PULL up a little gilt chair, get the checkbook out, and take a long look at the world's top-echelon fashions for spring and summer. There's lots of news in comings and goings, as well as the actual news the Paris couturiers establish in current trends - the ups and downs of hemlines, the retro influence, and unparalleled luxury of the fabrics and embroideries.
Everyone has said it before in the past 21/2 years, and we are all saying it again: the juxtaposition of the economic crunch offset by the opulence and total extravagance of haute couture, and a mood of ''keep the flag flying at all costs.'' And cost it does, although when I was in New York recently the message finally droned through that many talented American designers, too, are now receiving many of these astronomical prices.
The scene has changed drastically here in the past few years. French designers like nothing better than to stage a good party (Nina Ricci gave the large evening reception without the fashion show, as the collection was not completed on time because of strikes in the workrooms). But the high costs of producing and presenting a collection have obliged all the top houses to settle for one ''big do'' instead of daily presentations every afternoon for four months after the initial openings. This system necessitated a permanent team of highly paid ''house'' mannequins. Now the same group of top models who migrate to Paris four times a year for the ready-to-wear as well as the couture rotate through most of the important houses. They are beautiful faces, as familiar to the ''pros'' as that proverbial girl next door, yet every mannequin adapts and looks totally different, following each designer's mood of the moment - his specific silhouettes, his choice of hairstyles, makeup, and accessories.
For the audience it's a matter of push and shove, plead and plow, to reach one's numbered seat with your name clipped to the back of a wobbly and extremely uncomfortable little gold chair. (The chairs, from the same rental agency, make the rounds of various shows almost as fast as the mannequins.)
The press is screened to the nth degree, but a few ''doubtfuls'' always manage to weasel in. Haughty buyers do what they are obviously there for: buy. The front-row lineup of international socialites and movie stars gives the press something to write about besides hemlines, and the roving photographers, once considered lower than Victor Hugo's colorful descriptions of the Paris sewers, are veritable stars in their own right.
Until a few years ago a release date for all photographs established about a month after the openings was observed and signed by everyone concerned with all the solemnity of the Declaration of Independence. Nowadays, however, every house is enchanted to have photos taken ''live'' during the shows and published the same day. A specialist is also on hand to film the videotapes that are shown in the salons later in lieu of the traditional presentations every afternoon.
Times have changed and been simplified by these designers, but each major collection represents a minimum investment of almost half a million dollars without the furs and basic costs of the actual presentation: the mannequins' fees, renting an enormous ballroom, and the marvelous flower arrangements decorating the runways.
Finally, the couture collections are never totally amortized, even when the clothes are sold off at cost price at the end of each season to a few very skinny and moderately rich fortunates. Yet the couture still equates the old story of the little steam engine pulling a long train with each car bearing a specific label: ready-to-wear, accessories, lingerie, perfume, beauty products, and, in the case of Pierre Cardin, everything from pots and pans to chocolate candy.
Paris has never seen more opulent embroideries than this season. With an average cost that has risen to 120 francs ($17 to $18) an hour for skilled workmanship, one can vaguely understand why some of these veritable chef-d'oeuvres sell between $40,000 and $50,000. Cardin, who has had his eye on the Far East for more than a decade, has many of his hand embroideries done in China and India, where labor is naturally lower than in flighty France.
On the factual side of fashion there's lots of reminiscence and wistful memories, commencing with Ungaro's fling with the Edwardian mood; the high-collared lace or satin blouses with leg-o-mutton sleeves; and then a fanciful skip through the 1930s, with complicated shirring and draping that fit like that old piece of paper on the wall. Jules Francois Crahay, the charming, white-haired creator at Lanvin, goes wandering along the boardwalk at Deauville to capture all the casual chic that has always epitomized that famous seaside resort.
Yves Saint Laurent, undisputed king of them all, goes on his eternal merry way - the man who goes in the revolving door behind you and comes out way ahead. Following his fabulous retrospective show still on at the Metropolitain in New York, Yves has come up with one of the greatest collections of his career, which spans more than a quarter of a century. It is the epitome of understated elegance, which in the final analysis is truly what this Paris fashion melee is or should be all about.