Interview: Orla Kiely, designer

Orla Kiely pieces aren't for fashionistas. There's a certain type of woman who'll carry one of her distinctive bags and she probably won't be dressed in the latest sky-high boots and paper-bag waist trousers. She'll be stylish, naturally, but in an understated way.

• Orla Kiely, who says she was mesmerised by patterns as a little girl

The same goes for whoever buys this designer's homewares, stationery or luggage. But this is just as well, as Dublin-born Kiely, who bought her first sewing-machine at 12 years old, never wanted to be the latest flash-in-the-pan designer.

"I'm incapable of following trends for the sake of it," explains this 46-year-old, who has collaborated with Heal's, Habitat and Dulux, among others. "I'm not in the business of reinventing myself to be this year's sensation. I love fashion but I'd never want to be its slave."

As many women feel the same way, this may account for Kiely's success, which really kicked off with her bag ranges back in the early 1990s.

If you're a fan of her work, then pick up a copy of her first book, Pattern, which reads partly like an autobiography, as well as a sourcebook for other creatives.

Most of all, however, it's a hardback love letter to what first got her interested in design.

"As a little girl I was mesmerised by pattern. I would find myself tracing undulating swirls of organic forms, scrutinising them to discover where the motif eventually repeated itself," she says. "Following these forms as they spiralled across a surface, I would squint my eyes to see how new patterns appeared."

Those who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies may find some of Kiely's designs reassuringly nostalgic. Just flick to the mid-section of the book, which boasts an entire chapter of full-page prints selected from her archives. As these swim in front of your eyes, you may begin to feel an urge to look out your kipper tie, as her creations are reminiscent of retro wallpaper or curtains.

It's no surprise really, as the influences of her early life, with three siblings in suburban Dublin, are embedded in her design sensibilities.

"Growing up in Ireland in the late 1960s and 1970s was intrinsic to my creative DNA," she says. "Our family home, where I lived throughout my formative years, was a modern 1950s- style house. One of my most vivid memories is of our family kitchen with its olive-green Formica cupboards and worktops."

Pattern features a recent photograph of a bus driving along the streets of Hong Kong. This double-decker's livery consists of a roof-to-undercarriage print of Kiely's famous Stem pattern. What other proof do you need that she's at the top of her game, apart from the fact that she has a flagship store in London's Covent Garden, plus stand-alone boutiques in Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong?

It might not have ended up like this, however, if she hadn't refined the focus of her accessories line in the early 1990s.

"Having built up our range a little more, there came what one might call a moment of insight," she explains. "My father had come over from Ireland to visit our tiny stand at London Fashion Week where we were exhibiting. Looking around, he noticed that everyone there was carrying a bag, but very few of them were wearing hats. From that observation, everything changed and bags became the focus of our business."

Orla Kiely's quirky totes were soon to become a wardrobe staple that would occupy a less ostentatious niche than the expensive "It bags" that became desirable at this time. They were also far more practical than the Balenciagas and Hermes Kellys, as the pockets and zips were in the right place, while some of them had a laminated wipe-clean finish.

Then, along came another defining moment in 2000, with the creation of her Stem print.

According to Kiely, anything that features this pattern, which consists of a graphic rendering of a sprig with leaves, is guaranteed to sell like hotcakes. All they need to do is to vary the palette from season to season.

If anything, this print, as well as the abstract Pear, has become almost a brand logo.

"Ever since its first outing in 2000 we realised that it was special," she explains. "It had a simple graphic strength and charm. Everyone wanted it. But I quickly realised that it would have to develop or it would simply peter out."

Since then, every single Orla Kiely collection has featured pieces that boast a variation of the original Stem design. For example, last year, to raise funds for Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres, they released a limited-edition bag with a pale-coloured variation of this ten-year-old print.

It was the initial success of this design that gave the company the push to extend its range.

"After Stem, we began to add a small amount of clothing to the range and as it grew we took on an American agent," Kiely explains. "Now we produce a full collection of womenswear, bags and accessories; home furnishings; as well as luggage, stationery and umbrellas. Our products and ranges are sold in countries throughout the world and in hundreds of outlets, from specialist shops to department stores."

Despite two decades in the design world, Kiely hasn't become jaded. If the snaps in the book are anything to go by, she's still enthusiastic about gathering inspiration from everything she sees, from the patterns created by primary-coloured bicycles leaning against each other and low-slung Panton lights, to the vertical shapes of tower blocks in Tokyo.

"When you make a living in design, as I do, you never stop absorbing ideas from the world around you, even if you aren't consciously aware of it at the time," she says. "It can be the smallest thing – products on a supermarket shelf, wild flowers in a park, a knife and fork. It's all about taking mental snapshots of everyday things, mundane or random, old or new."

Pattern by Orla Kiely, 25, published by Conran Octopus is out now.

charming and understated, Dublin-born Orla Kiely's designs are sought after around the world

This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday, 18 September, 2010