Orla Kiely: 'Losing my fashion brand felt like a bereavement'

Orla Kiely
Orla Kiely, known best for her retro-style prints Credit: Andrew Crowley

“What happened was like a bereavement. To say I was upset is an understatement. And then when malicious reports came out about the way we’d allegedly treated our staff, that was horrible and hurtful.”

This is the first interview Orla Kiely has given since her eponymous company went belly-up in 2018, and it is evident that feelings are still raw.

“We did everything we could to save the business we’d set up 23 years previously and to watch it fail was devastating,” she says. “It was such a tough time.”

When the news bulletins announced that Orla Kiely (pronounced, like the singer, Kylie) had gone bust overnight in September last year, the nation was stunned.

Unlike out-of-town behemoths such as Toys R Us and Maplin, which simply sold stuff we needed, Kiely’s was a quirky brand of pleasing, plant-based prints that we had taken into our hearts and our homes. Its collapse felt weirdly personal.

Then reports started filtering out that staff were abruptly – brutally – frogmarched off the premises, salaries unpaid.

I vividly remember having several conversations with girlfriends in which we felt shocked and saddened that Orla herself hadn’t done the honourable thing and dipped in to her own flower stripe-patterned purse to make sure her staff weren’t out of pocket. We had expected better.

Orla's eponymous label folded in 2018 Credit: Andrew Crowley/the Telegraph

Dublin-born Kiely looks absolutely stricken when I tell her this. “That is not what happened at all,” she cries. “It’s terrible that was the perception, but at the end, everything was taken out of our hands. Once you go into administration, you have no input. It is illegal even to pay your staff. I would have done so immediately if I could, but it was impossible.”

We are sitting at the expansive kitchen table of her south London townhouse, where a double-height glass wall overlooks the garden and the family dogs, poodle crosses Olive and Ivy, lounge in the sun.

The quirky house is done out in mid-century modern, and her distinctively-patterned homewares – a toaster covered in her familiar stem print, Orla Kiely mugs, teatowels – are clearly in use everywhere.

There are also pieces of really rather fun furniture from her new collection, which launches today (more of which later).

For now, we are discussing events leading up to the fateful day when she and her Irish husband, Dermott Rowan, who gave her two young adult sons, shut up shop for good.

Kiely, who was crowned “Queen of Prints” by the media, had always been the wellspring of creativity; Rowan was involved in the business side of the company. The parent company they founded in the early Nineties was called Kiely Rowan. 

“Going into our store in Covent Garden was like stepping into an entirely different world. I would often in to meet customers and talk about what they did and didn’t like,” says Kiely, a handsome, angular woman in her mid-fifties, with long, greying hair. She is wearing one of her own busily patterned dresses that now qualify as vintage – no more will be made – and a pair of glasses from her own branded spectacles range, due to go on sale in a few months.

“Interacting with the public was my favourite part of the business, and there was always a lovely sense of excitement when I appeared, so I would always put on some lippy and one of my dresses, make sure I looked the part.”

Kiely, who was awarded an OBE in 2011 and has received a clutch of fashion export awards and honorary degrees, began her career designing hats, and moved on to work on handbags and a variety of other items as diverse as watches, cars – even a double-decker bus.

She received a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in knitwear, but it was her bold use of retro-style print on laminated fabric handbags that sent her reputation stratospheric. It was to elevate her to a global brand.

The Duchess of Cambridge was a fan and wore many of her dresses in public, and her mother, Carole Middleton, was also spotted in Orla Kiely frocks. Sarah Jessica Parker, Kiera Knightley and Alexa Chung also lent the artfully muted fabrics a hipster cachet.

Last summer, London’s Fashion and Textile Museum hosted a career retrospective entitled Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern. With bitter irony, the business went bust four days before the show ended.

Duchess Of Cambridge in an Orla Keily creation Credit: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images Contributor

“Nobody was marched anywhere,” Kiely says with quiet vehemence. “That day was one of the worst in my life. Something my husband and I had built up from scratch, invested in emotionally and financially was destroyed. Our staff weren’t just employees, they were friends, and when we gathered everyone together, there were tears from all of us.”

In the months prior to that, Kiely and her husband had been keenly aware of problems, but they appeared no greater than the pressures being experienced by other high-street traders.

“Our expansion was quite an organic thing,“ says Rowan. “We liked the idea of bricks rather than clicks, so we had shops. But our online presence was too low key, not sophisticated enough.

“We’ve always been self-financing, and when the retail side started to slump, we were exposed to the same pressures as everyone else. But we couldn’t rely on online sales to get us through.”

Those pressures are well-documented: high rents and rates, a slump in the value of the pound and changing consumer habits. Shoppers are more price-savvy than ever: they wait for sales, and that impacts on cash flow.

The couple’s response was to pump more of their own money into the business to tide it over. Kiely also focussed on new designs, more designs. But the cracks in their business model could not be repaired.

In September last year, they they consulted administrators. The advice was to cease trading with immediate effect. As directors of the company, there was no other option but to enter into voluntary insolvency.

“Once that happens, things move very fast,” says Kiely. “I was in bits and utterly powerless. The process took over and our employees had to be paid through the statutory framework that exists for that sort of situation.”

She and her husband helped staff with job references and, for some, even found new positions with other companies .

Shockwaves were felt across the country when the shops and website were closed down. As if that weren’t bad enough, Kiely found herself subject to endless media critiques over where she had gone wrong and how she had spread herself too thinly – she had even put her designs on a Tesco ‘bag for life’… – and, in so doing, “cheapened” her brand. 

One commentator suggested it was “embarrassing” to turn up to a dinner party and discover your Orla Kiely outfit matched the hostess’s kettle. “Nobody’s frock ever matched a kettle, because our product ranges had different patterns,” she says with a smile. She also dismisses the inherent snobbery in the criticism her patterns were too ubiquitous.

“As far as the breadth of our offering was concerned, I think bringing pattern and colour into everyone’s lives is a good thing. We agreed to the Tesco bag only because 50p from each one went to charity. Any why not have a shopper that makes you smile?”

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Though her clothing line has been discontinued and the walk-in stores are no more, the Orla Kiely licensing business is expanding. This means that she designs and has creative control over anything from window blinds to suitcases, manufactured by a partner in the field of soft furnishings or luggage, and sold by them.

A new Kiely-designed furniture line that deftly mixes plain shades with her familiar pattern is being sold through interiors company Barker and Stonehouse; a dinky tomato-coloured sofa isn’t cheap at £1,115, although a plump linear stem cushion will only set you back £35.

But should good design be priced beyond the reach of the masses? Kiely thinks not.

“Everything we do is made with integrity and authenticity, and I hope that other people can feel it,” she says. “The colours and forms are those of my childhood in Ireland, where the gorse blazes yellow and there really are so many shades of green.”

It’s true that there is something spiritually uplifting about Kiely’s 150 or so nostalgia-infused patterns. “I’m designing more now that I was before,” she says. “The creative process still brings me joy.”

The obituaries for Orla Kiely the brand, it seems, were wide of the mark. Down, perhaps, but not out; the renaissance of stems and ferns and flowers has already taken root.

• See the Orla Kiely furniture range at barkerandstonehouse.co.uk/ orlakiely