Saturday 22 October 2016

Designs for life from Orla Kiely

As Ireland's queen of prints launches her debut jewellery line, Marianne Power talks to Orla Kiely about her design empire

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Queen of prints: Designer Orla Kiely
Queen of prints: Designer Orla Kiely
Models plying mini golf at the Orla Kiely Spring/Summer 2016 presentation during London Fashion Week
Modelling the Orla Kiely Spring/Summer 2016 during London Fashion Week.
Orla Kiely Multi-Colour Long Flower Necklace €229, Kilkenny Shop
Orla Kiely Multi-Colour Long Flower Necklace €229, Kilkenny Shop
Orla Kiely flower brooch €110
Orla Kiely earrings, €62

'This is my favourite," says Orla Kiely, leaning over a display case of jewellery and pointing to a rose gold daisy attached by a fine chain to a smaller daisy. "It's a brooch, like the old days. My mum had those brooches with the little safety chains on them and I love them, they are so much from their time.

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"We have a giant, oversize perspex bee brooch, which is so cute too but I can't see it. Where is the bee?" The Irish designer looks around and one of her immaculately dressed, smiley team tells her that the bee is downstairs, buzzing around, presumably in this temple to modern retro design.

We are in Kiely's flagship store in London's Covent Garden, to celebrate the launch of her first jewellery collection. Given that she's designed everything from bags to bed linen, fashion to kitchen wear, garden equipment to stationary - it's amazing she hasn't done jewellery sooner.

"We did watches and I liked how they turned out so that led into jewellery. I wanted the jewellery to be really strong. I want them to feel expensive, to have weight to them. I didn't want to rush anything," says the 52-year-old designer. Her own look is elegant but understated - a dress from her own line, in black and grey, a black cardigan and a flash of orange lipstick.

"We were really inspired by jewellery of the 1960s; we looked at the Bakelite and enamelling they used at the time. We wanted to make sure that our jewellery made a statement, that it wasn't wimpy or weedy," she says, picking up a simple but substantial daisy bracelet, which is part of the 'Daisy Chain' range (prices from €48-€228). She smiles lovingly at the pieces.

The only thing weed-like about Orla Kiely's designs are how quickly they spread. Kiely's iconic 1960s and '70s-inspired prints now appear on, well, pretty much everything. Look around your house and the chances are you'll have something that's got her trademark stem or pear pattern on it.

As well as her own products, she's created sold-out collections for Clarks shoes, crafted a range for Uniqlo, worked with American chain Target. Then there's the Barry's tea-caddy, the Kenco mugs, the Douwe Egberts coffee jars, the Kerrygold butter wrapper, the Britta water bottle, the Brabantia bins… You can even buy an Orla Kiely-designed car. The Citroen DS3 has a Kiely-printed roof and the pattern features on the carpet mats and headrests.

This all started in a Dublin kitchen. Raised by a chemist mother and accountant father, Kiely remembers fondly their 1970s kitchen, decked out in olive Formica, with orange-and-white paintwork. These colours are ones that she's used time and time again in her nostalgic patterns.

This love of design and colour took her to study textile design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, followed by a stint designing wallpaper in New York and working for fashion brand Esprit in London. She then did a master's degree in knitwear at London's Royal College of Art in 1993, where her final collection of hats was bought by Harrods. A couple of years later, while visiting her stand at London Fashion Week, Kiely's father made a passing comment that changed everything - he noticed that nobody was wearing hats but everybody was holding a bag.

After that Kiely changed direction and started to develop her now famous laminate bag. How did she come up with that idea? "It was years ago - at the time nobody else was doing it, we were really the first to do it. It was much more a case of 'what do we do in winter?' That was really my thought process, I could do un-laminated, simple cotton bags in the summer but once winter comes, what were we going to do? We were just establishing print as our thing so I just had this eureka moment: 'I'll do what they do with the tablecloths, it holds it's structure, we can be matt or shiny'," she says.

With the help of her husband, Dermott Rowan, she built that small collection of bags into a hugely profitable international business, featuring two womenswear collections, two bag collections, accessories and home furnishings, as well as various collaborations. The company they run together, Kiely Rowan PLC, turned over €10 million for the year up to March 2015, with gross profits of €4.5 million. They still own the company privately, a rarity in the fashion world. They sell in 33 different countries and are just opening 14 shops in Japan.

Their offices are around the corner from their house in Clapham, South-West London where she lives with Dermott, 56, and their sons Robert, 20 and Hamish, 18, dogs Olive (a labradoodlde) and Ivy (a westipoo). The couple work on different floors, with her taking care of the design and him the business. They meet for lunch.

''The bags are a big part of business - I'd say it's 40pc bags, 30pc fashion and 30pc home," says Kiely. "The bags are getting stronger and stronger. With our laminate bags we add to them and play with print but they tend to stay consistent. With our mainline we can be much more playful and more creative with the shapes and punching. It's great fun."

Then there is the fashion - which is worn by Keira Knightley, Kate Middleton, Kirsten Dunst and Laura Whitmore. Today the shop is filled with Spring/Summer 2016 collection which created a buzz at London Fashion Week last September, when it was shown on a mini golf course instead of a typical catwalk. Models putted balls, wearing candy-coloured mini dresses and 1960s florals. "It was fun," says Kiely. "It showed the colours off well."

This February, she was noted in her absence at London Fashion Week, choosing instead to launch her 2016 Autumn/Winter collection, named Orla La, in a more unusual way.

"We decided this time to do something a bit different," smiles Orla. "We put our energies into making a film in this amazing castle in Tipperary. " The film, made by artist Mercedes Helnwein, features Irish models dancing their way through the halls and gardens of Gurteen Castle in Tipperary, showing off the textures, prints and ruffles of the coats and dresses.

"It was such a nice weekend and the film is sweet. The collection is inspired by Northern Soul music of Northern England, so the whole idea is dancing around your handbag. We used Irish models and had a great time. It was an excuse to go home and then I stayed on for the weekend with my parents in Dublin.

"London Fashion Week is six months ahead of when everything goes into stores, and we thought it would be nice to have something to do closer to the time when the clothes go in the shops. We will have some kind of event with our film - the whole thing was planned in that way - it had more longevity. We're always looking at new ways to do things. That's what keeps us fresh."

Her new capsule collection with Leith Clark, stylist to stars such as Keira Knightley, Alexa Chung and Michelle Williams, is also a way of keeping things fresh. The collection is more fashion-y and low-key luxe than the main line, and Kiely says that they plan to continue the collaboration. And that's what Kiely does so well; she caters to everyone from a mum on the school run to Hollywood It girls.

What is the appeal? "I don't know, I guess it's the print. People always tell me it has an uplifting appeal, that somehow it makes them smile. Maybe it's the fact that it's a simplifying of nature. It makes people feel happy somehow," she says. "The prints are comforting somehow, nostalgic in a way. Obviously my references are of a certain time but we also add something contemporary, we are not languishing in retro style."

She says of her typical customer: "She's not afraid to be creative. She is somebody who wants to be playful with style, even if it's just with one item, such as a bag." And while Kiely has been criticised for catering to the 'yummy mummy' market, she says her designs are worn by all ages.

"I don't think there is an age range, it's more of a spirit. My mother loves the collection, she loves the blouses, cardigans and coat. And not everything is multi-coloured, for Autumn/Winter 2016 we have coats and cardigans that are darker and would be nice on any age. We're crossing the generations, there is something for everyone."

Kiely says she gets inspiration everywhere: "I love nature, I have two dogs so I go walking a lot, I love the change of the seasons." The Irish countryside plays a huge part in her vision: her rhododendron print was inspired by the blooms at Ballyvolane House in Cork.

So what next? Are there any other areas she'd like to get into? "Not really, for the moment we're doing fine," she says, with considerable understatement. "This is just the beginning, it will develop. With jewellery, you have it forever and it can be worn with so many different things - it's actually a great way to lift a more simple outfit."

As for homewear: "We're building on it," she says. "We do new bed linen every season, new towels, new storage jars. We want to make sure that whatever past designs work with new designs. That's really important, I don't want people to think that the storage jar doesn't go anymore - there's a colour palette that everything ties into."

She got into hot water recently for suggesting that people have too much stuff these days - while, of course, she is a huge seller of 'stuff'.

"That got slightly misinterpreted," she says. "What I was saying was that it's nice for people to buy things they want to keep, rather than buying rubbish. I think it's nice to really love what you have, because if you love it then you'll keep it. I like the idea of buying things you can reuse and pass on, of having things with longevity."

And speaking of longevity, doesn't she ever worry that she's spreading herself too thin? That she's diluting her brand by having her designs on everything from dustbins to coffee jars? "Sometimes I do, but then I keep thinking that as long as I do things well, it's like anything, you have to be careful, but at the same time I have a business to run. It's about doing everything to the best of your ability and hoping that people want to own it.

"The one thing we have is integrity. I don't want to compromise on things. I am the final decision maker, no matter who I am working with. In the end, if I don't believe in things I won't do them. I couldn't look at something if I didn't think it was up to scratch… there's a kind of perfectionism," she says. But most importantly, Kiely says, she is as in love with patterns as she was as a child, looking at her bedroom wallpaper. "It's lovely because it's what I enjoy - it's fun."

The Orla Kiely jewellery collection is available from Kilkenny, see

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