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Orla Kiely: The Queen of Pattern

The Irish designertakes inspiration from the colours of her childhood to create iconic designs as she branches out into picture books


Posted: 29 May 2012
by Catherine O'Dolan

For any designer, the moment one of your designs becomes an immediately identifiable signature is a defining one. From the intertwined Chanel Cs to the zigzag of a Missoni stripe, from the prancing polo pony of Ralph Lauren to the stirrup buckle of Gucci, these simple motifs (oft imitated but seldom equalled) become an unmistakable mark of distinction. 

For Irish designer Orla Kiely (her surname pronounced like the diminutive Antipodean pop princess), it is a simple design from nature – a stem – that has become her most recognised symbol. From its first incarnation more than a decade ago, the Stem, in myriad hues, has decorated handbags and homeware, dresses and duvet covers, even yoga mats. Its latest outing has been to grace the cover of Orla’s first foray into the world of children’s picture books. And as you can imagine, it makes for a very stylish affair indeed. 

The first two books, Numbers and Colours, were published by Egmont last year; two more, Shapes and Creatures, will follow this autumn. Presented in a chunky square format, these little books have a matt cloth cover that feels soft to the touch. “It’s quite durable,” says Orla, holding one of the books and caressing its tactile feel. “I kept saying, you have to remember that these books are going to have little fingers all over them, so it’s important that they’re durable.” The books are also presented in subtle tones and muted colours “to appeal to the parents a little bit, too,” says Orla, and – surprise, surprise – the iconic Stem print motif, which has become as synonymous with Orla Kiely as the multi-coloured stripe has with Paul Smith, features predominantly. The subject matter is already familiar territory for babies and toddlers: images of cars, boats, flowers and birds – all familiar first words – adorn the pages and help teach concepts like number, shape and colour recognition. But it is in the crisp design and tasteful colour palette that the books bear the unmistakable Orla touch. There are no garish primaries here: instead, there is soft tangerine, light grey, mossy green and ruddy amber (though, for the sake of simplicity for babies, in Colours, they are referred to in more humdrum terms: orange, grey, green and red).

So where did it all begin? With a happy childhood in a leafy Dublin suburb, where Orla lived with her parents and three siblings in a modern 1950s-style house that was filled with colour. “My childhood was lovely,” she says. “We had lots of friends, and it was very free. Of course, it was Ireland, so the weather had a big impact on whatever we did and there was a lot of rain, but we were very happy.” 

With both the sea and open spaces within close proximity, Orla was also surrounded by the rich colours of nature. “When I think about it, I can see that the colours I love come from Ireland,” she says. “My love for green, from moss to seaweed, the grey and browns of the huge skies and rolling landscapes, the mustard yellow of gorse bushes on the hills and the wild flowers by the roadside.”

In her autobiographical book, Pattern (Octopus, £25), Orla describes the exuberant décor of her family home, a look that has become a signature of the vintage vibe and retro romance of her designs. “One of my most vivid memories is our family kitchen, with its olive green Formica cupboards and worktops, coordinating green and white patterned tiles that gave full wall coverage, and, to top it all off, an orange gloss ceiling,” she says. “I loved it!” 

Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, Orla was a true child of the time, revelling in the bold and brave designs that defined the era. “As a little girl, I was mesmerised by patterns,” she says. “I would find myself visually tracing the undulating swirls on the wallpaper in my bedroom, scrutinising them to discover where the motif eventually repeated itself.” Her obsession with repeat patterns is a trait that her youngest son, Hamish, 14, seems to have inherited, too. “When he was small, he loved those little wooden prism kaleidoscopes, where you see everything in endless repeat.” Her own passion for pattern also manifested itself in her love of drawing and art, “I was always doodling away,” as she puts it, and she developed a strong graphic style that won many admiring compliments from her teachers. Orla was also a handy seamstress, getting her first sewing machine when she was 12, and subsequently running up flamboyant outfits for her younger sisters. “We still laugh about some of the creations that I inflicted upon my youngest sister, Nessa!” she says. 

After studying for her BA in Fashion Textiles at the prestigious National College Of Art And Design in Dublin, Orla worked as a textile designer in New York and later in Dusseldorf for Esprit. She then decided to study for a MA at the esteemed Royal College Of Art in London. It was a sign of things to come when the entire collection of felt hats she made by hand for her final degree show were snapped up by buyers from Harrods. 

One of the reasons for continuing her studies was to add another string to her bow (she studied knitwear design), with an eye on setting up her own business and the creative freedom that would afford her. Initially, her collection was made up of hats and handbags, which were showcased at London Fashion Week. There was a seminal moment when Orla’s father came to view the collection and noted that, while every female visitor was sporting a handbag, no one was wearing a hat. “I’d stick to the bags if I were you!” was his sage advice. 

From that moment, the collections focused on handbags, firstly simple cut-and-sew designs, but already Orla was garnering a growing band of fans who appreciated her fresh and succinct style sensibilities. Once more regular orders were established and she had found a factory to accommodate, Orla focused on more structured designs. “I was always quite a 3D-minded person, so designing bags was like solving problems and figuring out how things worked.” In 2000, the first items featuring the now iconic Stem design were launched, making its debut on laminated cloth bags, long before the likes of Cath Kidston produced them. “No one else was doing anything like it at the time,” she says. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Deceptively simple, it’s tricky to define what it is about the Stem that so captured the imagination. “It was an instant hit. The Japanese went crazy for it,” says Orla. “It’s funny, but I really don’t know what made it so popular. Perhaps people just love nature, and, at the same time, it was quite modern. My married name is Rowan, and the design is very reminiscent of a Rowan tree leaf, so it just feels that it was meant to be in a funny sort of way.” 

On the downside, once a design becomes iconic, the imitators find it hard to resist and there are many who try to emulate. “We have very loyal customers who sometimes tip us off when they think we’re being copied,” she says. “I suppose it’s nice that people like it enough to copy, but I don’t want to encourage it!”

These days, business is flourishing and there are flagship Orla Kiely stores in London’s Covent Garden, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and New York. Last year, Orla was awarded the OBE for services to fashion (“very unexpected, but very nice,” she says) and her Stem design has graced the Irish stamp, alongside other contemporary fashion designers, including Paul Costelloe, John Rocha and Philip Treacy. The iconic Stem can be seen on everything from textiles to trams (to celebrate the launch of the store in Hong Kong, a tram was decorated with the print) and her clothes are worn by celebrities such as Alexa Chung and Keira Knightly. “They look great,” says Orla. “They have my kind of taste.” Of course, it’s all very well having fabulous celebrities looking fabulous in your designs, but what if someone doesn’t quite wear it so well? Orla is supremely diplomatic in her reply. “It always looks good on people and I love seeing it worn with joy and confidence,” she says.  It clearly still thrills Orla to see her designs in everyday life. “I saw a couple with a baby, and the man was carrying one of our Stem design changing bags. It was very cute!” she says with a satisfied smile. In fact, sometimes, Orla cannot contain her excitement. “I remember seeing a woman who had one of the first felt bags that we made, and I went up to her and said ‘That’s my bag!’” says Orla. “The woman looked very shocked, holding onto her bag very tightly and replied, ‘No, it’s not. It’s mine!’”

And it’s true that, although Orla Kiely’s designs are instantly recognisable, you might not actually know what she herself looks like. In the flesh, she is warm and personable, with a soft Dublin accent and a distinct look that betrays her Celtic heritage with her pale complexion, auburn hair and a hint of freckles. She comes across as unassuming and modest, but with a steely determination, too, describing herself as “quietly ambitious”. 

Her conversation is littered with things that are “nice” and ”lovely”, which is kind of how you might describe her. As proof, just consider the fact that in the 15 years she has employed childcare (her two sons, Robert and Hamish, are now 16 and 14 respectively) Orla has only ever had two nannies, one of whom now works in her head office in Clapham. (Everyone knows that nannies don’t tend to stick around if their employers are obnoxious.) She is also neatly turned out in an effortlessly tasteful and stylish way, a signature of her look. “I love fashion,” she says, “but I would never want to be its slave.” This confident know-your-own-mind outlook is very much how Orla sees her typical customer, too. “I imagine her to be a creative-spirited woman, who’s not following fashion, but is following her own instinct, someone who appreciates that less-is-more simplicity,” she says. 

As well as growing the business and garnering international success over the past 15 years, Orla and her husband and business partner, Dermott Rowan, also juggle their family life. So how did she manage to balance working on a fledgling business with raising a young family? “It was as difficult as anything is with young children,” says Orla. “But sometimes, in many ways, I think it’s easier to work. And we had wonderful nannies, so that always makes it easier.”

And what do her two teenage sons make of her designs? “When they were smaller, they didn’t really get it, but now I think they’re quite proud,” she says. “And, by all accounts, a lot of the mothers at their school have my bags and bits of other things.”Working alongside her husband, the business is very much a family affair, with Dermott as the business brain and Orla the perfect creative complement. And what of the future? “Well, I’m just going from one thing to the next,” says Orla. “I’m not really thinking what I want to do or where I want to go. It seems to have a nice flow and I’m happy with that. I firmly believe that being true to yourself is a guarantee that quality and integrity will shine through, and what motivates me is the possibility that my work can give pleasure and be uplifting.” Her delightful children’s books are sure to do just that for a whole new generation of stylish young readers.

Find out... How Orla Kiely's Colours fared in the Junior Design Awards 2012


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