It’s funny how a simple combination can be so desirable. Like strawberries and cream. Or a Burberry check lining on a classic trench coat. Or like Orla Kiely’s trademark stem print, seen on everything from handbags to wallpaper everywhere from London to New York.
“When I designed it in 2000, I never thought it would become so recognisable – it was a real surprise,” Kiely tells DHub on the phone from her office in Clapham, south west London. “It has an optimistic, happy feel. I’ve got a low boredom threshold but there are so many variations to it.”
Described by the Guardian as the “Queen of Prints”, Orla Kiely Inc has become a global success story and an instantly recognisable fashion and lifestyle brand.
Her array of products includes clothes, kitchenware, furniture, stationery, bed linen, and a nifty line in gardening tools. Most of Kiely’s products carry one of her signature bold prints or colourful patterns and each one has her distinct vintage-inspired aesthetic.
“I’m very fussy – I want to be proud of everything that has my name on it,” she said.
She has her celebrity fans too – some of the famous faces drawn to her sweet retro-inspired dresses include the Duchess of Cambridge, Alexa Chung, Keira Knightley and Lena Durham.
Based in the UK, the company exports to 45 countries and has stores in New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. After nearly 20 years of trading, the company has always been in profit.
So, what is the secret behind this success?
The daughter of university lecturers, Kiely grew up in the suburbs of Dublin. She went on to train as a textile designer at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design and later gained an MA at the Royal College of Art in London, where she is now a Visiting Professor.
Kiely worked as a designer for brands including Esprit and Club Monaco and also worked as a consultant for the British high street stalwart, Marks and Spencer. At the same time as this, she built up her own design business with her husband and business partner, Dermott Rowan, often working at the evenings and on weekends.
Kiely said the experience of juggling a day job with her own business taught her a lot. “You have to be true to yourself and trust your instincts. Yes, you have to work hard but you don’t even notice when you’re working all hours if you love what you do.”
She said she finds inspiration in a diverse range of places.
“I love mid-century modern design, particularly Scandinavian modern,” she said. “I love fashion from the 1960s and 1970s and will often look at photos and films from that time. I like visiting exhibitions and vintage markets and I love graphic design. Essentially, I’ve always got my eyes open and I’m always looking out for things.”
Kiely frequently collaborates with other brands. Recent partnerships have included a homewares line for the American retailer Target, a range for iconic British shoemakers Clarks and clothing collections for hip Japanese fashion retailers Uniqlo and the ethical fashion company People Tree.
Kiely said she enjoys this work but is careful to maintain the essence of her core brand.
“Collaborating forces you to think outside your comfort zone and resolve different challenges. It’s very important to approach this kind of work in the right way – I want to bring us to the project but keep our integrity too,” she said.
Kiely said she is particularly pleased to work with People Tree.
“They are a great company and their longstanding commitment to ethical, sustainable, fair trade fashion on a commercial level is a great achievement.”
Anne-Marie Van de Ven is Graphic Design Curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. She said that Kiely’s designs are so successful because they are both beautiful and simple.
“Her brilliance lies in the skilful creation of strikingly simple repeat patterns using beautiful retro-inspired colour combinations. There’s something magical about her stem design that merges abstraction and nature. With this she has achieved a form of organic modernism with just two key design elements – the leaf and the stem.”
Van de Ven said Kiely’s designs will stand the test of time, and compares her work to that of the 1950s British textile designer Lucienne Day and Australia’s own doyenne of wallpaper, Florence Broadhurst.
“Day and Broadhurst – whose collection is held at the Museum of Applied Arts and Science, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney – both created designs which combine abstraction with motifs drawn from the natural world. For example, Day’s Calyx textile design and Broadhurst’s Water Swirl wallpaper design,
“All three women have a superb eye for detail, an awareness of potential marketplace applications for their art, and an innovative sense of the times in which they are generating designs. The breadth of their pattern portfolios, and the fact that each came to prominence in their respective eras, will ensure their work lives on now and in subsequent design revivals,” Van de Ven said.
2015 looks set to be a busy year for Kiely. She is currently finishing her next Autumn/Winter collection, planning for New York Fashion Week in February and thinking ahead to 2016’s Spring Resort Collection.
She is also further expanding into Asia and recently announced a deal with Fujii Corporation which has gained exclusive rights to distribute the brand in Japan. A second standalone store in Tokyo will open in September.
As the brand continues to grow, one thing is certain – that iconic stem print will continue to be a central part of the Orla Kiely story.