IT'S the morning after the morning before and in Nicole Farhi's Carnaby Street studio, half-a-dozen women are sorting through clothes and press cuttings. Twenty-fours earlier, in the Royal Opera House in nearby Covent Garden, the French-born designer sent her autumn/winter 2009-2010 collection gliding down the London Fashion Week catwalk.

It was all over by lunchtime, so as they picked at their vol-au-vents or puffed decorously at gaspers on the pavement outside, the fashion pack had time enough to digest what they had seen.

And what was that? Iridescent prints and sequinned trousers for starters, followed by pea-green pencil skirts and leather jackets in silver and bronze, all executed in the sharp, classic tailoring for which Farhi is famous. Waists were nipped in, shoulders were padded out.

As the returned clothes are unpacked and rehung in the studio, I'm able to survey the critical reaction to it all. "Farhi's upbeat designs lighten the gloom," crows one review. The others are no less enthusiastic. There is much talk of the 1940s, of strong lines and vampish silhouettes.

Farhi isn't here right now. Perhaps she stayed up late to watch the previous night's Oscar ceremony, where playwright husband Sir David Hare was nominated for his work on Stephen Daldry's film The Reader. In fact I learn later that Farhi is visiting a doctor today with Candice Marks, her daughter by former partner and French Connection founder Stephen Marks.

Candice is pregnant and wants her mother to see the embryonic addition to the Farhi dynasty for herself. So as I finger sequins and peer at "mood boards" - collections of magazine clippings, fabric samples, even old mugshots of grizzled types in chunky knits and baker boy caps - Farhi is hunched over an ultrasound screen viewing her first grandchild. Make that grandchildren: Candice is expecting twins. Farhi has promised to be a "besotted" grandmother; she has promised, too, that she has no plans to launch a children's line.

When we do finally talk, Farhi is still buzzing from the praise for her Fashion Week show. "It's the best reaction I've ever had in all these years," she tells me. "They loved it. Every day there are new reviews in the papers." She seems particularly proud of the Jewish Chronicle, which talked of "a ravishing collection" and referred to her as "the doyenne of British fashion".

Vivienne Westwood and Betty Jackson might also lay claim to that accolade but between the three of them they probably have the title sewn up. Like Jackson, Farhi is a CBE and, while she can't contend with Westwood's dame commander title, her ennobled husband gives her a perfectly grand alter ego of her own: Lady Hare.

Today, she and Sir David live in Hampstead, redoubt of London's well-heeled liberal elite. She paints a vivid picture of life with a man who dresses in Nicole Farhi from head to toe - "except the socks, because I don't design socks" - and whose last two plays have been searing indictments of Tony Blair and his government.

Although she couldn't attend this year's Oscars because of the clash of dates, she did attend when Hare was nominated in 2002 for another Daldry film, The Hours, starring Nicole Kidman.

"The great thing is not only the day you go to the ceremony, it's the parties in the days before," she says. "You go from one big house to another big house and you meet all the actors that you've dreamt about meeting in your life - they're standing right there next to you. It's good fun. You can talk to them."

The couple travel a lot as well. In 1998 they visited Burma together, though they left after two days. "A repellent tyranny", she later called it. In 2003 it was Cambodia, where they spent the first night cycling round Phnom Penh looking for somewhere to eat dinner and eventually wound up at some riverside restaurant scoffing fresh steamed prawns. Chrismas 2005 was spent "zip lining" in Costa Rica - flying across the jungle at 50 miles an hour suspended from a steel wire - and they have also toured Chile and Patagonia. Farhi says she also plans to visit Cuba before Castro dies and Americanisation ruins the country. She has also been a regular visitor to Rajasthan and Kerala since the 1970s and days after we speak she will leave for Japan, another regular place of pilgrimage.

"I go every six months to buy yarns and fabrics for the collections," she says. "When I'm there, I always go to museums, look at art books and buy vintage fabrics and kimonos. Even if I don't use them, they become part of my cupboard of little precious things that I always go back to and which I am inspired by."

Now a sprightly 62, Nicole Farhi was born in Nice in 1946, into a Jewish family of Turkish descent. Her father sold rugs, but when the second world war broke out he and his wife hid on a local farm. They stayed there for two years, during which time Farhi's elder brother was born. When somebody in the village informed the authorities that the family was Jewish, they fled the farm, staying one step ahead of the authorities until peace was declared.

Farhi's initial love was for art, particularly sculpture. She studied painting in Nice but in 1965, aged 19, she moved to Paris and enrolled on a fashion course.

She would visit London regularly, though, particularly King's Road and Carnaby Street, then at the epicentre of the swinging sixties. In fact the building which now houses her atelier was once home to a favourite nightclub.

"When it came up for lease and we took it on I didn't really think about Carnaby Street, which is just around the corner. I just thought: This is the nightclub of my youth.' And then we made it what you see today. It was very dark but we put the glass roof in and it became very bright."

It was in Paris that Farhi met Stephen Marks. They began a relationship and, when he founded French Connection in 1972, she worked with him as its head designer. In 1983 he backed her financially when she set up her own eponymous label. In 1989 she added a menswear line and, in 1999, she launched a homeware range too. There's also a perfume portfolio and a restaurant, Nicole's, beneath the New Bond Street flagship store. There are other stand-alone retail outlets in New York and Kuwait, while in Scotland the label is sold through Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh. It's quite an empire and it's kept afloat by Farhi's ability to combine French chic with British design brio.

Although Farhi and Marks separated in the 1980s, his company still owns the label. Farhi, meanwhile, married Hare in 1992 after meeting him at the first-night party for his play Murmuring Judges. Farhi had designed the costumes but hadn't intended to watch the play until she saw Hare interviewed about it on television the night before.

A career in fashion hasn't caused her to forsake her art, however. It still informs her designs - last month's collection was inspired in part by the grey-blue palette of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi - and it occupies her spare time too. She has a studio in her house where she models in clay, moulds in plaster and casts in concrete. Anything heavier requires a trip to a foundry. She likes bronze, she tells me.

"I love the dirtiness of sculpture," she adds. "I love the fact that when you go into a studio you really get the filthiest clothes it's possible to get. You pull your hair back, you don't need make-up, you're completely raw in front of your piece of clay. You completely forget the outside world. You're in a totally different place."

Back in the real world, fashion faces a dark future - and that doesn't mean black is the new black.

"I think optimism is definitely necessary now," says Farhi. "There's been a wave of depression since we found ourselves in this economic crisis and obviously I don't want to be depressed. I want to feel positive for the future."

But with the collapse earlier this month of Mosaic, owner of Oasis, Coast, Warehouse and Karen Millen, the credit crunch is hitting the high street hard. Although French Connection's profits are falling it is holding its own, if only just. Farhi is bullish about her own prospects, though, and will soon launch an online retail site. She started her label in a recession, she reminds me, and weathered that storm, so she is confident of withstanding this one.

"Even if we're going to be going through one or two years of tough times I'm sure we're going to survive it and keep going. It's not the first time we've faced problems in the economy and we've survived them all."

As for the man steering us through these choppy economic times, she has no plans to offer her services even though his predecessor in Number 10 was known to favour her clothes.

"It was nice that Tony Blair dressed in Nicole Farhi but it was nothing to do with me," she laughs. "It was him or his wife liking it and buying it. It was nice but I'm not going to push myself and offer my services."

So if Gordon Brown wants a little of the Nicole Farhi magic, he's going to have to pay for it like everyone else.