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The world of Orla Kiely

Orla Kiely spring 16

The winner of the Premium Brand of the Year award at last month’s Drapers Awards welcomes us into her colourful and patterned world

“Colour and pattern – they’re the two cornerstones of what we do,” says Orla Kiely of her eponymous brand. And this unwavering focus on her signature quirky style has enabled the 53-year-old designer to build her name from small handbag collection into a flourishing business with global reach, resulting most recently in her prim, retro-tinged collections being awarded the Premium Brand of the Year prize at last month’s 25th anniversary Drapers Awards.

“Wherever I go and people see my name they know who I am, so I feel like we’ve kind of established ourselves in a certain way,” she says.

Nowadays Kiely produces four clothing collections a year, as well as a broad handbag and accessories offer, alongside beauty and homeware ranges, covering everything from dresses, bags and watches to stationery, cushions and candles. The brand estimates that fashion accounts for about 35% of the business. Everything is sold through wholesale stockists around the world – although she declines to reveal how many – as well as through her own website and two standalone stores in London, one in New York and one in Tokyo, which opened this year as part of a Japanese roll-out that with a target of 13 retail spaces open across the country by February 2016.

When I started doing bags, almost by accident, I loved it. It was really very rewarding

Kiely presents her collections on schedule at London Fashion Week alongside luxury fashion houses and has collaborated with a host of somewhat random names that includes Japanese retailer Uniqlo and American chain Target through to car manufacturer Citroën and waste bin brand Brabantia. Sometimes referred to as the “queen of prints”, her designs have been worn by some of fashion’s favourite faces, such as model and TV presenter Alexa Chung and actress Keira Knightly, as well as the future queen of England the Duchess of Cambridge.

The Queen awarded Kiely an OBE for her services to the fashion industry in 2011.

“To get an OBE was quite nice,” says Kiely rather casually in her soft Irish lilt. “It was lovely.”

Pattern of profit

Kiely refuses to discuss financials, but Companies House filings show turnover topped £8m for the year to March 31 2015 and an 1.3% increase in gross profit to £3.6m.

“I feel like we weren’t an overnight success,” she says when asked about her brand’s steady growth. “We’ve just worked really hard, stuck to our guns and stayed on brand.”

We meet the unassuming Kiely in her three-storey head office just off south London’s Clapham High Street, minutes from the home she shares with her husband, Dermott Rowan – who is also the brand’s CEO and co-founder – their two sons, Robert and Hamish, and pet dog, Olive. Although dressed plainly in head to toe in black and grey, her thick rimmed glasses nestling in her dark, grey flecked hair, Kiely’s office is everything you would expect from her colourfully patterned brand.

Orla Kiely

Orla Kiely

Orla Kiely

And judging by this space, where she is surrounded by her own-brand furniture and interior accessories, its walls covered with her most famous pattern, the simple stem motif, it is safe to say Kiely really has stuck to her guns and remained resolutely on brand, building an individual identity from which she never wavers.

“We have a strong following and the people who like us, really like us,” says Kiely. And nearly 20 years since launching she is still the creative force behind the brand and is attracting more fans as time goes on.

“I just love that it’s a totally creative job. I love that I’m able to design things that I like – I mean how nice,” she says with a smile, adding: “I never design anything thinking, ‘this is going to be a winner’. I just do what I like. It’s good when you’re [making] things that you love, or would wear. I want to like it. I want to love it.”

Business secrets

Although open about her love of the creative process, Kiely is tightlipped about the business aspects of the brand and defers to Rowan.

“He’s the one on the business side,” she says. ”I think that’s the reason it’s worked successfully because we have our clear responsibilities. I’m a creative director and he is business.

“I’m aware and involved in the business, we are a team, but I love that I can just leave that responsibility to him. I’m much happier when I’m being creative.”

Kiely’s signature style began life while studying textile design at the National College of Art and Design in her home town of Dublin, followed by a stint designing wallpaper in New York and working for fashion brand Esprit in London. She completed a masters degree in knitwear at the Royal College of Art in London 1992. Her final collection was accessorised with a small range of hats, piquing the interest of a buyer from department store Harrods, who bought them there and then.

Orla Kiely spring 16

Orla Kiely spring 16

Orla Kiely spring 16

Shortly afterwards, during Kiely’s first exhibition of her hats at London Fashion Week, the designer’s father commented how none of the visitors were wearing a hat, although they all carried handbags. In a pivotal moment, Kiely ditched millinery and switched to bags.

“When I started doing bags, almost by accident, I loved it. It was really very rewarding,” she says. In 1997, she officially launched the Orla Kiely brand, adding a small line of knitwear, which eventually evolved into the ready-to-wear ranges she now creates. “If we did a nice print for a bag we would then put it into ready-to-wear too and it all started slowly. But it’s a full collection now, four collections a year. We introduced pre-collections because of demand, basically. People were asking for it,” she says.

As time goes on, that demand is seeing the brand expand in other ways. Wholesale accounts for 20% of the business and the brand appointed external sales agency Four Marketing to oversee sales from spring 16. 

“We feel we have a great opportunity to develop Orla Kiely in the UK and rest of Europe. Our plan is to create more brand awareness of the ready-to-wear collection, which is exceptionally creative, fun and wearable,” says Four Marketing’s women’s divisional manager Kerry Neill.

The brand’s accessories are particularly successful for department store stockist John Lewis, reports its handbags and small leather goods buyer Livia Evans: “Our customers love the retro patterns and the high-quality details from the brand.”

Independents are also a key part of the business.

“Orla Kiely is simply iconic,” says Shannon Haswell, assistant buyer at The Pod Company, which has stores in Bristol, Cheltenham and Oxford. “Instantly recognisable, ever stylish and a firm favourite with customer who like the modern twist on retro patterns, simple stylish designs and iconic status of the stem print.” The brand stays fresh by “introducing new prints, mixing up colour combinations and having a constant flurry of new products which play on key trends”, according to Haswell.

“We’ve stocked Orla Kiely for 10 years and have built up a lovely local following,” says Susie Pegler of The Block Fashion in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. “People want good-quality, well-made items that don’t scream at you. Orla does brilliant seasonal colours that make our shop look lovely too, be it summer or winter. And they manage to keep it moving with lots of newness, which is necessary for a small boutique like us.”

Fresh flavours

That newness comes in the form of fresh colour combinations and constantly changing patterns that are adapted and modified each season, alongside new product lines and expanded categories. Watches were added this year, and L’Orla, a clothing collaboration with high-profile fashion and celebrity stylist Leith Clark, was launched for autumn 15 with a range of pretty 1970s-inspired dresses and outerwear.

Kiely’s presence on the London Fashion Week official schedule has also developed, with her quirky presentations growing in size each season. For spring 16 a mini-golf course replaced the typical catwalk, om which models putted balls, while for autumn 15 she erected a temporary library for buyers to peruse, staffed my Orla Kiely librarians.

“I think [our London Fashion Week presentations] have made a difference – it’s boosted awareness,” says Kiely. ”It’s gaining momentum, especially with all the social media surrounding it. I think customers are much more in tune with all that now. We’re in an interesting phase when I think brand awareness is getting bigger and people seem to know more about us, thanks in part to fashion week. It’s all growing and growing steadily, which after 20 years is good.”

The brand’s international growth plans are taking on a faster pace, although it was initially patient before making its big international move. It opened its first Japanese store in Tokyo in August, joining its other standalone stores in London, on Monmouth Street and King’s Road, and on New York’s Mercer Street. Although they would not be drawn on details of this expansion, Rowan did say: “We’re very excited to have recently opened in Tokyo. This is part of the roll-out plan progressing with 13 retail spaces by February 2016. The expansion plan includes up to 23 spaces in 18 months, in the major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Yokohama, Hokaido, popular shopping centres like Shijoku and Ginza, and major departmental stores like Isetan, Mitsukoshi, Sogo and Hankyu across Japan.”

Orla Kiely Monmouth Street store

Orla Kiely Monmouth Street store

Orla Kiely Monmouth Street store

Kiely’s real skill is that while she has created such a strong and identifiable brand – think colourful retro dresses and quirky prints and the label comes to mind – she is always evolving and managing her expansion in a measured way.

For example, while there have been numerous collaborations that have seen her signature patterns appear across a range of products, they’ve always been beneficial to the growth of her brand.

“It’s interesting because we’re approached with a lot projects and we don’t do all of them. I want to work with people that I like and I feel understand us,” she says. Take her tie-up with Uniqlo, the retailer that has also worked with designer brands Jil Sander and Christophe Lemaire. This three-season collaboration spread the Orla Kiely name on global scale through Uniqlo’s 852 stores in Japan and 663 internationally. Or the sold-out Clarks footwear collection for autumn 15 that allowed Kiely to make her first full foray into footwear via a well-respected and on-brand partnership.

But after 20 years, how does she manage to keep things fresh while retaining that individual style?

“I think boredom. My boredom threshold is very low,” she says frankly. “When you do something that a lot of people love you tend to think ‘Gosh we should just do that again’. But it’s funny because a few months later when you think about past successes, it’s actually boring. In the end I’m me and I probably do have my own handwriting and style, but I hope that it always has freshness and newness.”

Having found the balance between remaining on brand while injecting that freshness, sticking to her guns while being open to careful and considered expansion, the future looks bright, colourful and typically patterned for Orla Kiely.

“We really do not rest on our laurels,” she says proudly. “I hope and believe if you continue to design with integrity, then it will continue to grow.”

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