Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern

Orla – Kiely: A life in pattern

On Monday 17th September, Orla Kiely ceased trading. Meaning that online business and retail stores in both London and Kildare closed. After seeing this news, I wanted to celebrate the designers fantastic work and patterns from over the years by visiting the Fashion and Textile museum’s exhibition dedicated to her life’s work.
Orla grew up in Ireland in the late 1960’s/ early 1970’s. She received her M.A from the Royal College of Art in 1992 and built a brand that captured the spirit of a world that yearned for certainty in tumultuous times. Her patterns were inspired by the upbeat designs of the 60’s and 70’s and the optimistic days of economic recovery, youthful discovery and innocent certainty.

Orla often recalled her vivid memories of her family kitchen with its olive-green Formica cupboards and worktops, entire walls with coordinating green and white patterned tiles, and a striking orange gloss ceiling and her Irish environment has informed her creative work since she was a student of textile design in Dublin.
Beginning with wool felted hats commissioned by Harrods and soon expanding into handbag designs. In 1995 Orla presented accessories at London Fashion Week and had her first buyers from Japan. Whilst working at her kitchen table, freelancing for Marks & Spencer and designers at Debenhams, by 1998 her range had developed to include clothing and was being shipped to Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York and Dublin.
By walking through the exhibition, you follow the steps that Orla has taken from design, through to promotion and prints. Including giant dresses down to miniature dolls, her collection showcases over 150 patterns across all products from T-shirts to teapots.


‘At the heart of everything I design is pattern’

Overseeing every single detail within the design process. Orla Kiely is meticulous, motivated and passionate. Prior to production, every aspect matters to her from the first phase of designing to making, mixing colours, creating art work and sampling.
Each design is developed carefully by drawing and refining the essential organic elements that are the foundations of her instinctively satisfying repeating patterns. Nature – rendered more abstract and graphic – is always a core source of pattern ideas.
Unlike many textile companies. Orla rarely bought in designs. Instead pieces were created in the London studio where she and her team collaborated in response to ideas and concepts for the season. Only when Orla herself was happy with the pattern did it then move onto the production process.


‘I believe in hard work’

Only after the concept was been approved did selected manufacturers get instructed to produce first prototypes or samples – and the arrival of these in the studio was always seen as ‘the moment of truth’. Looking to see whether the design on the product matched that of the design on the paper.


‘I believe in a clear vision’

Orla Kiely products were sold in over 33 countries. Her clothing, handbags, accessories and homewares have been featured in films, TV shows and even a novel, ‘Girl on a train’. Covered in magazines and newspapers, she appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Sunday time and Grazia magazine.

The Print Library

‘Pattern is not a trend for me, to be taken up one minute and abandoned the next when the winds of fashion change. Pattern is in me. It is my life’

Over the years since early 1990’s Orla built up a library of patterns. Colour and texture were key components in the graphic approach that sees motifs pared back to seemingly simple but constructed forms and assembled into systematic and orderly arrangements. The library consists of over 500 artworks that range from novel interpretations of animal forms to iterations of flowers and plants such as the famous ‘stem’ ‘flower oval’ and shadow flower’ patterns.

The Stem Pattern

‘Stem has been good to us. It has been the land on which the house was built’

The now iconic stem pattern started as a quick sketch whilst brainstorming ideas. Since its production in 2000, it has been reinvented every season through changes in colour, scale, texture and many other graphic devices. Used on a myriad of products, it was even used on a London transport bus. Few patterns become so well now, however Orla achieved what most designers dream off, to become recognized by a simple pattern and design work.

The Giant Dresses

‘My love of fashion was evident from an early age… fashion would become my window to the world, a way to voice my personal language and communicate my ideas’

Created especially for the exhibition, are 9 giant dresses based on previous ready-to-wear collections in iconic prints. Each Is accompanied by a miniature doll created by artist Sarah Strachan and dressed in especially miniaturised iconic prints.


‘I knew our silhouette should be clean and simple to give the garment the graphic quality and colour of our print, space to be’

Launching her ready-to-wear line in 2003. Orla Kiely produced four collections a year. Each collection contained signature pieces: coats, dresses and knitwear linked through colour and print. Campaigns for the collections were documented by leading photographers such as Venetia Scott, Yelena Yemchuk, Ben Toms and Vivien Sassan. In these the visions of the collection becomes complete. The Orla Kiely look has been described as appealing to confident and stylish women. Among her famous clientele has been Alexa Chung, Kiera Knightley, Kirsten Dunst, Zooey Deschanel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Emma Thompson and Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.


‘I love the fact that a handbag can transform a look’

Mid 1990’s when Orla showcased hats at London Fashion Week, her father noticed that very few women wore them, but all carried a bag. Which started the key offering, made originally of wool, cottons and mesh, she then started making them in leather and bright colours.  The Orla Kiely archive of bags consists of bags showcasing two principal characteristics. The ‘Stem’ range is generally produced in classic shapes and in shoulder and cross body versions. The main line has always been reflective of the designer’s latest concept, exploring different techniques and applied with finishes in prints and embroidery.

If you would like to visit the Orla Kiely exhibition: A Life in Pattern, is on until 23rdSeptember at the Fashion & Textile Museum, London. For more information and tickets, please visit:
Fashion and Textile Museum: Orla-Kiely-life-in-pattern