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Designer Orla Kiely shares the secrets behind her iconic work

As she celebrates two decades of design, Orla Kiely, who has dressed everyone from Scarlett Johansson to the the Duchess of Cambridge, tells Bairbre Power the secrets behind her iconic work.

Orla Kiely’s husband Dermott Rowan is beaming with excitement as he escorts me around the exhibition dedicated to his wife’s work of the last two decades. A Life in Print has been the fastest-selling exhibition in terms of advance tickets that the Fashion and Textile Museum in south London has ever held.

Dermott shares the good news as we walk through the exhibition, located across two floors and covering all aspects of her creative output, from fashion and lifestyle to use of colour and detail and the geometry of pattern. It draws on an archive of over 20 years of work, with insights into her methods and concepts. For a very private couple who don’t play the publicity or social media card, there’s endearing photos of Orla and Dermott together — black and white photobooth photos of the young couple before they married in 1993, and posing with their two young sons, Robert and Hamish. Now grown up, Robert is studying for an MA and Hamish is studying to be an artist.

I can say with absolute certainty that committed Orla Kiely fans will be beyond themselves with delight because of the sheer breadth of the Orla Kiely landscape on view, chronicling how she moved from a simple stem pattern to earning herself the title ‘Queen of Print’, and dressing everyone from Kate Middleton to Alexa Chung, Kiera Knightley, Emma Thompson and Scarlett Johansson, along the way.

Those new to Orla’s work can’t fail to be impressed and captivated by how she has worked her print magic, taking and developing simple, often humorous prints with flowers, animals, even shoes, and seducing clients with her zeal for unusual handbags.

“I sometimes think that my brain works in repeat,” explains Orla, when I catch up with her on the gallery where 120 of her handbags hang side by side. “I love the order and regiment of repetition, and how anything and everything can be patterned in this way, as if you are looking at the world through a prism or kaleidoscope.”

Soft spoken and not one to grab the limelight — Orla who was educated by the Loreto nuns in Bray — speaks in hushed tones. It’s press day and everyone wants to grab her for a quote, a selfie or both. Observing her in action in comfy, low, gold sandals, a dress from her resort collection last year and a cute cross-body box bag, the 55-year-old is far more relaxed than I remember on those stressful show days during London Fashion Week when crowds came to be wowed by her creative moving installations and she had so many balls in the air.

This exhibition has been in the planning for some time and what they didn’t have in their archives they were able to find on eBay. It’s been quite the adventure.

I’m fortunate, indeed, to have Orla at my side as she guides me through the wall of handbags, a full homage to her creativity.

In the first row, she points out: “There’s the one I called the loose cover bag which I designed so you could peel off the cover and there was a spare one inside.”

Then there was the Mongolian one and the blue stem leaf from her golfing installation which was inspired from those days when she accompanied her mum golfing in Bray.

Some have the original logo with Orla Kiely spelt out in childlike writing, and while the logo has changed and the colours and prints too, there is no denying that these bags are all sisters.

By the time we get to the middle of the wall, Orla is laughing and pointing to the red shopper. “That was from the really early days. I remember one day, I was walking back to my flat. It was a quiet residential area and this girl was walking in the other direction. When we passed I said, ‘That’s my bag’ and she said, ‘No, it’s not, it’s my bag’.”

In those early days when Dermott was the one who packed the boxes on the landing of their London flat, Orla was setting up her own brand while still designing during the day for brands like Esprit and M&S.

There is no overestimating what this Dublin couple have achieved over the last 20 years in fashion and business terms. Dermott is the money man, the financial adviser and Orla’s rock. Remarkably, they still own the global brand 100%, and count on fans all over the world.

The gamble paid off and as I look around the gallery, I can’t help but smile when I think of the advice that her accountant dad gave her when he pointed out how every woman carries a bag but not everyone wears a hat, which she was specialising in at that time. A salutary piece of advice for this graduate of the National College of Art and Design who, in 2011, was given an honorary OBE for her services to the fashion industry.

Orla and Dermott were married in 1993 and the couple have lived every stage of this together. “This is Orla’s hat that appeared in Sex and The City, and that was huge,” explains the proud hubby, with emphasis on the last word. When the Charlotte York character wore the print hat, America’s curiosity about the Dublin-born designer instantly took off.

Moving to a showcase that includes the book Fifty Bags That Changed The World, Dermott is quick to point out that: “Orla got the cover — and the one thing that I’m most proud of was the Irish stamp that Orla got with her bag on it (2010). For your country to give you a stamp is a huge honour and normally you have to be dead, but the Post Office changed that rule when the Pope came. Having a stamp with Paul (Costelloe), John (Rocha), Orla and Philip (Treacy) was great and I thought, ‘What a group’.”

The new London exhibition was curated by Dennis Nothdruft from the museum and renowned textile historian Mary Schoeser. Presented thematically in a series of connecting rooms, exhibits include an impressive phalanx of 30 mannequins dressed in Orla’s clothes and shoes.

Downstairs from the mezzanine gallery is a stunning room with giant reproductions of Orla’s dresses and coats which hang from the ceiling, with miniature dolls in the same outfits in tiny showcases which give a sense of scale. There’s a look at her desk and what she surrounds herself with.

The Little Bird dress, which caused meltdown on Orla’s website after Kate Middleton wore it, is here in a different colour. One of the most poignant elements for me are the four display cases dedicated to the late Katherine Kjellgren from New York.

After she died this year, her husband contacted the company about his wife’s bags. Would they like them? When Orla’s staff went to pick it up, she had collected more than 200 handbags, hats, purses, mugs, eyeglass cases, bath towels and teapots. Best of all, she had met Orla in her shop.

The world is full, it seems, of dedicated Orla Kiely collectors and the good news I can share is that Orla is dipping her toe into a new market. But what is there left for her to do, given that she has designed everything from clothes and accessories to a car (Citroen), household goods and wallpaper which you often spot on the sets of TV shows like Corrie and The Big Bang Theory? Well, I’m glad to reveal that the next step will be into optical glasses and drinking glasses. Surprising, really, that she has not gone there before because with so many designer collaborations, that’s the starting point. 

However, for all her success, Orla still cherishes trips home and tells me how much she looks forward to coming back to Ireland a few times a year. It usually involves, she adds,  a walk on the beach to Killiney or Dalkey and then “a stop off in Finnegan’s for a glass of Guinness”.

A Life in Pattern runs at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London, until September 23. See ftmlondon.org

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