IT IS supposed to be difficult to get backstage before a Paris fashion show. In truth, it is getting easier every season. The behind-the-scenes preparations, once sacred rituals attended by only a trusted core of people, have become just as much a part of the show as the catwalk itself.

Half an hour before the Chloe show at the spring ready-to-wear collections in Paris last week, the whole fashion world was milling around backstage. Karl Lagerfeld had returned to the house where he made his name in the Seventies, designing his first Chloe collection in nine years. And everyone wanted to be there, sharing the excitement.

Not that the models are always in a sharing mood. At Chloe, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista cocooned themselves in a corner and glared at intruders. Campbell, the girl from Streatham, south London, was playing with a new accessory: a small dog that, unlike the paparazzi, had no interest whatsoever in watching her remove her clothes.

Many of the top models are brandishing small animals this season, usually Yorkies with names like Paco or Gribouille. Those models who cannot afford dogs have a tame man on a short leash, who rarely opens his mouth except to approve his paramour's make-up.

Even her fellow models were unwelcome in the Campbell corner. 'I'm not telling you anything ever again,' she said to one. 'Whatever I say to you goes straight in the papers the next day.'

Evangelista, meanwhile, was concentrating hard on her preparations. Karl Lagerfeld looked her over approvingly. 'She is the new Chloe,' he said. 'You know, Linda can be very aggressive, but there is another side of her that is soft and beautiful, and that is the Chloe side.'

All the designer's favourite models were backstage, happy to do their bit for the master (particularly when he pays them up to dollars 10,000 for a couple of hours' work). Lagerfeld likes to gossip with them, raising his black fan to his face when he has a particularly salacious piece of news to impart.

His favourite, according to those who know him, is Claudia Schiffer, the German Brigitte Bardot look-alike who cannot walk properly but looks heavenly. As Lagerfeld once put it: 'When you look like that, you don't have to walk. You can walk on clouds.'

A few nights later, I went backstage at Vivienne Westwood, who was showing in the Grand Hotel near the Opera. Lagerfeld has armies of people to do his bidding, so he can afford to do TV interviews and gossip with the models before his shows begin. Westwood, by contrast, still runs a very tight ship. Some of her team had paid their own way across the Channel, and many of the models were doing the show at cut-price rates.

Christie, from Stamford Hill, north London, was one of several models repaying a debt to Westwood. 'I gatecrashed her casting in London last year. I just turned up with no agent, and she took me on for London and then to Paris. She's marvellous. I only come to Paris to do Vivienne.'

Someone had opened bottles of champagne backstage, which soothed a few nerves. John Walford, veteran British producer, had lost count of the number of fashion shows he had organised for Westwood. 'Fifty, at least. Do I still get nervous? Feel my pulse]'

Westwood, he said, was a grade-one star. 'You should see her chatting with the models' mothers. She's got no airs and graces. She can be infuriating, but she's always inspirational. She works off gut reaction, but she also has a very strong intellect, and that makes a formidable combination.'

He was called away by a Westwood minion to sort out the next mini-crisis, pushing his way past Campbell and Kate Moss, the wafer-thin new British supermodel who has made a fortune by posing topless in a Calvin Klein advertising campaign.

Yasmin Le Bon was having her hair done and husband Simon was playing with their daughter, Amber. I asked him what he made of the fashion world. 'Well, it ain't rock'n'roll, is it?' Later, he cheered Yasmin every time she appeared on the catwalk, held up Amber and said: 'Wave to Mummy]'

Looking rather out of place backstage was Bertie Hope-Davies, at 64 the oldest model in Paris. 'I was being photographed by Mario Testino for Tatler, and he told me I was a natural. I suppose it makes a change from ordinary life.'

Westwood's clothes looked crazy but were really rather classic, I suggested. He seemed bemused. 'Well, you know, I don't really understand it. But I suppose that's what it's all about because that's what I've been told.'

The dressers checked through their rails over and over again, making sure everything was in position. The jewellery designer arranged and rearranged his precious collection of Perspex orchid accessories. The supermodels stretched their long limbs and checked their faces in the mirrors.

A fashionable 50 minutes late, the lights dimmed and Westwood's models stepped out. Backstage went frontstage, and the show was on the road.

(Photographs omitted)