Orla Kiely Opens Up About Her 20 Year Career

Ahead of a retrospective in London celebrating 20 years as the QUEEN OF PRINT, ORLA KIELY talks to PENNY McCORMICK about starting up, scaling up and her favourite destinations …

“I want people to walk in and be overwhelmed by print,” says Orla Kiely about the first ever retrospective of her career spanning 20 years, which will open at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London on May 25. Kiely is in the process of organising this and working on new collections when we catch up. “It’s important it’s exactly how I imagined it. Everything is planned, now we just have to make it happen. We’re creating special things over the next few weeks.”

While the comment reveals a perfectionist tendency, Kiely is nothing if not honest about the process. “I didn’t keep an archive with a view to an exhibition of this sort, so I had to get my team to source some of our vintage designs from eBay, as well as comb through everything we had in storage. We went to our warehouse on a freezing day in November and went through boxes, pulling out what we liked. It was interesting, but frustrating.” Given the diversity and proliferation of her output – she has worked with Douwe Egberts, Boots, Belkin, Brita, Monoprix, Sainsbury’s, Uniqlo and Target among others – we can forgive the odd omission. Kiely says her home is a repository for early samples. Personal favourites were the collaborations with Tate London and on the Citroen DS3. There is a miniature model of the latter in the exhibition. “We were able to be really creative with the interior and in the design process I realised how many cars are so boring and formulaic.” As for Tate London – “They gave me a brief for an exhibition they had on Pop Art and the Sixties. I designed a Martian print which was very cute and we also made stuffed Martian toys.” The thematically arranged exhibition will also feature 30 fashion ensembles and, of course, her handbags, the mainstay of her retail empire, which now includes over 1,000 stockists as well as flagship stores in London, New York and Seoul, with an annual turnover of £10m (excluding licensing).

Shankill-born Kiely graduated from the National College of Art and Design in 1984, and after gaining a Masters from the Royal College of Art in 1992, she worked for Club Monaco in Canada. Starting small with a hat collection in Harrods, she opened her own design studio in Battersea in 1998. If anyone is surprised at her success, it is Kiely herself. “I can remember the first sketches and the first trade show at Première Classe in Paris. The brand beside our stand said to Dermott [Kiely’s husband and business partner] it was like a Boeing 747 landing from Tokyo, there was so much interest. My first drawing was very simple but it had strength. Our original Japanese partners advised that we hold on to it as the brand identity and we remembered this advice.” The design, of course, was the upward-facing leaf – the iconic Stem print which, at the time, was in complete contrast to the Nineties grunge ethos. Says Kiely, “We’ve been very creative with Stem, reigniting it every season. I always get excited to see it in its new iteration. It has versatility and longevity and makes everyone smile.”

Orla Kiely SS14 campaign.

Other prints followed – including flowers, birds, boats, acorns, pears – leading to Kiely’s moniker as the “Queen of Print” and in 2011 an honorary OBE for services to fashion. Kiely produces seven new prints per year, her inspiration never wavering far from her nostalgic, mid-century moodboard. “I’ve always followed my own path when it comes to business. I don’t want to compromise, ever.” Kiely now designs across fashion, accessories and homeware, applying the signature prints across the categories.

Looking back, Kiely says she wouldn’t change a thing. “If you don’t make mistakes you don’t learn and I’ve made my fair share.” Of those lessons, she now knows, “how to stay calm in a crisis – if anyone comes to me with a problem I try to fix it.” On the process of scaling up, Kiely is a huge advocate of “trusting your instincts and following them. It’s also about building a team. I now have a design team of eight and we work together on bags, homeware, fashion, prints and special projects.”

Unlike many brands, she and Dermott have retained control of the company they built together. While they expressed initial concerns over Brexit, business is booming. The Far East and US are a priority for future development, with investment for expansion being sought. The firm foundation on which the company is built has paved the way for new lifestyle products to be rolled out, though Kiely thinks carefully before embarking on new projects; “I say no as much as I say yes” she confides. The latest launch is a range of sunglasses – the whimsical campaign, styled by Leith Clark, was photographed by Emma Summerton in an enviable private house in London’s Kensal Rise.

Kiely has collaborated on another successful partnership with Clark, L’Orla – think capsule collections of pretty silk and crepe dresses which are Insta-bait and catnip for cool girls such as Karen Elson, Keira Knightley, Kirsten Dunst and Alexa Chung. “L’Orla has been an ongoing partnership and friendship across eight years. Leith and I are definitely complementary characters. Leith likes what we do and she works in her own instinctive way.” This season both L’Orla and Kiely’s main fashion collections are inspired by the music and model scene of the 1970s – Charlotte Martin, girlfriend to Eric Clapton, is a muse – as well as the women’s marches of the 1970s. Autumnal hues such as yellow, mustard and ochre (inspired by the Irish countryside, she tells me) are used alongside turquoise, dark green, orange and pink. Not everyone’s cup of tea, though we can see similarities with the current floral patterns of Balenciaga and Erdem. For the pattern-wary, Kiely’s advice is to be confident. “It’s not about the pattern, it’s about how you feel. You should radiate.”

Travel, of course, informs her collections. “A memorable family trip was taking the kids (Robert, 22, and Hamish, 20) to Japan, where we combined business and a holiday. The boys were six and eight and we visited Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoko. It was so lovely to have them with us and a pleasure to see the country through their eyes – especially Disneyland in Tokyo and the geysers of Mount Fuji.” Somewhat wistfully she admits her sons no longer want to travel with her. “We haven’t booked our holidays yet, but Iceland is a special place and summer is wonderful there – not too warm, not too cold and very quiet [Ensku Husin guesthouse and Hotel Budir are her recommendations]. Norway is another place we’d like to go.” Her travel staple? “One of my dresses and a red lipstick.”

Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London  from May 25 – September 19.

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