It takes several emails and as many missed calls before I get to chat with Irish designer Orla Kiely about her retrospective, Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern, which opens at the London Fashion and Textile Museum on May 25. This is not the erratic or inconsiderate behaviour of a fashion diva, however, but the pressures of managing what is, after 20 years, a global fashion and lifestyle empire. When we finally do make contact, Kiely, who speaks in soft, lucid London tones that reveal little of her Dublin, Galway and Tipperary heritage, is generous with her time and appreciative of our interest.
Yes, we’re interested. Who among us doesn’t love to revel in an Irish success story? But more than that, which one of us hasn’t bought an Orla Kiely item at one time or another? I remember vividly buying a Stem wallet for my sister’s birthday in the early noughties. It was the first “designer” item I could afford (I’m pretty sure it cost £99 Irish pounds back then), and I felt terribly grown up walking along Grafton Street with my Brown Thomas shopping bag. Almost 20 years later, Kiely’s bags and wallets accessorise the arms of women on high streets all over the world, and no more so than in the suburbs of this city in which she was born.
Kiely has enjoyed enormous support from her home country over the past two decades, and she reveals that one of her ambitions is to eventually take this exhibition to Dublin (it’s already scheduled for Edinburgh). “So much of the inspiration behind my work has come from Ireland,” she says. “ The colours of the Irish landscape are my colours.” Indeed, the designer’s palette is firmly anchored in the earthy and forlorn shades of our muddy mountain ranges and shingly shore lines. Her fixation with pattern also dates back to her childhood in Ireland. “I loved the floral wallpaper in my childhood bedroom. I was fascinated by the repeat pattern. I loved the rhythm of it,” she reveals.
This London exhibition has given the designer a rare opportunity to look back at what she has built. “I have a low boredom threshold, so I have always pushed for newness and looked forward. I’ve always been open to fresh ideas,” explains the 55-year-old mother-of-two, who describes spending the past year working on a retrospective as an “overwhelming but lovely” process. “I have never looked back since I founded the label in 1997. I had no idea what designs we had held onto, but rummaging through stock in the warehouse brought back so many memories,” she says with fondness.
There was a lot more present than Kiely had anticipated, although there were several designs missing too. But in a serendipitous turn of events, the designer recently received a call from a gentleman who wanted to donate his late wife’s collection of 150 Orla Kiely bags to a charity of Kiely’s choice. Perhaps some of those missing designs exist in this private collection, I suggest. Wouldn’t it be lovely for such a fan of the brand to have some of her beloved bags featured in such a prestigious exhibition?
One design that is certain to take pride of place in the four-month retrospective is Stem – Kiely’s own favourite print from her archive. It adorns everything from tote bags to teacups and is the brand’s signature print, recognised worldwide. “The Stem print is so versatile, and there’s always newness in it,” explains Kiely. “It’s easy to love the latest thing, but the Stem has been very good to us.”
Kiely's famous Stem print.
There will be more than 100 objects and over 30 head-to-toe ensembles on show from May through September. Kiely describes it as “a riot of colour and pattern”, while curator Dennis Nothdruft says that Kiely’s “pattern designs... transcend time and place. eir place in the pantheon of great designs is assured.” When I speak to Kiely, it’s about six weeks before the exhibition is due to open. She says the pressure she’s felt over the past ten months to make the exhibition great, to ensure that everything shown is worthy of its place has eased. “Looking at the work we’ve done over the past year, I’m less worried,” she says. How endearing that someone so successful can still fear failure. Kiely may have lost her Irish lilt, but not her Irish sensibility.
Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern runs at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London, May 25 to September 23, ftmlondon.org.