“Think about what you buy. Buy it because you love it. That you feel it adds something, and that you’d like to keep it”
Dedication, determination and a love for what she does have made Orla Kiely a quiet force in the design of our lives. Here, she talks to Frances Ambler about her passion for pattern
Orla Kiely is giving a glimpse into her design process: “The simplest looking things are the hardest,” she says. It’s tempting to see that as a wider philosophy. Her crisp, bold, colourful and, apparently, simple prints have each passed through an intensive process – from initial idea to research to sketches and then refinement and then some more, until Orla is finally satisfied. Since Orla Kiely ( pronounced to rhyme with ‘highly’ rather than ‘really’) launched her eponymous business in 1994, initially focused on hats, we’ve become so used to her designs brightening the landscape of our lives – fashion, homeware, even cars and pushchairs – that it’s easy to overlook the hard graft, dedication and determination that got it there.
It’s the morning before the opening of the ‘Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern’ exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. While she makes it look easy, there’s a helpful check to that idea in the form of a snapshot reproduced in her latest book, also titled
A Life in Pattern. Showing a small, overflowing room (and a small child), it’s captioned, ‘ We have come a long way’. Although Orla Kiely the brand now appears an empire, the photo reveals its homegrown nature. “That was in our first flat,” Orla remembers. “The kids were babies. I had a full-time freelance-designing job and was designing for us [the Orla Kiely brand] on evenings and weekends. So Dermott, my husband, was doing all the packing and deliveries, and sales and talking to factories… That photo says a lot.”
Orla studied in Dublin, then at London’s Royal College of Art, before working in New York. Like many of the post-war female pattern designers that inspired her, such as Barbara Brown, she freelanced for various companies, while – with Dermott – building their own, beginning from a kitchen table, babe ( her sons Robert, then Hamish) in arms, their London flat multitasking as design studio, office and distribution centre.
At that stage, she says, “there was never really a great plan. I didn’t want to put pressure on myself.” It grew “organically”, out of love. “I was always doing it because I liked it and just loved it when other people liked it,” Orla says in her soft Irish accent.
A LIFE STEEPED IN DESIGN
“Looking back, I’m so pleased that we did it when we did it,” she says. While now there is more space and more staff, they were able to grow around their family, as they put down roots in south London. “We’ve always been in control and that’s very nice, especially when you have young kids,” she notes. “They were always our priority, although we were busy working. We could decide where our design studio and office could be. If I needed to dash home, I could.”
Orla’s creativity is also a homegrown affair, fostered during her childhood spent just outside Dublin. “Oh, there was definitely always a designer there. My grandmother lived in the west of Ireland and she’d
come and see us in her little green mini. And she was always making,” Orla recalls. “She was crocheting, knitting, tufting rugs, making cakes. I remember sitting with her, doing all those things.” Aged 12, Orla got her first sewing machine. And? “I tortured my two younger sisters, making them wear my creations!”
Her family continues to provide both support and inspiration. Dermott, who she met in Dublin, remains managing director – his focus on the business side ( packing duties long since passed on) gives Orla space for creativity. But it was her father, at London Fashion Week in “very early days”, when they were focusing on hats, who noted that, “Not everyone has a hat on, but everyone – all the women at least – they’ve all got a bag. So, there’s a market…” Her subsequent bags propelled the Orla Kiely name into wider public consciousness. A wall in the exhibition honours their contribution – she’s looking forward to showing her father when he visits from Dublin. A willingness to listen also explains the breadth of her brand’s collaborations – from radios to coffee packaging – “I love surprises,” Orla says. “When we’re approached to »
do something I’d never have thought of.” A favourite was being asked to decorate a sculptural DNA double helix to raise funds for Cancer Research. “I thought, that’s quite special. I love that kind of thing, when a print brings something positive.” Last year alone, causes benefitting from Orla’s work included the Irish Heart Foundation, The Royal British Legion and Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland.
A STYLE STICKLER
It’s hard not to conflate Orla Kiely the brand and Orla Kiely the person – especially when resplendent in her Orla Kiely-brand dress, bag and sandals in readiness for the opening. However, the success of the former has undoubtedly been honed by the latter’s exacting vision. Within the exhibition, she’s still tweaking displays, just hours ahead of opening. “Things really bother me visually,” she confesses. “I can drive myself crazy.” Another important value: integrity. “As long as I continue, I want to make sure that integrity is never compromised,” she says. “I’m very careful not to put my print on things that I don’t like. It’s saying ‘no’ as much as we say ‘ yes’.” And that clear vision makes it easier to overlook high-street versions that seem to have taken a leaf ( literally) out of her design book. “We have an invisible balance that we’re always trying to achieve. So I can see from a mile off that they’re just not the same.” And, although she produces a fashion collection each season, she refuses to follow the fickle demands of “trends”. “We do it the way that we do it and that’s it. I follow what I love,” she argues. “As long as it’s your passion, your style, you’re in control.”
Seeing her work together gives a better sense of that invisible balance. How Orla is always – in her own words – “looking, absorbing, noticing”, carrying ideas in her head, rather than a sketchbook. Her palette is influenced by the landscape around Dublin, while she loves mid-century design for bringing functionality and quality, as well as beauty, into everyday life. Many of her own designs – such as the world famous Stem pattern, which she describes as “the land on which the house was built” – are inspired by nature. But it’s Dermott, not her, who is the gardener. “I just direct,” she says. Although prone to ideas that strike at 3am, Orla manages to live what she describes as “a quiet life”, especially enjoying the relaxation that comes
with taking their dogs, Olive, a labradoodle, and Ivy, a westiepoo, “for lovely, long walks”.
It figures that Orla believes that our surroundings impact on our wellbeing. Pattern, as her book’s subtitle explains, “can make you happy without you even noticing”. “I think that’s true!” she says excitedly. “Pattern can stimulate or soothe your eyes, it’s the rhythm of it. Words don’t have to say anything.” With Stem, continually revisited since its first appearance on a bag in 2000, “We’ve been told often that it makes people smile. I love the thought of bringing colour into people’s everyday life. As long as they enjoy what they have, I’m very happy.”
COLOUR ME KIELY
In her own home, Orla’s use of her colours and pattern is bold and inspired, but carefully edited. “Half of me is a minimalist,” she admits. The other half enjoys ‘things’ – although not just any things. She’s drawn to “the quirky or the colourful”, with a considered approach to purchases: “Think about what you buy. Buy it because you love it. That you feel it adds something, and that you’d like to keep it in your home.” There’s usually space to squeeze in a find from her travels. “Objects can mark times in your life,” she believes. “I love it when you buy something and it reminds you of a particular trip.”
Her exhibition – “not a retrospective,” she laughs, “That makes me feel old!” – is filled with memories. For Orla, it’s been “an amazing opportunity” to pause and take stock. “When you never look back, you spend your life going forward.” Orla recalls her first trip to the warehouse to explore what might be included. “I was quite nervous – everything was buried in boxes, not even very tidily. We just dived in and were pulling out things, it was like ‘Oh my god, look at this!’ All these flashbacks.”
It’s evocative for visitors, too – like how happy I felt recognising the pattern of the dress that I wore to my sister’s wedding. But, asked about what influence she’s had over the 20-plus years of creating such memories, Orla is characteristically modest. “The nice thing now is that there are many different styles and options, there’s so much to like.” She continues: “I just think about my work. That thrill of a new print that you love, introducing it to the world. And, every day, we’re still learning – every time something goes wrong or something new happens, you learn. Once you know it all, I think it’s time to stop.”
There’s no chance of stopping just yet though. Orla Kiely is, she feels, “just in the middle” and, with her sons now grown-up, there’s “time to do even more”. With the exhibition showing the breadth of what she’s achieved to date, there’s a sense of possibility about what might come next. Watch this, soon to be even more colourful, space.
From the ‘Stem’ print, right, to ‘Abacus Flower’, left, Orla’s patterns adorn many an interior (and exterior, too)
The brand branched out into homewares in 2007 with a mug: our kitchen cupboards haven’t looked the same since