The sci­ence be­hind that $500 hair dryer.

Vanessa Craft dis­cov­ers what it takes to truly in­no­vate the beauty tools we take for granted.

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents -

I first got my hands on the Dyson Su­per­sonic Hair Dryer at a media pre­view in Toronto last spring—a full six months be­fore it was re­tail-ready. It was a cloak-and-dag­ger op­er­a­tion: The dryer, which was four years and $100 mil­lion in the mak­ing, was re­vealed in a Pulp Fic­tion- style padded brief­case, and I had to sign my life away with a con­tract promis­ing I wouldn’t tell any­one about it un­til the global an­nounce­ment in the sum­mer. I kept the code of si­lence, but it wasn’t easy. I’ve seen a lot of beauty in­no­va­tions in my time as an ed­i­tor (bat­tery-pow­ered ionic hair­brushes, Shel­lac pol­ish, on­line vir­tual makeovers), but this was truly a mar­vel. The hum­ble hair dryer, with its loud, an­gry fan and bi­cep-burning heft, has been in need of an over­haul for decades, and here it was, com­pletely reimag­ined by Bri­tish in­ven­tor James Dyson into some­thing re­sem­bling a pop-art-style space-age ray gun.

Adam Grant, who calls him­self an “or­ga­ni­za­tional psy­chol­o­gist,” stud­ies peo­ple he refers to as “orig­i­nals”: non­con­formists who cham­pion new ideas and drive creativ­ity. He be­lieves that orig­i­nals share cer­tain traits, one of which is that they are “im­provers.” “To be orig­i­nal, you don’t have to be first; you just have to be dif­fer­ent and bet­ter,” he said in his April 2016 TED Talk. If there’s one per­son who fits that de­scrip­tion, it’s 69-year-old Dyson, a man who has made his for­tune turn­ing com­mon house­hold items like vac­u­ums into cov­eted ob­jects that peo­ple no longer shove in the closet but keep in full view of vis­i­tors.

A few weeks af­ter the pre­view, I trav­elled to the Dyson home base (in the pic­turesque vil­lage of Malmes­bury, Eng­land, about 150 kilo­me­tres west of Lon­don) to learn more about the com­pany’s cre­ative na­ture. Dyson HQ is im­pres­sive—it’s a long glass-fronted build­ing with an un­du­lat­ing “wave” of a roof. As we ap­proached, we passed a clas­sic Austin Mini that had been sliced in half and mounted next to a wa­ter fea­ture. There was a Bell 47 he­li­copter tak­ing up three spa­ces in the park­ing lot, and—wait for it—a Har­rier Jump Jet, a plane that can take off ver­ti­cally, sat di­rectly out­side the en­trance.

This is all by de­sign. “The ar­chi­tec­tural en­vi­ron­ment and the en­gi­neer­ing icons we have here are to in­spire peo­ple—it’s im­por­tant,” said Dyson when I asked about the im­pres­sive eye candy. But in­no­va­tion isn’t just born out of an In­sta-wor­thy work­space, even if this is a Mil­len­nial hot­bed. (The av­er­age age of em­ploy­ees is just 26.) “I pre­fer naïveté to ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “Ex­pe­ri­ence means you tend to know why you can’t do some­thing. If you want to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, that’s where the naïveté helps: You don’t know it can’t be done.”

I went to lunch with one of the “bright young peo­ple” Dyson re­ferred to. Twenty-five-year-old de­sign engi­neer Elise Fairholm is an On­tario na­tive who stud­ied me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Water­loo be­fore join­ing Dyson. Since child­hood, she has had an un­bri­dled cu­rios­ity about how things work. In fact, her first pro­ject at the com­pany was work­ing on the Su­per­sonic proto­types: tweak­ing fil­ters and test­ing func­tion­al­ity, in­clud­ing the (re­ally cool) mag­netic-at­tach­ment styling tools that never get too hot to touch. “It’s quite open here,” she said of the free­dom to ex­plore con­cepts. “There’s a lot of time to play around with things un­til you get it right. James wants peo­ple to strive for the best that they can do.”

While there, I also took a trip to Lon­don to meet with su­per­star stylist Akin Konizi, who serves as Dyson’s global hair am­bas­sador. A self-de­scribed per­fec­tion­ist, Konizi was brought in half­way through the de­vel­op­ment process and chal­lenged Dyson to in­no­vate and tweak every­thing from the er­gonomics (the tiny mo­tor of the dryer is in the han­dle, which com­pletely changes the bal­ance and the stress on the wrist) to the weight of the cord. Konizi pushed back on an early is­sue he had with the con­trol but­tons. “Women us­ing this will have good nails; what if they’re too long to make these but­tons work?” he in­quired dur­ing one trial. Dyson changed them.

Reg­u­lar dry­ers have power, but not fo­cus. This is prob­lem­atic be­cause hair gets blasted ev­ery­where, h

caus­ing “the strands on the out­side to flay,” which means it dries dif­fer­ently and ends up frizzier, ex­plained Konizi. The Su­per­sonic cre­ates just a 20-de­gree “flare,” or ra­dius, so the air not only has a more re­fined fo­cus but also races out of the noz­zle—a patented blade­less open sphere— more qui­etly. That the en­gi­neers found a way to get the sound pitched at a fre­quency more pleas­ing to the hu­man ear makes it one of Konizi’s favourite things about the dryer. “I want to feel lux­ury and qual­ity,” he said. “When I go at some­one with a nor­mal hair dryer, [that blast of air] feels like an at­tack. It isn’t a ca­ress.”

And then there’s the heat fac­tor. I’ve of­ten smelled my hair burning when I get a blowout and chalked it up to the price you have to pay for pin-straight hair. Not so, said Dyson. As the wet hair heats up, the wa­ter in the fol­li­cle bursts, he ex­plained. This causes dam­age “craters” in the hair shaft, which re­sult in dull, lack­lus­tre hair. While you do need heat, he said, it doesn’t have to be set at the tem­per­a­ture of Mer­cury to work ef­fec­tively. So they added a mi­cro­pro­ces­sor that mon­i­tors the air­flow tem­per­a­ture 20 times a sec­ond and keeps it con­sis­tent re­gard­less of the set­ting. The re­sult is shinier, softer and, the com­pany claims, health­ier hair. Putting a mini-com­puter in­side ev­ery dryer you make comes at a price: The Su­per­sonic is $500. But, ac­cord­ing to Dyson, in­no­va­tion thrives when you take away bar­ri­ers to creativ­ity. “I want to make prod­ucts that re­ally work well and are a joy to use,” he said. “That makes them ex­pen­sive, and that’s not every­body’s cup of tea. But that’s what we want to do. When the young mem­bers of our team say ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have this?’ I don’t say ‘No, it’s too ex­pen­sive’; I say ‘Well, that’s pretty in­ter­est­ing. Let’s have a look at it.’” n

Dyson Su­per­sonic Hair Dryer ($500). For de­tails, see Shop­ping Guide.

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