Orla Kiely, an internationally celebrated, London-based, Irish designer known for her unique retro graphic prints, was born in Shankill, County Dublin, and educated at the Loreto Convent. She graduated in print and textile design from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in 1982.
She then worked in New York and London as a textiles and print designer before gaining her Master's Degree at the Royal College of Art in London in 1993. Harrods acquired her collection of hats from her graduation show and four years later she and her husband, Dermott Rowan, founded the Orla Kiely Partnership.
She presents her ready-to-wear and accessories collection every season at London Fashion Week. Her label includes a complete ready-to-wear collection, travel, homeware, stationery and even a collaboration with Citroën.
The mid-century modern aesthetic that inspires her distinctive designs is instantly recognisable and, along with her striking graphic interpretations of nature, attracts fashionistas like Alexa Chung, Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley and the Duchess of Cambridge.
Orla lives in South London with her husband Dermott, their labradoodle, Olive and westiepoo, Ivy. They have two sons, Robert, 22 and Hamish, 20.
Extract from Orla Kiely in conversation with Shevaun Wilder
Shevaun: It's fascinating that your very Irish name travels so well here in Britain and internationally.
Orla: Yes! I love that it's Irish. I spell it the way it sounds so it's easy. Many Irish names – to people not from Ireland – are unpronounceable if you just read the letters.
Shevaun: The Orla Kiely brand is also very distinctive, I imagine, if the Bloomsbury Set were still around they'd love your designs.
Orla: That's a nice way to think about it. I think we're a creative brand, I feel like we're following a very personal style, it's working with what I love, it's got integrity, it's me, I'm not trying to be anything other than myself. I love graphic design so everything I do has that nod to graphic designers from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Shevaun: Some of your dress designs also put me in mind of Bette Davis. Was film an influence when you were growing up?
Orla: Absolutely. I grew up in Dublin, winters in Dublin in the 1970s, a Saturday afternoon watching a 1940s film...ah! Oh, I loved those films and going on to Audrey Hepburn and, then, into the 60s and, as I got older, French films. I loved film. I still do.
Shevaun: My granny's farm was near where you grew up, just beyond the little Church of Ireland there...
Orla: Oh, I know exactly where you are, yes, Rathmichael. We lived on Corbawn Lane, the road heading towards the sea, the other side of Shankill. My parents are still there. We lived on this little cul-de-sac with 1940s houses. We had such an amazing road, all the families had kids the same age, it was so safe, we had so much fun. We got up in the morning, we ran outside and we played out all day.
Shevaun: And, of course, you had the sea and the mountains nearby, part of the joy of living in County Dublin?
Orla: Absolutely. The sea was four minutes walking, Shankill Beach is right in the middle between Killiney and Bray.
Shevaun: Bray is very different to Killiney!
Orla: Very different! (Laughs)
Shevaun: If you wanted to scramble along the rocks with the wind blowing in your hair you'd go to Killiney.
Orla: Exactly. And if you wanted a few amusements and ice-creams, Bray. It was lovely, it was a great childhood.
Shevaun: The nostalgia built into that is fantastic and it comes out in your furnishings and homewares as well as in your print designs.
Orla: Well, I always say that Ireland – and I think it's true – is where I got my sense of colour. Summertimes, if the sun was threatening to come out, we'd all jump into the car and drive to Brittas Bay. Then, we'd end up there all hunched around a wind breaker with our cagoules on.
Shevaun: (Laughs.) And picnic?
Orla: Picnic in the wind! It was so lovely, that drive. And going for walks in Wicklow or up the hill at the back of Shankill. The colours of nature there, all the gorse and the greens, the mustard, the oranges and, then, the sky, the greys, the browns – that's my palette. Though, not always, I love clean, bright colours too, but often there's a chalkiness to them.
Shevaun: In addition to your distinctive use of colour, your patterns are immediately recognisable. How did your iconic stem pattern evolve?
Orla: It was really quick, that's the funny thing about it. I remember looking at leaves. It, literally, was doing it simply – simplifying – and that's what I love doing. It's the shape and form and the balance and form – it isn't as simple as it looks.
Shevaun: That's the genius of it.
Orla: Years ago somebody said to Dermott that somehow people felt that our stem, this little icon, makes people feel happy. I think I was always a designer rather than an artist. When I was a schoolgirl, I had this art teacher, Mother Peter – I started at my convent school at four and left at eighteen – she picked me out as a pupil that she thought was talented, I never really thought I was, but she was always encouraging me, that was an amazing thing. When I was about fourteen or fifteen, I won a few 'art' competitions. I loved knitting, crocheting and dressmaking too. Looking back, I must have been a bit of a quirky kid. I was always encouraged hugely by my parents, my father bought me a sewing machine when I was twelve.
Shevaun: Did you make clothes for yourself?
Orla: Oh, my goodness, in the 70s I was making outfits, I made pink corduroy jeans! I made my sister her Confirmation outfit – which in retrospect was terrible – with enjoying it so much, I thought I wanted to do fashion. Then, when I got to art college, I discovered graphic design and textile design, it was like, 'Oh, my God, I never knew half of this existed.' So I got into drawing in a much more designery way.
Shevaun: When you graduated did you leave Dublin to continue your studies or to get experience?
Orla: I left Dublin to get experience; there were very few opportunities for a textiles designer in Ireland. I had a year working in New York in a very practical design studio. I spent a lot of time mixing colours to absolute perfection. I learned how to build and make colours, how to affect the tones, how to make a colour chalky or clean or dirty, the subtleties of colour. So that was a really important time.
Shevaun: What brought you to London in 1984?
Orla: My best friend had moved to London and was working at Habitat. I was doing all these interviews and I was offered a job at Esprit as a full-time textile designer. They loved the graphic style that I had at the time. I was very lucky. Computers were just beginning. I was surrounded by the most amazing creative people. We're all still good friends. After nearly four years I thought, 'I don't want to be purely a textiles designer. I want to do the whole thing,' so I went to the Royal College of Art.
Shevaun: It sounds like you found your feet fairly quickly in London or did it take time?
Orla: I think because in the creative world it's different – by going to college and working here and being part of the fashion and textile community, I've always felt very settled here in a way. I see quite a bit of the Irish in London through the Embassy and various things like that, it's lovely. I love London. London's been very good to me.
Shevaun: I wonder if one of the subtle influences you brought from your Irish convent school education to your clothes designs here was the contemplative, the demure, the serene...
Orla: Oh, well, I'm thinking the same thing! Because, you know, there's a primness I love, I do love a high collar and a long sleeve, quite proper. But I think that can be very cool, if it's done correctly. I also loved anything French, that lovely, simple elegance when you think of Coco Chanel. And I loved the 60s, I loved that whole Mary Quant look. What inspired me was often – because you couldn't find it in vintage shops or markets then – all that 60s' wallpaper and drawer liners covered in pattern. I remember renting flats when I came here full of all this sticky-back plastic inside cupboards, layers of stuff. When we were trying to lift all the carpets up to have bare floorboards, I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, those are some amazing patterns.' That was hugely inspirational and then starting to look at British designers like Lucienne Day or discovering that whole modernist thing.
Shevaun: What about Heals, Eames, Jacobson and Eileen Gray's modernist period, were they influences?
Orla: I loved the idea of form and function.
Shevaun: Morris' beautiful and useful?
Orla: Yes and William Morris' Arts and Crafts and, then, you're right the Bloomsbury Group and the philosophies behind it all, investments that last.
Shevaun: Was that an Irish value, too, when you were growing up?
Orla: Yes! People didn't throw things out, unless they were really falling apart.
Shevaun: And then they'd use them for dusters or something.
Orla: (Laughs.) Yes, exactly! We had the same saucepans in our house forever and ever.
Shevaun: Were your mother and grandmother interested in fashion?
Orla: Oh yes, my grandmother had great style, she was sporty as well, she was always playing golf. She used to drive from Galway to Dublin to visit us in her Mini. She always wore trousers, it would have been the 60s and 70s. She wasn't like a granny, she was a cool granny. She was this amazing woman, she was a real doer, she used to make things, she was crafty. My mother was always, again, very stylish, slightly sporty, elegant. My mum still looks as cool as she did, there's something, a spirit, I guess, that keeps her young.
Shevaun: Your husband and business partner, Dermott Rowan, is Irish as well, how did you meet?
Orla: We met when I was seventeen or eighteen. We both went off and did our thing. Then we just met up in London, however many years later, and we still liked each other, so it was quite nice.
Shevaun: How Irish would you say your children feel?
Orla: Our oldest son has just done his degree in Politics and History up in Manchester and specialised in Modern Irish History, he was over at the De Valera Archive at UCD. He's very interested in his Irish roots, and our other son is arty.
Shevaun: And, I must ask about the last member of your family, your wonderful labradoodle, Olive, is she named after your favourite colour?
Orla: Funnily enough, she is, even though she's brown. I just thought, 'Olive', it's a cute name and she's got Olive-y eyes. And we've got Ivy, who's a very funny little dog.
Shevaun: So a wonderful family life, business and career in London, how do you see the future?
Orla: I do get nostalgic for Ireland – we go back as much as we can because my parents and my two sisters are still there. And because I stay in the house I grew up in it's going back into 'that world', which is restoring in a way. I think when we finally decide it's time to retire, I would love to move back to Dublin. So, in the end, as much as I enjoy London, I don't know that I'll get old here.