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Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern review

August 26, 2018

Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern is the Fashion and Textile Museum’s retrospective of the Irish textile and fashion designer.


Orla Kiely (b. 1963) was trained in textile design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in the early 1980s, and though she has moved on to create an empire including clothing, bags, home wares and accessories it’s all based on her immediately recognisable fabric patterns and motifs.



Exhibition view. Image via WWD.

Exhibition view. Image via WWD.



Exhibition view of Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern. Image via WWD.

Exhibition view of Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern. Image via WWD.


Exhibition view of Orla Kiely: A life in Pattern. Image via WWD.

Exhibition view of Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern. Image via WWD.


Exhibition view of Orla Kiely: A life in Pattern. Image via WWD.

Exhibition view of Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern. Image via WWD.


Exhibition view . Image via WWD.

Exhibition view. A Life in Pattern. Image via WWD.



Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern opens with a little archive of interviews and press clippings. Photos include Kiely as a child and on graduating, appearing alongside a model who wears a dress made up in one of her bold print designs. TV interviews run in the background whilst the designer’s evolution is charted.

She first moved to New York, working as a fabric and textile designer, before coming to England to work for Esprit. The patterns she created with them typify the period: bold, bright and fun. Keily was also working to complete her MA at the Royal College of Art at the same time. Her focus of study was mainly knitwear and her end of year catwalk show focussed on hats, which were snapped up by Harrods. She also worked for M&S and Habitat as a designer before setting up her own business with her partner Dermott Rowan in the 1990s.

Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern Inspiration

Kiely says that her inspiration to work in design mainly came from her stylish grandma, whilst her father was an accountant and her mother studied science. Her work, says the museum, is based on “the upbeat exuberance of the 1960s, a love of Irish and Scandinavian architecture and mid-century design”. Orla herself says “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.”


Back at the Fashion Museum, we enter a corridor where all sorts of Orla Kiely products are positioned: alarm clocks, books, lamps and wash bags amongst them. Each is set in its own little acrylic box, backed with a sample of the pattern it uses as wallpaper. The effect is colourful and charming.

Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern Mid Century Styling

Her work is indeed very reminiscent of the explosion of bold colour and pattern that occurred in the mid-century. These designs, which have been horrifying the arbiters of good taste for so long are now cautiously back in fashion. Kiely’s take on them is a more modern and light one. Her designs are quite whimsical, and in addition to ones based on nature such as the famous “Stem” design that now decorates everything from towels to London buses, you can see repeating patterns made from Scottie dogs, owls, and sailboats. These teeter on the edge of a Cath Kidson level of kitsch.

Abstract Designs

But her most famous and recognisable designs are based on abstract leaves, flowers, and bold geometric designs. In this you can see a design line all the way from William Morris in the 19thcentury to Marimekko and Mary Quant in the 1960s. The pattern isn’t the only thing that makes her design unique. Her colour palette is also well-considered. It consists of those ubiquitous colours of the 70s – mustard yellow, duck egg blue, avocado green and burnt orange. They are, however, judiciously employed amongst cream, pink, and neutral greys.

Vast Frocks

Then the corridor opens out into the Museum’s main space. Kiely and the team have decided to take advantage of its huge ceiling height by creating extremely large-scale replicas of some of her favourite clothing designs. These gargantuan dresses are suspended from the ceiling on hangars. On the wall, tiny dolls are dressed in tiny replicas of the same clothes.


A troupe of mannequins upstairs display a selection of her fashion designs over the years. Though Kiely is really famous for her print design, since 1997 she has had a clothing line, which shows at London Fashion Week. Her clothes are worn by the Duchess of Cambridge, Keira Knightly, Alexa Chung, Lena Dunham and Kirsten Dunst among other luminairies.

Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern – Nostalgic inspiration

The designs are largely nostalgically inspired by a similar time period. Many of them particularly remind me of enlarged cutesy girl’s clothes from about the Sixties. There are cute playsuits with short shorts, little pinafore dresses, shirts with Peter Pan collars and that kind of thing, all in homely needlecord or velvet. There are also the Laura Ashley, “Little House on the Praire” 80s style high-necked, long dresses with bibs and tucks, frills and ruffles. Other blouses are a little more sophisticated, in high 70s style sheer fabric and large pussybow neck ties.


The outfits have charm in their faux-naïve style. Many of them play with prints though a few are plain block colours and some embroidered.

Bag Design

Then to a wall of Orla Kiely bags. She began working on designing bags after her dad, attending London Fashion Week to support her, noticed that people weren’t wearing hats, which Kiely had been specialising in, but everybody carried a bag. So she started with a simple bag made, innovatively, from laminated fabric. At the time, wipe clean fabric did exist but not for high fashion: it was mainly used for table cloths. The exhibition features a wall of her bags which evolved in all shapes, sizes and complexities after this. The laminated bag is still popular.


Finally on our tour we come to the look books, films and images. Orla Kiely often works with the stylist Leith Clark on her look books and fashion and her influence is clear. Clarke is keen on the same mid-century themes for clothing that Kiely enjoys so much in her prints.

Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern – An Empire to be Proud of

Orla Kiely has made a great success of her empire and won several awards and accolade, including Irish Tatler Woman of the Year, the UK Fashion Export Awards (twice), the UK Fashion Export Gold Award, and an OBE for services to fashion and textile and the title of Visiting Professor of Textiles at the Royal College of Art.



Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern is at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 23rdSept 2018.