Orla Kiely is the kind of designer who creates pieces that are instantly recognisable – that iconic stem print, bold retro flowers and vintage-inspired clothing are all signature Orla. But the designer started as if by accident, which makes the story behind one of Ireland’s greatest fashion exports one of the most interesting.
Qualifying as a textile designer at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Kiely moved to New York and worked as a wallpaper and fabric designer before moving to London to study for a Master’s at the Royal College of Art. After designing for Marks & Spencer and Habitat, she began designing her own collection in her spare time between consulting for other companies, with no real plan but a desire to create beautiful pieces.
In 2000, she created the stem print, catapulting her into the limelight and gaining fans amongst the fashion set. Kiely says: “The ‘Stem’ print was first designed in 2000 for S/S 2001, inspired by a simple Rowan tree stem and leaves printed on white cotton canvas made into skirts and soft bags. It wasn’t until the following season, when we re-coloured it and laminated the cloth for bags and accessories that it took off as a very cool and functional product.”
Those references to nature are constantly revisited in Orla Kiely’s collections, in her use of colour, prints and motifs. Commenting on this she said: “I am constantly inspired by nature; flowers, leaves and animals simplified into stylised motifs that can be put into print repeats is a great joy for me! Colour is very important and I often find myself drawn to the greens, greys and browns of the Irish landscape set against bursts of vibrant orange and yellows.”
The brand has since gone from strength to strength, now encompassing everything from ready-to-wear collections, to luggage, furnishings and homeware. She dominates the realm of retro style, breathing new life into old designs to bring them up-to-date and make them 21st-century-appropriate. Kiely says of her vintage-inspired designs: “I love the 60s and 70s! They had a very optimistic spirit and a happy take on life. It was a time of bold colour and pattern and a lot of the designs were inspired by contemporary art and architecture. I especially love the textiles and wallpapers for their stylised graphic approach and extremes of scale.”