Orla Kiely was on sparkling form at the V&A Museum this month to discuss a A Life In Pattern, a £25 book showcasing the extraordinary career she built with her husband.
The hefty coffee table volume is filled with the 56-year-old’s iconic designs, retro prints which have graced everything from handbags to cars and even tents.
Scattered among them are family snaps, some from the early days of her marriage to businessman Dermott Rowan — a reminder that the fashion empire has been very much a husband-and-wife affair.
But if the Irish-born ‘Queen of Pattern’ knew Kiely Rowan PLC was on the brink of collapse then, according to those in the V&A audience, she gave no sign of it as she spoke of their plans for expansion.
Just three days later, on September 17, the firm went into administration with millions of pounds worth of debt.
Orla Kiely’s husband Dermott Rowan, pictured together, has long been described as the brains behind the iconic fashion brand. The businessman, now 60, dealt with suppliers and department stores while she worked on the designs which have become some of the most recognisable prints this century
Staff were said to have been left in tears as, overnight, the couple closed the doors of their stores in London and Ireland and shut down their website. While some employees claim they have been told they will not be paid for their last three weeks of work, Kiely and Rowan paid themselves a combined salary of £408,000 in 2017 as the profits of Kiely Rowan PLC dwindled.
So how did the firm behind some of the most recognisable designs of the century end up coming apart at the seams? And what role did the couple’s relationship play in the rise and fall of the brand?
They formed the Orla Kiely Partnership in 1995 and became one of the most successful ever husband-and-wife business stories. She has an OBE for services to fashion and business, is an Honorary Fellow of the British Institute of Design and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.
He is a former Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist, and a government-appointed member of Ireland’s Crafts Council.
A friend of the couple told the Mail this week: ‘He was always the one with the financial skills. He ran the show in that way and Orla never made any secret of that. He was the one talking to the suppliers and the department stores. He was the one that got them into the American and Asian markets.
Rowan was behind the decision to license prints, such as the iconic leaf-print ‘Stem’ (pictured), to brands such as Citroen, Sainsbury’s and Tate Modern – a move that some have criticised for negatively impacting the exclusive appeal of the range
‘She was the face of it, but he was the brains behind it.’
Questions are now being asked if 60-year-old Rowan’s drive to turn his wife’s artistic talent into an ever-expanding global empire is what caused their downfall.
‘They obviously over-extended themselves with the business,’ said the friend. ‘And now it’s all come crashing down.’
Kiely and Rowan met while growing up in solidly middle-class Dublin suburb Shankill. Both were privately educated at Catholic schools. Kiely’s role models were her father Bob, who owned the landmark pub Kielys of Donnybrook, and mother Maeve, a scientist who left work when she married and went on to raise Orla and her siblings Nuala, Nessa and Billy. ‘I had a mum who loved fashion,’ said Kiely in an interview this year.
But it was her father who bought her a sewing machine when she was 13 and let her use a room beside his office over the pub to create her designs.
At 18, she studied textile design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, graduating in 1984. Early jobs included working with designer Paul Costelloe and a stint for an interiors firm in New York. She then studied for a master’s in knitting at the Royal College of Art in London in 1992.
She and Dermott married in 1993 and moved to Canada, where Orla worked for the fashion chain Club Monaco.
It was there she began working on her own designs, culminating in a small hat collection sold at Harrods. It was her business-minded father who advised her to refocus, pointing out that while few women wear hats, all carry handbags.
Two years later, in London, the Orla Kiely Partnership was set up, bankrolled by the couple’s parents and her brother.
One of her earliest creations, the leaf-print ‘Stem’, went on to become one of the most recognisable designs of the 21st century. Other prints soon followed — flowers, pears, acorns, boats — which adorned laminated bags and other accessories. In 1998, she produced her first clothing collection, Orla Kiely for Debenhams, and set up a design studio in London’s Battersea.
Orla Kiely’s designs have been worn by the likes of the Duchess of Cambridge, Alexa Chung and Keira Knightley – but the company has been struggling for a while
Behind the scenes, Rowan was driving deals. Early on he saw potential in licensing — allowing other brands to use Kiely’s prints on their products. That saw her work with firms including Citroen, Uniqlo, Sainsbury’s, Douwe Egberts, Brita and Tate Modern. But licensing came to overshadow Kiely’s greatest passion, the twice-yearly ‘flagship’ collections she showcased, at huge expense, at London Fashion Week.
Critics have speculated that licensing to the mass market impacted negatively on the exclusive appeal of her clothing range, worn by the likes of the Duchess of Cambridge, Alexa Chung and Keira Knightley. While the company’s most recent accounts show turnover up almost 16 per cent to £8.3 million, its after-tax profit was a measly £74,000 — down on the previous year’s figure of £109,000, suggesting that the company has been struggling for a while in the face of booming internet sales.
Yet the couple have resisted attempts to buy them out, unlike similar brands such as Cath Kidston. In a 2010 Sunday Times interview, Kiely hinted that she was nostalgic for the days when her business was a simple kitchen table affair.
Asked about the risks rapid expansion might hold for the exclusivity of her brand, she was said to have looked ‘anguished’.
‘I would love to say we could just keep it as it was when we started but…’ Apparently, she didn’t finish her sentence.
While Orla Kiely Home and Design-branded accessories and homeware will continue to be sold through partners, what the future holds for Kiely and Rowan remains to be seen. She has cancelled future appearances to talk about her new book.
But according to the friend who spoke to the Mail, the couple are not finished.
‘They’d always planned to retire to Ireland. Maybe that will be a bit delayed now.’