With stores in London, New York and Tokyo, Dublin-born designer Orla Kiely is one of Ireland’s most conspicuous creative expats. Now 21 years old, her eponymous clothing, accessories and homewares brand continues to go from strength to strength, covering everything from postage stamps to buses. Here, we take a look at how the woman regularly described as ‘the queen of prints’ got her throne.
Graduating in textile design from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Orla spent time as a fabric and wallpaper designer in New York before moving to London in the early 1990s to work for the Espirit fashion brand while studying for an MA in Knitwear at the Royal College of Art.
Although her parents weren’t creatives, she managed to draw inspiration for her work from them. The line of hats she showed at her RCA graduate show were purchased by Harrods, but when her accountant father pointed out, while visiting her at London Fashion Week, that ‘everyone was carrying a handbag, but no one was wearing a hat’, Orla decided to start designing handbags instead. Earlier this year, she based pieces in her debut jewellery collection on brooches her mother used to have when she was a child. Her husband, Dermott – incidentally another accountant – also had a strong impact on her. It was he who persuaded her to start her own label, and the pair now head The Orla Kiely Partnership together.
Orla continued to work for well-known brands like Habitat and Marks & Spencer before establishing her own brand in 1995, aged 32. For some years she kept consulting and worked on her own designs on weekends, but when she pioneered the concept of using laminated fabrics for handbags, her label took off. In 2000, she created her iconic ‘rowan tree stem and leaves’ pattern. The design has since become one of the most widely recognised prints in the world, and Orla Kiely is one of the most successful and prolific designers to ever come out of Ireland. As well as clothes and handbags, her famous motifs now feature on stationery, homewares, wallpaper, garden items, watches and even a range of Citroën cars.
As well as working with car manufacturers, Orla has designed an eco-friendly water bottle with Brita and collaborated with other companies like Uniqlo, Target, Clarks, Method, Boots, and countless more. In 2010, her work featured on a limited-edition fashion postage stamp in Ireland, alongside contemporaries including John Rocha, Paul Costelloe and Louise Kennedy. In November, she will launch her second Resort collection of ready-to-wear clothing under the L’Orla tag, a collaboration with stylist Leith Clarke.