AFTER the strawberry pavlova, the Armani models: 20 strange and beautiful men and women wafting by our tables in the autumn/winter collection, close enough to catch their cologne. After the Armani, Elton John in the corner hammering out a stream of hits on a keyboard. At Quaglino's in London's Piccadilly, this is the new face of Aids fund-raising, the Terrence Higgins Trust's most glittering bash, inspired largely by the way they do these things in the United States.

The trust has always fostered a 'street' reputation, an image that suited both those who used its service and the staff and volunteers. Since its inception 12 years ago, most of its fund-raising events have been hip and low-key affairs, from its first disco at the London club Heaven to gala screenings of Dracula and the comedy shows Hysteria and Filth, most well within the reach of supporters' pockets.

But last Sunday was something else, a dinner costing between pounds 150 and pounds 300 a 'plate', some good food guaranteed but the rest of the evening dependent on the stars that showed up. Being on a grander scale, it achieved grander results: more than pounds 60,000, not including proceeds from the auction ( pounds 2,000 for an evening frock, pounds 3,000 each for two Virgin Upper Class flights to San Francisco, only slightly less for lunch on the Orient Express and a Damien Hirst limited edition). Everyone involved - Sir Terence Conran and Joel Kissin for Quaglino's, Giorgio Armani and his beautiful people, guest performers (Rory Bremner and Kiki Dee as well as Elton John), drinks suppliers, waiters, cigarette girls - gave everything for free.

The pounds 300 seats went first and several tables were booked by Levi's, Evian, Marks & Spencer - small-scale corporate hospitality that would have been unheard of at a British Aids fund-raiser five years ago.

The evening was partly in honour of the Three Hundred Club, an initiative of the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini. Appalled by the news that Virginia Bottomley was to cut the trust's grant by pounds 300,000 over three years, he believed he could make up the shortfall by inviting 300 people each to donate pounds 1,000. To date, he is about halfway to his target; those who have contributed include Stephen Fry, U2, Ken Follett, Jack Dee, Delia Smith and Sir Simon Rattle.

'You should paint in broad strokes,' Gambaccini believes. 'People have asked: why have events that are beyond the pocket of everyday people? But it seems logical - to raise as much money as possible to help people who perhaps can't afford the fund-raising events. That whole element of resentment and financial correctness is a very British concern, almost a corollary of the class system.'

The Quaglino's event included another unusual element. It has become fashionable at fund-raisers to gloss over the impact of the virus, for fear of spoiling the fun, or of preaching to the converted. There is always much woolly talk of support and bravery, but you never learn much, and you seldom become energised. On Sunday, a woman called Eva Heymann, in her mid-sixties, spoke at length and in detail of people dying and the effect on their children.

This is a critical time for the image of the Terrence Higgins Trust. It is still a relatively small charity, and its annual income (just over pounds 3m for the year to April 1994) has always been less than its fame might suggest. It has never been a slick organisation, and has made many misjudgements in its life, but it is now probably more efficiently managed than at any time in the past. It faces many problems in addition to the cut in government funding (perversely, from a government department that talks of targeting health education funds to those that need it most). The trust reports from its bucket- rattling appeals that Aids and HIV are perceived by a large proportion of the public as a problem solved, despite the fact that more people are dying each year.

Last month another blow came, from the Sunday Times. The newspaper had taken what it believed was the 'anti-establishment line' on Aids for several years (challenging the belief that HIV causes Aids), but it had been some time since it had gunned directly for the management of the trust. In September, it claimed that the charity was infested with sexual harassment and cannabis scandals and was facing financial ruin.

There certainly had been some unfortunate incidents at the trust; but it has weathered many such storms before. The charity claimed that some of the Sunday Times report was based on old evidence from disgruntled former employees, and its substance was overblown. In financial terms, the trust has faced more worrying times, and the continued support shown on Sunday ensures that it is far from ruin.

Many at Quaglino's had no doubt banished the Sunday Times from their breakfast tables some time ago. There were two references to it from the podium. Paul Gambaccini cracked a joke about how the new Nobel Prize for fiction had gone to Rupert Murdoch, and then Elton John had a go. As he took the stage he explained how he had only decided to perform during lunch earlier that day.

'The Terrence Higgins Trust are the people out there all the time,' he said, before whacking out 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me', 'Your Song' and 'Daniel'. 'They're out in the trenches dealing on a day-to-day basis with people who are suffering. And so how could I say that I wouldn't do it?

'It's one of the greatest organisations I've ever been associated with. So fuck the Sunday Times]'

Not subtle, but it certainly caught the mood of the night.

(Photographs omitted)