Monday 11 December 2017

Fashioning her future

She is seen as a no-nonsense perfectionist, but Orla Kiely also displays a wonderful enthusiasm and readiness to laugh, says Liadan Hynes, who talked to the designer about working with her husband, starting her own business and how she'd love to move back to Ireland

DESIGN FOR LIVING: Fashion designer Orla Kiely in Dublin to promote her new book, 'Pattern'
DESIGN FOR LIVING: Fashion designer Orla Kiely in Dublin to promote her new book, 'Pattern'

Orla Kiely has a rather ascetic elegance, slim to the point of angular; her reddish brown hair, with the odd streak of grey, is scraped severely back off her face. Her one concession to glamour is the rather surprising signature slash of red lipstick.

We meet in the Merrion Hotel; she's in Dublin for the weekend to promote her new book, Pattern. Naturally, she's wearing Orla Kiely, a high-necked, long-sleeved brown dress.

There's something refreshing about her naturally lined face, especially for a woman working, incredibly successfully, in an industry so obsessed with youth. There's a timeless quality to Orla. It's hard to tell what age she is -- her PA, Eoin Cooney, who sits in on our interview, tells me it's not something they discuss, but she talks about growing up in Shankill in Dublin in the late Sixties, early Seventies.

From a young age, it was clear that Orla's would be a creative path. "From about 12 onwards. I loved knitting and crochet. I used to inflict my designs on them," she says, laughingly remembering her siblings' tolerance of her early endeavours. "You can imagine, aged 14, what I used to make for my sister."

Kiely is quite an uncompromising, no-nonsense presence, rather like her designs.

Certain topics are clearly not up for discussion. Attempts to move the conversation from her work to more personal topics are often greeted with a terse "yes" or "no", or a polite, "mmm hmm", and she is quite happy to leave it at that, politely waiting for the next question, feeling no need to fill the silence.

She is known as something of a perfectionist, telling me her eye for detail "drives everybody, including myself, mad. Because I can't bear it. If I think something's not right, I will hold it in my head until I sort it out".

She asks me after our interview if she can see the text before publication, as a fact-checking mission; recounting in frustrated tones errors in previous articles, including getting the office dog's name wrong. It's Olive.

"I keep going, in work. I don't give up. I think that's very important, that ability to finish things," she says. Her reluctance to extend herself could be read as frosty were it not for the boundless enthusiasm that regularly lights up her eyes, and a readiness to laugh.

When I ask about the working dynamic between her and husband, Dermott Rowan, whom she met when she was 18, both Eoin the PA and herself burst out laughing. Do they row?

"We have discussions," Orla smiles. "It's fine, it's great. And actually, we're on different floors, so I have my own space, and he has his space. We go for lunch every day. We can kind of catch up, and talk. We're good at switching off, because we have to. We've got two sons, who're coming into an interesting age."

Robert is 12, Hamish 10. The younger is very creative, "he might do graphics", Orla muses. Robert wants to be a journalist. "We met the year I left school," she says of Dermott, who is a few years older. She laughingly quashes my attempts to coo over this story of childhood sweethearts. They met through friends; he was her first proper boyfriend.

"I remember meeting him the first time. He was very sweet to me and he was very nice. Then he emigrated for a couple of years, and I went to New York, and to London and to Germany. So we did kind of have time. But then, you know, we got back together again, four or five years later. Yeah, it's quite sweet," she acknowledges in a somewhat detached fashion.

"He moved back to London the same time I moved back to London. So that was quite ... handy." They now run the business together, with Orla in charge of the design end, while Dermott runs the business side of things.

"Em ... interesting," she says of working with her spouse. "No, it's good, because his strengths are completely opposite. You know, we're lucky that we kind of complement each other. So I'm creative, and he's creative, but he's creative in different ways. And he's very good at business. And I think it's been an amazing journey for him as well. Because he's hugely responsible for where we are."

It's probably unsurprising that the early life of one so quietly self-assured was peopled with strong female figures. Both her grandmothers were huge influences on the young Orla.

"She was the matriarch of six sons," says Kiely proudly of her paternal grandmother. "She was an amazing lady. A very sharp business lady. She had all the sons organised. We always knew her as a granny, obviously, but we always knew that she was definitely the boss. In a lovely way," she qualifies.

She could be speaking of herself; her PA Eoin has commented in the past that in the design studio she is "like an air traffic controller", with a clearly defined sense

of what she wants, and always getting "the last word".

It was her art teacher, a nun, who encouraged her first forays into what would become a lifetime's work. "She really believed in me. I never really saw it in myself. She always used to think I had talent. And I don't know that I ever, at that age, saw it in myself."

Meeting her today, it's hard to imagine Orla's self-confidence ever wavering. She has a contained self-belief, not remotely obnoxious or arrogant, that is reflected in her design aesthetic, which never bends to the fickle winds of fashion. It's something working on Pattern has crystallised for her.

"It was a daunting prospect. I was hoping there'd be enough to fill it." As it turns out, there was more than enough -- enough for another book, she laughs. "When you're on the wheel, you never really stop and look back. I think in the end you realise even at the very beginning there was probably a very strong style, handwriting."

She studied originally in NCAD, taking textiles after her foundation year. "I think even at that stage my taste was quite clean and simple." After college, in the mid-Eighties, she and a friend joined another college acquaintance in New York; the three women are still in contact, in fact, she's meeting them for dinner that night.

On returning to Dublin, her father let her and her two friends use the upstairs room in the then family pub, Kiely's in Donnybrook, as a temporary studio, and she spent six weeks getting her portfolio in order before heading off to London, where she was hired by Esprit.

"It was kind of scary," she says, of what she describes as her first "proper" job, which involved moving to Germany. "Because that's the one thing with textiles, you have a blank page; you have to come up with ideas. But you know you just have to build your confidence and do it," she says briskly.

She returned to college after a few years to do an MA in fashion knitwear at the Royal College of Art. "I knew I didn't want to design for other people. I wanted to be a bit more in control of where my work went."

Her graduate collection of hats was bought by Harrods. At the time, her father made what would turn out to be a rather prescient comment, observing that "every woman's wearing a bag," he said. "They're not all wearing a hat, but they're all carrying bags", Kiely recounts fondly.

The couple emigrated to Canada for a year, where Orla worked for Club Monaco. While there, she became pregnant with their first child, Robert. They continued working on the Orla Kiely collection during this time.

"Every time the fax machine rolled off in the middle of the night we were both like 'ohhh'," she squeals in excitement. "It was an order and we were excited."

On returning to London, Kiely worked on a freelance basis for various companies. "It's amazing how these things work," she says rather breezily of setting up a new business while pregnant, and holding down full-time consultancy work. "Because everyone thinks it's like 'oh my god', but you just do it, and you get on," she announces, with typical briskness.

Being asked to do a collection for Debenhams in 1997 was the tipping point for the Orla Kiely line. She was working at the time as a consultant for Marks & Spencer. The two would inevitably clash, so the day job had to go.

Going out on her own "was a bit scary", she admits. "Because I always liked to have my fall back. But it was great. I just remember we had two little boys. I was working completely on my own."

Nowadays, Orla Kiely the business is said to turn in upwards of €120m a year, and includes clothing, bags, accessories, perfume, homeware and stationery.

"I'd love to move to Ireland. I can't though at the moment, because my kids are in school. And because of work. No, I mean I miss Ireland and there's lots of reasons. I've got friends, I've got family. But at the moment, our life is where it is. Who knows?"

'Pattern' by Orla Kiely is published by Conran Octopus, €26.99,

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