"I'm a dinosaur," says Jeffrey Wallis. "The last in a long line that goes from the Twenties to the Eighties, from the Jewish sweatshops pre-war to the Jewish moguls in the fashion industry. I wanted to change it from the rag trade into the fashion industry, and I think I did."

Mr Wallis joined the family's women's clothing business in 1946 aged 24, when his father, Nat Tatarsky, had angina and thrombosis. In 1923 Mr Tatarsky bought the first store in Chapel Street, Islington, from a Mrs Wallis, and soon after he changed his own surname to Wallis.

Mr Wallis, 83, says: "I was a very insecure young man. I used to stammer for three months on end. My father probably wanted a very strong son, and he got this idiot."

As a child he had overcome a bone infection that kept him in and out of hospital to train as an aeronautical engineer and volunteer for the Fleet Air Arm.

But when colour blindness prevented him from joining, he rejected his father's suggestion that he seek a more lucrative career abroad. Instead, he chose to enter the womenswear trade.

It was a career he had been well prepared for. He says: "You can't be a member of a retailing company all your life without a bit of it rubbing off."

Mr Wallis expanded the business from 25 stores in 1948 to 100 in 1980, when the company was sold. He brought an engineer's eye to the fashion business, creating his own so-called matrix' theory of how each season's collection should be organised, with clothes divided into categories of basic, fashion and high fashion, as well as cheap, medium and high price. The quintessential Wallis customer was, Mr Wallis says, the 27-year-old single girl, with a high disposable income.

At the height of Mr Wallis' directorship, the company employed 750 people in its factories and 750 more in shops. It turned out 100 new items a month, with six new high fashion' items coming into the shops each week. He says: "When I went to synagogue at Pesach Passover, if I didn't see 25 outfits from Wallis I was having a very bad day."

In 1953 the company started doing copies of Paris couture fashion for the first time, eventually finding a loophole in the strict rules surrounding the shows which allowed him to get Wallis' copies out more quickly than any other store.

No sketching was allowed at Christian Dior's shows but, while reading about the designer, Mr Wallis discovered what nobody else had realised - he was allowed to measure any clothes he had bought the day after the show. He says: "I had my clothes in the shops three weeks after I had seen the French collections - everyone else was waiting three weeks before even receiving the patterns."

Shirley Conran, former fashion editor of The Observer and The Daily Mail, has called Wallis the leading chain of stores in Britain for the fashion conscious woman' in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, adding: "Most women's editors such as myself queued up to buy their clothes. It represented flair and chic but also very good value."

Yet at the same time as developing the brand's fashion credentials, Mr Wallis fought off three takeover bids. He sees fashion as where art and science meet, with shares and takeover bids making up part of the science' side.

He says: "The art bit is the design and creativity. The science side is running the shops, the bar codes, the accountancy. I get turned on by the creativity."

After such a long and influential career, Mr Wallis says he was sad to sell the store to Selfridges in 1980.

Yet his activities since selling the business have been varied and have reflected the respect he commands in the industry.

He spent five years on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and also sat on the Government's Dip AD committee, which decided whether or not to give art schools university status.

In the 1980s he gained a new connection with the fashion world of the future through teaching in the fashion and textiles department at Central St Martin's art school, where his students included John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney.

He says: "I would talk to them about what they would have to do if they came into the industry. They would have to learn to produce things that were exciting, but not potty."

u Jeffrey Wallis and Michael Bennett, who founded Oasis in 1991, will be talking at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on Thursday at 7.30pm. Tickets priced £12 can be bought by calling 020 8457 5000 or by emailing events@ljcc.org.uk mcraig@london.newsquest.co.uk