Nina Ricci clothes used to be seen as old-fashioned and middle- aged. But a relaunch has caught the attention of the fashion world, as well as the imagination of stars such as Kristin Scott Thomas, photographed in Ricci here and overleaf

A YEAR ago, none of the film celebrities who turn up at Cannes, Venice or the Oscars in LA would have been seen dead in a Nina Ricci dress. With plenty of hip fashion designers willing to "lend" their clothes to stars and starlets, why should anyone remotely fabulous have wanted to bother with a stuffy French label which reeked of a long-departed haute bourgeoisie? Last June, however, the actress Kristin Scott Thomas, the real star of Four Weddings and a Funeral, wore Nina Ricci to the Cannes film festival - and everyone agreed that she looked wonderful.

What's more, they thought that her clothes were wonderful - which proved a point: within the past 12 months, things have been shaken up at the dusty French fashion house on the Avenue Montaigne. First, the Nina Ricci accessories improved: there were jaunty little shoes and jolly little bags. Then a new make-up collection arrived, beautifully packaged by that celebrated duo Garouste & Bonnetti (who made a rather better job of Nina Ricci's "Teint D'Or" than they had done of Christian Lacroix's "C'est la Vie"). Then a new perfume, going by the zippy name of "Deci Dela" made its debut. And finally, the clothes changed.

Without being sickly, they became charming and pretty, youthful and sweet. They seemed the clothes for all manner of heroines: a crinoline here for Degas's little ballerina; a sweeping coat there for some less-than-mournful Anna Karenina. There were tailored pinstriped suits, the strict lines knocked out of them with the addition of floral corsetry barely visible beneath, and powder-pale chiffon bustles poking out from behind. They were fun, they were fresh, they were modern; suddenly Nina Ricci had been brought alive again.

It was in October 1994, at the spring/summer 1995 Paris collections, that the rumour had started that Ricci's show - for once - was not to be missed. This was the first solo collection of Myriam Schaeffer, who for seven years had worked at the right-hand of the irreverent French fashion designer, Jean Paul Gaultier. And here she was at Nina Ricci (Ricci herself had died in 1970) - at the heart of one of the oldest fashion houses in town. She is part of an emerging group of young designers who are revolutionising the grand fashion houses whose founders have long since died or retired: the Irishman Peter O'Brien at Rochas, the young Frenchman Michel Klein at Guy Laroche, and, recently, the Londoner John Galliano at the helm of the house of Givenchy.

After Schaeffer's first show, Le Journal du Dimanche said: "Une grande surprise chez Nina Ricci." By the time of the autumn/ winter 1995 collections, six months later, everyone wanted to see.

Kristin Scott Thomas, who lives in Paris with her family, admits to having fallen under the Ricci spell. She first met Schae-ffer just after that first show in October 1994. By May of the following year, she was waving to the paparazzi as she walked up to Le Palais du Festival at Cannes wearing one of Schaeffer's floral-sprigged ballgowns. The fact that, by then, Schaeffer's celebrity had spread far beyond the Parisian dinner party circuit owed much to the patronage of stars like Scott Thomas.

It nearly didn't happen, though. "A week before Cannes," remembers Scott Thomas, "I'd taken this wonderful dress home to parade round in for my husband, when I discovered that I couldn't sit down. It seemed silly to wear something for a premiere that meant I would have had to stand in the aisle, so I sent it back to be altered. I then left for Cannes; my husband was going to bring it down for me. A few days later, a box arrived, which only contained the hooped crinoline. He had the sense to ring up, saying, `I think there must be a bit more to this.' The complete dress reached him before he left Paris, but then the flight was delayed, the traffic between Nice and Cannes was impossible and he and the dress had to get a helicopter. I, meanwhile, was sitting in my hotel room in my bathrobe. Then my husband landed and watched the helicopter take off again without unloading the dress, at which point he did a frantic dance, caught the pilot's attention and, thankfully, got my outfit to me on time." Needless to say, she looks serene in all the paparazzi pictures.

She chose her Cannes dress not because Schaeffer is currently the most- talked about designer in the fashion world, but simply because "her clothes suit me". "I love Jean Paul Gaultier, but it's not for me. I love Galliano, but it doesn't look right on the shape I am. Myriam's clothes work for me, but I don't know if that's because they are designed for women by a woman. " !