THE DIARY: We're off to summer camp in Paris

When I was around 11 or 12, I guess, I had my first experience of couture. My mother would stitch me up shirts of blue and pink chequered tablecloth gingham. These were the closest I came to my ultimate desire at the time: a bona-fide Ben Sherman shirt as worn by the surly-looking boys on the covers of Richard Allen's trashy SuedeHead novels.

I don't mean to seem ungrateful. OK, my shirts had little button-down collars, a pleat in the back and were top-stitched to perfection on the old Singer sewing machine my mother always seemed to be sweating over; but they just weren't the real thing. I remember I wanted a navy-almost- black Crombie overcoat, too, and I got one. From a mail-order catalogue. I guess I sound like a spoilt brat, but somehow I knew even then that it just wasn't right. I got the couture bug early. I wanted cashmere and got polyester-mix-wool. This week I sat and watched clothes go by on the catwalks in Paris that cost tens of thousands of pounds. I wonder what my mother would say.

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GOING to the haute couture collections in Paris is a bit like being sent to summer camp, albeit a very chi-chi version. Every six months you make the same journey, hole up at the same hotel and hang out with the same crowd.

The British press are a notoriously friendly bunch. At an impromptu party in the bar of the Hotel du Louvre there were fashion folk from the Independent, the Sunday Times, the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and Elle's arch-rival, .Marie Claire. Instead of ruminating on the direction Galliano might be taking or debating the latest Gucci/Yves Saint Laurent gossip, we talked about everything else - especially about how much we missed our cats.

Things did get a little crazy. At one point a certain fashion editor ran into the room waving leaves swiped from a potted plant in reception and proceeded to undress one of the catwalk photographers, draping him in a white damask napkin. "Hail, Nero!" she shouted above the din of the gathered fashionistas. No one looked surprised; we simply applauded much as we had done earlier in the day at Gaultier.

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ANOTHER groovy party was the bash Donatella Versace threw for Madonna at the vast Man Ray restaurant, the interior of which is something like a film set: think Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Last Emperor. The guest list included Puff Daddy, Boy George, Tom Ford, Isabella Rossellini and Prince and Mrs Prince, as well as all the gorgeous girls who had walked the Versace catwalk earlier that day, still wearing the dresses they modelled in the show.

Everyone seemed happy to chill out, chat and chow down - until Madonna took to the dance floor. Waving her arms in the air like she did in her "Ray of Light" video she was suddenly surrounded by the fashion pack. I got up to strut my stuff with Aurelia Cecil, the exceedingly glamorous British PR for Versace and one-time squeeze of Prince Andrew. One of her associates looked shocked. "I've never seen Aurelia dance before," she laughed. Aurelia just tossed her mane of flame-red hair and boogied on regardless. "It's just like Annabel's," she said.

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PHOTOGRAPHING the haute couture for Elle requires a degree of co-ordination akin to a military manoeuvre. First, you can only shoot at night, because the designers do fittings with their clients during the day (after all, they are the ones who are paying through their bobbed noses for the stuff). Then every magazine seemingly wants the same dress, so you smarm and smile with the PRs for the "long lavender silk satin dress covered in black tulle embroidered in silver and parma beads" (Givenchy) or the "long 'moon-in-the-water' painted organza dress with 'pinafore' back and jewelled shoulder straps" (Christian Lacroix) for an hour or two. Enough time to get it picked up from the atelier by my trusty assistant Lucie, brought to the studio, slipped on by the model, photographed (phew!), pulled off the model and speedily returned to the clock-watching PR. Next!

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FUR. I guess I can't ignore it. Always a part of the bourgeois sensibility, this season it again reared its head - literally - on the Dior catwalk, where silver fox pelts dangled from the supermodels' perfectly coiffed hairdos. From day one at Elle there has been an anti-fur policy and, even though certain individuals on the fashion team may go weak at the knees at the sight of a chinchilla shrug we just don't shoot it (oops!). This isn't always easy, and more than once I have found myself unpicking slivers of mink from a beaded gown just so it could appear on Elle's fashion pages.

However, I have to admit that in my dark, distant past fur did represent all that is glamorous to me (it must have been all those Hollywood musicals I watched on TV on Saturday afternoons). My mother even thrilled me with a fox fur of my own when I was about 15 (I thought it was so Roxy Music). As I sat on the sofa draped in my new fur stole, watching Match of the Day with my disapproving father, I never imagined that, 25 years on, I would find myself sitting on a little gold chair in the Ritz Hotel in Paris, watching some of the world's most expensive dresses wander past. Haute couture. It can be anyone's dream....

Iain R Webb is fashion director at 'Elle'.

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