, but it just so happens that right now it is also fashionable. A pared-down, slick style of dressing is the favourite of Helmut Lang, one of the most influential designers working in Europe.

At first it was just Lang, an Austrian who shows in Paris, who said 'Black, black, more black and certainly no tricky details.' Now the chorus that has joined him includes Liza Bruce, an American living in London, and Mark Eisen, a South African who shows in New York. All have good tailoring and sombre clothes as the backbone of their collections.

Helmut Lang's Paris shows are laid-back (once you've fought through the scrum to get in). Tickets are typed pieces of A4 paper and are frequently forged. Still, the models are slouchy and cool - in contrast to that sharp cutting.

But while Lang's influence is the most obvious this summer, it isn't, after all, as if he invented the black suit. Yves Saint Laurent's 'le Smoking' is justly celebrated for its part in fashion history, but Yves always had a stark daytime version of his attention-grabbing, after-dark pantalon, too. Helmut Newton photographed an Yves woman in trousers in a dark Paris street circa 1975. Nearly 20 years on, these clothes have the same stark androgyny as that shot captured.

What was not there then, and what has disappeared now, are those big brassy buttons that always seemed to accompany tailoring for women throughout the Eighties and early Nineties. Instead, the detailing is more subtle and has slipped down from the jacket on to the trousers.

Satin side bands have become a Lang hallmark, but have thankfully turned up in slightly more affordable lines. Joseph's satin stripe black crepe evening pants are pounds 79 and fast becoming a must-have among any urbanites who can fit into them. Another alternative comes low-slung from APC, as Naomi Smith, who styled our shoot explains: 'Ideally, I would buy a Helmut Lang trouser suit, but it's out of my price range. But the APC version has flattering hipster trousers (the cut for spring if your flat tummy can take it) and is more affordable.' French label, APC (Atelier for Production and Creation) is designed by Jean Touitou.

Look out for waistband detailing on trousers. The coolest are schoolboy trousers worn by girls. The look probably gained momentum when tiny models such as London's Emma Balfour started turning up to shoots in trousers they'd bought in the John Lewis boys' wear department. APC and Joseph take these as inspiration for a lean, slim-hipped look which can be worn by people over 15. Think of these new versions as schoolboy minus the snivels and knock- knees.

By night, the black suit becomes more hard-edged. The brave are adding a slick of red lipstick, plenty of hair grease (Linda Evangelista sported a veritable DA at the recent Helmut Lang show) and spindly high heels. By night or day, a simple white T-shirt does sterling service beneath.

(Photograph omitted)