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Following a pattern: Orla Kiely’s life work goes on show

Designer Orla Kiely’s Stem pattern may be one of the most recognised motifs of 21st-century fashion, but a new exhibition opening this week is set to shed light on the unsung elements of the designer’s archive. A Life in Pattern, opening in London on Saturday at the Fashion and Textiles Museum, is the first exhibition dedicated to the Dublin-born designer, whose breakthrough came in the mid 90s with her iconic laminated bags that featured a simplified plant print in bright and bold colours.

Dublin-born designer Orla Kiely

“I hope that visitors will take away a sense that our type of print is much, much bigger than Stem and that the body of work is more than they ever imagined,” says Kiely, who has had a close hand in the curation of the exhibition. Cue hand-drawn blooms, abstract animal designs, playful plant shapes and geometric forms.

Over the past 23 years, Kiely’s eponymous label has, of course, evolved into more than a bag and fashion brand. In fact, it is as recognised – if not more so – now for its interior design and homewares, all of which is celebrated in the retrospective. Homeware currently accounts for about half of the brand’s sales, with the iconic enamel plant pot recently going though the one million sales mark.

Kiely’s iconic stem pattern. Photograph: Copyright of Orla Kiely

Kiely worked with the textile historian Mary Schoeser and the museum’s head of exhibitions, Dennis Nothdruft, to play with scale in order to maximise the impact of her plant-based patterns. As such, giant oversized mannequins wearing bespoke dresses will be displayed beside their miniature counterparts and there will be “an immersive installation” where visitors will “be absorbed in the kaleidoscopic colours and rhythms” of Kiely’s design world. Her mood boards, methods and processes will also be explored in detail.

Kiely’s homewares collection

“Every part of [the exhibition] has something I love and it’s amazing to see the archive of print we have built up,” says 53-year-old Kiely, who lives in south London with her husband, Dermott, and their two sons, Robert, 23, and Hamish, 21. “When we first started looking and trying to dig out the archive, we didn’t really know what we had. It was lovely, and also emotional, digging out boxes full of products and things I haven’t seen for 15 to 20 years. My children were born at the very beginning and every time I look at something I feel like I can see markers in my life.”

A shot from the Orla Kiely spring summer 2015 Lookbook

The exhibition’s timing is apt, given the frequency at which the lifestyle and fashion industries increasingly collide. Now, it’s common place for a fashion designer to have a collaboration with an artist on the side, or a cushion to be sold alongside a coat, yet Kiely was one of the first to spread her net. Her early influences of Mary Quant, Biba and Betty Jackson growing up in Ireland and the inspiration she has mined from Danish design, cinema and photography since, have translated as effortlessly to what you’ll find in your wardrobe as they have the kitchen cupboard since day one.

Kiely attributes this to finding the right balance between consistency (“We don’t really follow trends, we do what we like and what we feel is nice for the season, so we’re on our own journey”) and reinvention – the latter of which is most keenly felt on the fashion front.

Kiely is about to release her fourth fashion collaboration with the stylist Leith Clarke, L’Orla, which has seen a new generation of fans flock to the brand, led by style influencers such as Alexa Chung, Keira Knightley and the Duchess of Cambridge.

An Orla Kiely dress design

“We are always looking to inspire ourselves; we don’t rest and think, ‘Oh, that was incredible last season, let’s just do another version of that’. We’re constantly building, recreating and working with people who are really inspirational,” says Kiely.

“Somehow, our prints have an uplifting effect,” she says, “and make people smile.”

Orla Kiely: A Life In Pattern is on at The Fashion and Textile Museum from Saturday 25 May to 23 September 2018.

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