Orla Kiely interview: one of the UK’s favourite designers on the patterns of her life

Kiely at home in London. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Kiely at home in London. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
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With a new exhibition celebrating her work opening in Edinburgh, the Irish designer talks about her love of print, the inspiration of the colours of her childhood and her hopes for the future as her website relaunches

Orla Kiely, if you don’t recognise the name you’ll recognise her work. Bold, plant and animal-based patterns repeated across everything from handbags to fashion to homeware – you’ve probably got some, such is the ubiquity of her designs. The Duchess of Cambridge is a fan, having worn the Irish designer’s dresses at several events, while Alexa Chung and Kirsten Dunst rock the prints on the red carpet. And down on the high street Kiely has been stamping her style since the 1980s, weaving her way into the fabric of our everyday lives with a cheerful pop of colour. She’s one of the 21st century’s most popular British designers, something of an institution, being awarded an OBE in 2011, is a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, an honorary fellow of the British Institute of Design and has an honorary doctorate from Norwich University of the Arts.

The exhibition, Orla Kiely: A life in Pattern, runs at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh until June

The exhibition, Orla Kiely: A life in Pattern, runs at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh until June

Now, having trawled her archive, Kiely (pronounced Kylie, like the pop princess) is bringing an exhibition of her designs to Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios in a celebration of her work entitled, like her latest book, Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern, fresh from London’s Fashion & Textile Museum. When we talk she’s upbeat, about bringing the show to Scotland and what’s next for the brand after last year saw the closure of the retail outlets and wholesale fashion business as Kiely Rowan went into administration and the website closed. More of that and her plans for the business later, but first she’s full of the exhibition and what’s in store.

“It very much champions print and pattern,” she says, “which was a passion from my early days as a child in the 1970s when there were lots of florals. When I went to art college I decided early on to specialise in printed textiles and after years of building up a body of work, which has developed an identifiable style, somebody suggested, not a retrospective, but more a celebration of prints.

“So there’s a whole print library – everyone thinks of the iconic prints but there’s so much more than that – and a Wall of Bags, and giant dresses hanging from the ceiling that will be quite magical.”

With so much Orla Kiely about, you’d think getting hold of her designs would be easy but tracking down one sold-out Kate Middleton dress wasn’t so straightforward.

Orla Kiely's prints are inspired by her 70s upbringing and the Irish landscape, here at home in London. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Orla Kiely's prints are inspired by her 70s upbringing and the Irish landscape, here at home in London. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

“We found one on eBay and tracked it but the price kept going up and up and up. It went to £1,600, when we let it go,” she says and laughs at the absurdity of being priced out of a purchase of one her own designs. Did she not want to say, I designed that, I should have it?

“Exactly! But no. Anyway someone who used to work with me had one in another colour so we have that, a variation.

“And we were very lucky with other things on eBay. There were carpet bags we’d made only a few of early on so they weren’t in the archives, then one came up and I got it. I was delighted!”

Influenced by the optimism of the 1960s, the colour palette of her Irish childhood, and Scandi-style mid-century design, Kiely’s designs 
have stood the test of time and generated mass appeal that chimes with our love of anything retro and vintage.

An Orla Kiely design, available in postcard form at the Edinburgh exhibition

An Orla Kiely design, available in postcard form at the Edinburgh exhibition

When I tell her an estate agent suggested I have some Orla Kiely around my soon to be marketed home to help it attract viewers she is intrigued.

“Gosh, that’s amazing. Like baking bread and having coffee brewing, to enhance a sale? That makes me laugh,“ she says. “It’s a compliment, don’t you think?

“I must say, I do see it in homes in estate agents’ windows. And my son told me we were a quiz answer on a TV show he was watching. So yes, when I see somebody carrying a bag, or if they want to show it off in their homes, it does please me that people have bought things because they like them, yes. ”

Asked to describe her style, Kiely hesitates, describing herself as more of a visual person who instinctively relates to colour and shape than a words person.

Stem, one of Kiely's most popular and enduring prints

Stem, one of Kiely's most popular and enduring prints

“It’s hard, but I’d say bold, I’d say strong, often minimal and balanced. I like organised order. And clean lines are quite important. I do like small, and also huge – you can vary the gaps on different products and I love funny everyday things and how you can stylise motifs or elements – an animal, a car, a flower – swap it around and make them into a pattern. And I like a clash of prints, a contrast, to create a spark.

“I think there’s something about the designs,” she says. “The form and colour that people enjoy and also there might be a comforting nostalgia about it too. The response to it is very instinctive, you can’t explain it, and I like that it’s impulsive. It’s nice to think that people relate to the style I’ve established and worked with over the years. I’ve been told so many times that it just makes people feel happy or makes them smile.

“Perhaps there’s something about the way the patterns are spaced that’s uplifting.”

Take her most popular design, Stem, based on a rowan leaf, and still going strong after decades.

“We should have called it Rowan leaf,” she says. “My husband’s surname is Rowan – I don’t know why we didn’t! It looks like it’s growing and people respond to that. And somehow, the balance, the density of the leaves, it just seems to work.”

Over the years it’s adorned everything from cars to kitchenware, Hong Kong trams and wedding cakes and even, the designer is delighted to report, a prosthetic leg.

Kiely's fashion showcases her prints and patterns in a variety of scales

Kiely's fashion showcases her prints and patterns in a variety of scales

“That girl was an inspiration, the most positive girl ever. She loved the Stem design and had it painted in black onto her prosthetic leg. I thought that was amazing, loved that.”

Kiely is one for positivity, despite the closure of her standalone shops and wholesale fashion business in September last year, and wants to talk about what’s next.

“Yeah, last year after the high of the London exhibition we ended in a low but we’re just trying to get through,” she says and explains.

“In operating our retail stores we faced the same challenges as the rest of the high street – rising wage costs, increasing business rates, a devaluation of the pound, consumers continuing to shift online. As a privately owned business we were only able to sustain this combination of pressures for so long. Sadly we are only one of many British retail brands to experience difficulties in the last number of years, and I fear there will be more.”

With hindsight she reflects that if she could have done things differently, “perhaps I would have placed more emphasis on online as a sales channel earlier.”

She is keen to emphasise that the licensing side of the business and homewares and lifestyle business has continued, with strong demand, and that a new website is being launched this month. There will also be forthcoming collaborations that include furniture, eyewear and handbags.

“We’ve got an Orla Kiely Furniture line launch in spring with Barker and Stonehouse – sofas, armchairs, beds – then the website will be back online this month with a new range of handbags and that will get us back to the essence of what Orla Kiely is. And we’re going into the fun side of eyewear in the autumn and there are lots of new lifestyle products in the pipeline. We’re still in John Lewis and Jenners, and at the Dovecot Studios exhibition we will be selling books and posters.”

Now in her fifties, Kiely was born and raised in Dublin and growing up on the fringes of the city, loved the outdoors, haunting the beach and the countryside. Her parents still live there and she still regards is as home, as well as London where she has based her business and lived for 30 years with her husband and two children.

“When I was young my grandmother inspired me generally because she was always making things. Also she was very cool, drove around in a green mini and always wore trousers which in the west of Ireland, not all grannies did. She taught me to knit, and inspired the side of me that wanted to make things.”

At school Kiely always loved art and excelled in the subject, deciding she wanted to do something in that world. Then when she was 12 her father bought her a sewing machine. “I started making outfits for my little sister who was seven, dressing her up.” She laughs in memory of some of the designs. “I remember this matching brown corduroy bomber jacket and an A-line mini skirt. Well, it was the Seventies.”

After school she applied to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland’s oldest art institution and “the only one in those days. I was very happy when I got in. There I learnt about colour, painting techniques, drawing, and discovered my style. But most importantly I learnt about finishing projects. How to start and how to finish.”

On graduation Kiely went to the US in 1984 and worked for a wallpaper and fabric design studio in New York, immersing herself in the technical side of colour and pattern, then on her return landed a job at Esprit, the clothing brand founded in California in 1968.

“There weren’t many in-house textile design jobs then so I was very lucky to get that one and went to work on the European side of the group. I lived in Germany and that was very much my growing up time. It was very formative and I really developed confidence in my own style. It’s important in design to follow your own instinct and trust your own vibe,” she says.

After four years she did a Masters at The Royal College of Art, primarily in knitwear, with her degree show also featuring her prints on hats and bags. Harrods snapped up the hats, but when her businessman father came to see the show he pointed out that all of the women there had a bag, while none was wearing a hat.

“He was right. It’s much easier to wear a handbag than a hat, and they were a great vehicle for showcasing my prints, and that became a brand.”

Kiely has always loved order and pattern and enjoyed rearranging and interpreting what she sees around her in a structured way.

“I just love order,” she says. “And I love very clean lines, an orderly arrangement, and I have quite a precise eye. I like the rhythm of pattern, it’s like music to me.”

She warms to her theme of explaining the buzz she gets from her work.

“I love that feeling of euphoria you get when you’re working on a design and you hit that moment when it’s there, you’ve cracked it. It makes you smile. It’s worth pushing to get to that point, to get that smiley feeling. Some designs you get that feeling quickly, others take longer. It’s not a formula, it literally is instinctual. You need to know when to stop too, when it’s just right.”

At the home in south west London she shares with husband and co-owner of the business Dermott Rowan, as you’d expect there are plenty of Orla Kiely products, including her two children Robert 23, and Hamish, 21, a history student and an artist.

“I’m not like a chef who says they never cook at home,” she says, referring to the Orla Kiely designs that dot around the Orla Kiely household. “I love it, and I’m happy to have lots because I think functionality is as important as looks and it’s things that function. I also have a good archive of handbags, because they remind me of my journey and through them I remember milestones, and that’s nice.”

Kiely is still inspired by nature, by the long walks she takes with her dogs Olive and Ivy, particularly the colours of the Irish landscape – the yellow of gorse, the green of the fields, the red of rowan berries.

“I think the colours I use come from the Irish nature that I was surrounded by in childhood, and also the era I grew up in. I was home at Christmas and going for walks you see orange flowers growing by the side of the road, mustards, greens, greys, reds and yellows. There’s nothing like those pops of colour in nature when you see them. They’re the colours I love, the ones that I anchor on.”

An optimist at heart and by design, Kiely believes in keeping positive and sees the future as bright.

“So long as I really love how prints look, I don’t worry. It’s important to push yourself and try new things as well. I love the unexpected.”

And as for any legacy, as she says her exhibition is more of a celebration, but she hopes she’s inspired us to be bolder with design.

“People have been nervous of print, so if I’ve given them more confidence and a love of print, pattern and colour, that will be a nice legacy.”

@JanetChristie2

Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern, Dovecot Studios from Thursday to 30 June, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh EH1 1LT, tickets £9/£8/£4.50/under 12s free, tickets from dovecotstudios.com

Exhibition preview, Wednesday, 5:30-7pm, tickets, £35.

Orla in Conversation, 12-1pm on Wednesday, at Dovecot Studios, tickets, £30.

Orla Kiely products are available through www.orlakiely.com and John Lewis (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow) and Jenners, Edinburgh (www.houseoffraser.co.uk). Limited edition items will be available through the exhibition at Dovecot Studios.

The Duchess of Cambridge wearing Orla Kiely in 2103. The dress in a different colour features in the exhibition. ''Picture. LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

The Duchess of Cambridge wearing Orla Kiely in 2103. The dress in a different colour features in the exhibition. ''Picture. LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)