How we met: Ben de Lisi & Fiona Barnett

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The Independent Culture
Fiona Barnett, 32, grew up in Kent, where her father lectured in horticulture. She thought floristry was 'uncool' for many years. Then, aged 22, she opened her first flower shop, Manic Botanic, in Soho. She now runs her business from Richmond, Surrey and lives in Battersea with her partner Roger

Fashion designer Ben de Lisi, 44, was born in New York. After studying sculpture and painting at the Pratt Institute he began designing menswear. In the early Eighties he moved his business to England, initially to Soho and then, last year, to Knightsbridge. He lives in London with his partner Jeffrey

BEN DE LISI: I got to know Fi's flowers before I really got to know her. She opened Manic Botanic a year or so after I opened my shop in Silver Place and she was only 22. There was this profusion of flowers, you'd never seen the like of before. The shop was always cluttered with candelabras and lots of wrought iron. It was a treasure trove for anything to do with flowers.

At first our relationship was very polite and business-like. It only really blossomed when we left Silver Place. In the fashion world I'm known for having an "inner circle" of friends, and Fi and her partner Roger are most certainly part of that.

At Fi's place I can take my shoes off and lie on the sofa during dinner without feeling I'm overstepping the mark. We can quite simply relax in each other's company, completely flop around and not have to think about it. There's no standing on ceremony with Fi and Roger, Debbie and Alex, and myself and my partner Jeffrey. We are all very, very close-knit. We tend to help each other out like a family and trust each other in a world full of people ready to rip you off.

They all jokingly call me the leader and they tell me they follow me like little chicks. But this group is part and parcel of my family in England and we're all totally equal. My Mum and Dad live in New York and when they come here they'll often go to Fi and Roger's for dinner without me. My real blood-family are drawn into what I see as my family here, and it seems to be working beautifully.

For us it's not just a friendship between two people. We work, live and laugh as a team. It's not a bitchy kind of friendship. It's open and honest. Fi is very correct and extremely bright. She's the kind of woman who when she takes you in, she takes you in unconditionally. We can talk about anything and know that a confidence will be safe. Most importantly, we don't live in each other's pockets but allow each other space.

Fi has a relaxed kind of attitude. Within minutes she can look at the flowers and create, but for me it is a long procedure. She's a very curvaceous, dynamic, intelligent, woman and there's not many of those.

I love women like that around me - who are strong and in control - rather than these passive, submissive creatures who can't go anywhere without a husband. Fi is the epitome of independence.

I decided that Fi was much more than just an acquaintance when Roger decided to take on the job of renovating my new shop. It was just done in time for Christmas and it looked wonderful and we drank Champagne - we had waited for years for this moment.

Fi had made this beautiful Christmas decoration, a massive 6ft laurel wreath and I thought: "They'd do anything to make life better." As we never intrude on each other's privacy this friendship will stand the test of time.

FIONA BARNETT: Ben and I sort of drifted into each other's lives because we both ran shops in Silver Place, which is a tiny quiet street in the heart of Soho. We can hardly believe it's been 10 years now since we met. It was such an unplanned friendship and has gradually developed into an inseparable one.

I met him for the first time in 1990 before I got the shop, because I had to go and check out the area. We had a chat about the place and from there we became fellow traders in a small community.

The first time I really got to see another side of him was when somebody stole a rail of his clothes out of the back of a van. He was running up and down the road, hysterical, and I had to try and calm him down.

But it was really when we both left Silver Place that we became firm friends. The more people you meet in life, the more the people who are really important to you come into focus.

He is incredibly kind, thoughtful and generous of spirit. Flowers and fashion are very similar worlds. There's an awful lot of bitchiness and back-biting. When you find people who are genuine it actually comes as quite a shock. If I had problems with running the shop he would always be the first to offer a hand. I always felt enormous loyalty from him. Not just because he would buy my flowers, because he didn't always do that, but because of his enthusiasm for me as a person. I can't imagine him being vile to me.

No matter how much celebrity he becomes involved with, Ben's much more interested in a small circle of friends and that impresses me. When he goes to the shows he's got his Mum and Dad and us behind the scenes and not a whole load of rock stars. It's a fam- ily atmosphere with Ben and Jeffrey, Debbie (his muse and business partner), her boyfriend Alex, myself and my boyfriend. It's the same whether there's Elton John in the room or whoever.

We are both very sensitive and there is a vulnerability there in both of us. I find myself being very protective to ensure that nobody takes advantage of him, because he's such an open person. I suggested my boyfriend, Roger, took over the renovation of the new shop because I was worried that a man who knows about frocks would know absolutely nothing about building work. I was right.

He's fastidious to the point of ridiculousness and I love him for that. His flat is absolutely beautiful. Cushions always plumped perfectly and nothing out of place. Everything looks fabulous. I'm not like that at all, but we are similar in our appreciation of aesthetics. We have very classic tastes. He will pass comment on what I wear but would never hurt my feelings. He does design for women with curves and makes them look fantastic. He appreciates that in a woman. He's terribly enthusiastic about my figure which is certainly curvy.

The six of us tend to see each other together, rather than he and I alone. We all share a similar sense of humour. We don't spend all our time baring our souls to each other, but it bothers him if I'm unhappy and it's the same with him. It's a friendship that has developed and grown - like a good marriage. I imagine we will be friends for a long time.

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