The Prolific Output of Orla Kiely

In her three-decade-long career, textile designer Orla Kiely has emblazoned her signature mod-floral prints on handbags, ready-to-wear clothing, stationery, home furnishings and even a double-decker bus. Her prolific output has been matched with impressive honors: Kiely has been featured on a postage stamp in her native Ireland and received a 2011 OBE for services to fashion and business from the Queen of England.

Based in London, Kiely, 53, has just opened an American flagship on Bleecker Street in Manhattan’s West Village, and she frequently dresses celebrities, including Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; Alexa Chung; and Lena Dunham. The exuberant designer talked to us about her Irish upbringing; her love of London; and the inspiration she finds in photography books, Portuguese tiles and walking her two dogs, a Labradoodle and a Westiepoo.

Ireland honored Kiely with a stamp.

You’re Irish but live in London. What, if anything, would you say is very Irish about you?

Growing up in Ireland in the ’70s had a great influence on my creative vision, particularly my 1950s modernist home and my mother’s great style. The area we lived in Dublin was just two minutes from the beach but also close to the greenest fields, and the mountains were not far either. All this natural beauty influenced my taste for color, which you still find today in all our prints: my love for green, from moss to seaweed, the grays and browns of those rainy Irish skies, the mustards of the wildflowers found on the roadside.

Her fun with frippery extends to the simplest white frock (Paisley Cotton Christabel Frill Dress).

Your father gave you a Singer sewing machine. What was the significance of that gift?

My love of fashion was evident from an early age. When I was 12 years old, I was given a sewing machine and became dedicated to making clothes. Selecting fabrics and prints was a pleasure. My two sisters were great and wore the clothes I made them.

Her training a the Royal College of Art comes through in these chic satchels, from left: Colour Block Croc Leather Square Bonnie Bag in Multi; Sixties Stem Punched Leather Iris Bag in Dusky Pink

Is it true that your father suggested you change from making hats to making handbags?

What started as my M.A. graduate collection from the Royal College of Art, featuring hats made from hand-felted wool, led to my first retail order from Harrods. I had been making hats and bags and showing them at London Fashion Week when my father commented that everyone was carrying a bag and not wearing a hat. He was right, of course, and the following season we focused on bags and designed our first in printed laminated cotton. This range is still part of our handbag collection today and still very much loved by women everywhere.

Giant Abacus Cushion

Which other designers make prints that you love, and what do you love about them?

Marimekko is a very special design company from Finland and have consistently made beautiful products for the last 60 years.

What are your favorite places to shop?

Broadway Market has great food and atmosphere. It’s a Saturday morning treat, followed by a walk through London Fields with my dogs, Olive and Ivy. Claire de Rouen Books is a specialist photog­raphy bookstore with excellent, well-researched selections. Liberty is London at its best and has kept its mission of always finding the new and special. I usually start from the top floor; its beautiful atrium inspires me.

Kiely's throw pillows (Single Big Spot Shadow Flower Cushions in Nutmeg, Grass and Lemon in front of Big Spot Shadow Flower Cushions in the same colorways) bring a dose of sunshine to any sofa.

You’ve designed everything from handbags to automobiles. Is there anything you haven’t yet designed but would like to?

I have been very fortunate to work with some great partners and create beautiful products. As for the next dream project? A hotel or plane interior would be amazing.

What is the key to creating a beautiful home?

I love the idea that you build on your personal style; this cannot be bought in one season but rather is acquired over time. Finding a little bowl here or a painting on a trip to Copenhagen—it’s these found pieces that come to represent one’s style and build a home.

Stem Jacquard Duck Egg Towel Collection

Please describe your own home. My home has a very midcentury aesthetic. I’ve combined vintage furniture found in fairs and second­hand furniture stores with our own products. Our living room features wallpaper prints, cushions and a special mohair blanket. In the kitchen, our tableware adds something special at dinner times, and our towels in the bathrooms add that extra color and pattern to everyday life.

I noticed the beautiful tiles you designed for your new Manhattan flagship. Are you considering manufacturing them for retail sale?

We created the floral tiles especially for our new Bleecker Street store in the West Village. But since then, we have used them again in a private apartment’s interior design. You never know—we may offer them at retail another time.

Kiely's love of nature and texture informs her tabletop designs.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Nature is a great source of pattern ideas. My personal take on nature has always been more abstract and graphic. I absorb inspiration in my travels and on weekends when walking my dogs or visiting galleries and museums in London. On a recent trip to Porto, Portugal, I was blown away by the beauty, color and patterns of the tile prints on buildings all over the city. The trip is already inspiring a new collection.

When did you know you wanted to work in textiles?

Since I was a young child, I was always curious about prints and colors, which led to me studying printed textiles at the National College of Art in Dublin. After graduating, I had some great early career opportunities, where I was able to design for different companies like Esprit. Coming from Ireland, we had to be brave and knew that the best companies were in New York or London. This led me to my first job as print designer in New York. From that start, it was a continual learning process, whether it was how to best mix colors, problem solving or developing my own design aesthetic. These experiences are crucial in building the foundation for a life in design. One thing I did discover in the process was that I enjoyed working on my own work best. And it is only with time you gain confidence to trust your instincts, which still guide me today. 

Colour Block Croc Leather Square Poppy Bag in Navy

How would you describe your personal style?

My personal style has always been a little ’60s modern classic. You will always see this reflected in my designs—a love of color and print, beautiful fabrics, the perfect little cardigan. I love to layer my pieces and to end the outfit with some red lipstick and a dash of Hermès perfume.

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Categories: Stylemakers