‘Growing up in Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s was intrinsic to my creative DNA.’
Orla Kiely recalls memories of her family kitchen vividly: with its olive-green Formica cupboards and worktops, entire walls covered with coordinating green and white patterned tiles, and a striking orange gloss ceiling.
Her Irish environment informed her creative work from the time she was a student of textile design in Dublin, from 1980-84. During this time she met her husband-to-be, Dermott Rowan, with whom she became partners in both life and business in 1994.
Beginning with woollen felted hats commissioned by Harrods, Kiely soon expanded into handbag design, and in 1995 she presented accessories at London Fashion Week. Buyers from Japan placed the first orders.
Working at her kitchen table while designing freelance for Marks & Spencer and Designers at Debenhams, by 1998 her product soon range expanded to include clothing. Suddenly, Kiely designs were being shipped to Paris, New York, Dublin, Tokyo and Hong Kong – and that was just the beginning.
Today Kiely is globally recognised as the designer of the iconic ‘Stem’ pattern that first appeared in 2000 – a year after she had set up a dedicated design studio. Kiely’s colour palette and pattern ranges now appear on ready-to-wear clothing, fragrance bottles, watches, jewellery, shoes, homewares, wallpapers and more.
Orla Kiely is among a distinguished group of influential designers who have defined the last two centuries. In the same way that C. F. A. Voysey cut a visual swathe from William Morris to Modernism, Kiely transformed the minimalist design sensibility of the 1990s into a cornucopia of 21st century pattern.
This exhibition offers a snapshot of Kiely’s design ethos, here embodied in a display of one hundred Kiely handbags from across the years. The conventions and format of the handbag enable us to trace the development of a design sensibility and understanding of how style, utility and decoration can coalesce.
Kiely herself says ‘I sometimes think that my brain works in repeat. I love the order and regiment of repetition, and how anything and everything can be patterned in this way, as if you are looking at the world through a prism or kaleidoscope. It is something that is very beautiful and inspiring to me.’
In recognition of her excellence and significant achievement in Fashion and Textile design, Norwich University of the Arts awarded Orla Kiely an Honorary Doctorate in 2016 and is proud to host this display of her work, first exhibited at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London, 2018.