Click to follow
The Independent Culture
James Dyson (far right), entrepreneur and inventor, was born in 1947. After gaining an MA in design at the Royal College of Art, he started selling his own inventions (including the Sea Truck and the Ballbarrow), before coming up with the bagless vacuum cleaner which made his name. He lives with his painter wife, Deirdre, in Wiltshire; they have three children. The fashion designer and businessman Paul Smith, 50, was born in Nottingham. He started work as a teenager in a clothing warehouse, set up his first menswear outlet in 1970 with pounds 600, and now has 200 shops worldwide. He lives in London with his partner, the painter Pauline Denyer

JAMES DYSON: Though I didn't actually meet him then, in 1987 I invited Paul to speak at a conference I was organising at Bath College of Higher Education. Afterwards, he pulled a silk scarf and a T-shirt out of his briefcase and gave them to my daughter, Emily, who must at that time have been 16.

Shortly after, he rang me up about something; I can't remember what. But we talked for about an hour and a half. Pauline, his "girl" - I think he calls her his "girl" - had just started at the Byam Shaw art school in London, which is where both myself and my wife Deirdre went back in the Sixties. My immediate impression was, what an incredibly enthusiastic person he was. And ... "frank" sounds trite, but he obviously had great enthusiasms, and they came across very strongly. The conversation complete- ly took over from the original reason for the call.

I'd done business with the Paul Smith shops a year earlier. Back then my first vacuum cleaner, the pink G-Force, was only being sold in Japan. So I was curious to see if I could import it into Britain and sell it that way. I bought 200 machines at export price and sold loads through the Paul Smith shops, at pounds 299 each. The shop in Nottingham had them right across the window in a line. I learnt from this that people would actually pay more - in the vacuum cleaner's case, up to four times more - for good design.

Then in 1989, Emily decided she wanted to be a fashion designer. So I rang Paul to ask his advice, and again we had a very long conversation, and he advised her to go to Trent University in Nottingham, which is what she did. She also worked at his shop in Covent Garden during her holidays. When she graduated, she worked for Liza Bruce and Bella Freud for a bit, and then she got a job as a designer with Paul Smith in 1995.

I suppose it's because of Emily that I know Paul better: we didn't meet face to face until she was working for him. We went to Alfred, a trendy restaurant that had just opened; I remember that I liked it, though the trouble with having lunch with interesting people is you don't even notice what you eat. I said I envied him because in fashion you can produce things very quickly, and he said he envied the fact that I don't have to bring out four new collections every year. The British don't normally find the details of a product interesting, but I noticed straightaway that Paul loves objects in the way I love objects. We both seem to think about design in the same way.

Now we bump into each other at all sorts of things, and I've run into him on two occasions when I've been at his shop. I'd like to socialise more as a family, but the trouble is that we live in Wiltshire and whenever we come to London we're always rushing about.

I've always bought Paul Smith since, golly, well certainly since the early Eighties. Every single thing I've ever bought from Paul Smith I've worn until it collapsed. This shirt I'm wearing right now: it has a little tie at the neck which is so practical, because you can sort of open it when it gets hot. It's my favourite shirt at the moment. I try to wear it all the time. That's the proof of any good design: you love it the more you use it. And I know Paul keeps a Dyson in his office - actually I think he's got two.

It's difficult to say in advance how relationships will develop. But we share so many of the same interests, and we're involved in so many of the same things - I think I'm seeing him soon at a British Embassy do in Paris next month - that we're bound to continue to get to know each other better.

PAUL SMITH: In 1987, James asked me to talk at a conference in Bath. It was one of the first talks I'd done and it was bit scary. I remember briefly meeting him and his daughter, Emily, afterwards. I had some T- shirts in my bag, so I gave Emily one of them.

I'd already been selling James's purple-and-lilac vacuum cleaner, the G-Force, through our men's clothes shop. James was absolutely astounded we sold so many. He said we'd sold more than the electrical shops ever had. Oddly enough though, we never met face to face, apart from that time in Bath. But there aren't many British designers who run their own businesses, so we did keep in touch on the phone. One time, we discovered that Pauline, my lady, was studying as a mature student at Byam Shaw, which was where James had met his wife.

He then called me to ask what college I would recommend for Emily. She decided to go to Nottingham, and I kept in touch with her a little bit because she used to help us in the summer holidays. She had a very good eye, per- haps because of how she'd been brought up. Later, when we needed a new childrenswear designer, we took her on. She showed promise and she's proved it: there wasn't any favouritism.

I thought of James as a friend - it's often the case with me that there are lots of people I've never met, but who I feel I really know because I've dealt with them for so long on the phone - so eventually we had lunch together. By this time James's business had really taken off. I didn't find him easy to talk to at first because he's so different from me. He's very intense about business, whereas I'm a bit more light-hearted. We talked mainly about how he'd managed to get through the problems he'd had with licensing and patents, how he saw himself moving forward, things the government should be doing to encourage good design and so on.

James, I think, is more - I don't know if this is the right way to put it - more intellectual than I am. He thinks in a different way from me: I tend to let things wash over me, and don't get involved in all the intricacies. He's not a jokey man. He did seem to like my office when he saw it, though. He sat on a chair and said: "I love this room!"

James is incredibly ambitious, I think - I'm ambitious too, of course, but not in the same way. The world of domestic appliances seems extremely serious and competitive, whereas my end of business is much more to do with images and ideas. In my world, you're constantly having to reinvent, reinvent, reinvent ideas all the time. I mean really masses of ideas: thousands every few months. James on the other hand is an inventor - he has created something new and very clever from a blank sheet of paper. And though he probably has masses of ideas, he only needs to latch on to one or two of those ideas to make a pounds 100m business. He has to be really focused in a way I don't.

We don't use a Dyson at home because we had a vacuum cleaner already. But I think I've got all the Dysons between my London office and Nottingham - I've got the original pink-and-lilac one, I've got the one that looks like a Mondrian, and I've got one of the regular ones that sits on the stairs. The G-Force looks a bit Eighties now, but the new one is really great. I would imagine James will go on reinventing the exterior from time to time in terms of colour and shape, but the bagless vacuum cleaner itself is here to stay.

I would think our relationship would just go on at a similar level to how it is. We talk every now and again; we see each other every now and again. But I'm traveling for six months of every year, which makes me a hard man to track down, and Pauline and I aren't very social, we don't go out and about much. Still, I've known James a long time now. If I wanted to just pick up the phone and ask him out for a sandwich, I can. !