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Thursday 23 May 2019

Designer Orla Kiely's decision to shut was a bolt from the blue - but it's unlikely to be her last act

Stellar career: Irish fashion and homewares designer Orla Kiely
Stellar career: Irish fashion and homewares designer Orla Kiely
One of her iconic bag designs
Donal O'Donovan

Donal O'Donovan

As Ireland's most commercially successful fashion designer ever, Orla Kiely's dramatic decision to shut her retail business this week was a bolt from the blue.

It was also a huge blow to staff, suppliers and a legion of fans. It's unlikely to be the last act in what had been a stellar career for National College of Art & Design (NCAD) graduate Kiely, and her husband and business partner Dermott Rowan.

Accounts for their UK-based business Kelly Rowan PLC, which is now in liquidation, make clear that the brand name 'Orla Kiely' is owned by the couple, separate to that company. It will remain a prized asset.

The brand was being used under licence by their own trading business, and separately for homeware and accessories collections for the likes of John Lewis - which is not affected by the closure.

That means reviving the brand, launching new design lines through a new company of their own or under licences, will be pretty straightforward.

Still, the collapse of their retail and wholesale business late on Monday, is a huge blow to Orla Kiely, the Irish designer who had created a massive lifestyle brand starting with one stylised leaf-and-stem print and a range of 'must have' bags.

Her rise was secured with unbuyable endorsement from fans like Kate Middleton and Alexa Chung, catapulting Kiely into the affections of Britain's smart-set over the past decade.

More recently, the proliferation of Orla Kiely branded products and a shift into the mass market may have diluted the cachet somewhat, but if so, the accounts show little sign of it.

Sales at Kiely Rowan PLC were £8.3m (€9.2m) last year, up from a dip to £7.2m in 2016. The business was profitable up to the most recent accounts - for the year to the end of March 2017. As directors, Orla Kiely and Dermott Rowan were paying themselves a healthy, though hardly outrageous £200,000 each a year.

The major dark cloud was just over £2m owed to the UK business by its US subsidiary, which included the costs of setting up a store on New York's hip but expensive Bleecker Street in 2016. That shop was shut earlier this year, and is likely to have left the bulk of its inter-company debt unpaid.

In fact, while Orla Kiely's designs may be known globally, Britain's well-heeled 'Sloan Rangers' remained the core market - accounting for a whopping 70pc of sales.

Irish Independent

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