Saturday turned suddenly cold, after this heat wave in the UK, and I was stuck in traffic and rushing through the Oxford Street Saturday shopping circus, afraid I'd be late for my interview with Orla Kiely. When I arrived at Uniqlo I was greeted by posies. Pockets of posies at the entrance: sweet smiling spring flowers, like kisses. Then I rushed upstairs to meet her and her lovely team. Impressions of light, sparkling water, fresh strawberries and grapes. Simplicity and calm. Green and red against the neutral white, colours and patterns like her clothing downstairs, in the shop, being consumed like a fish feeding frenzy.
The first thing I notice about Orla Kiely are her eyes: palest blue, irridescent, knowing, wise, and kind. And then her smile. She's got the most amazing smile: it's that kind of Julia Roberts, beaming from ear to ear smile. And then I'm in Orla Kiely world, and the sun is shining.
We chatted at first about her collaboration with Uniqlo, in celebration of UT's 10 year anniversary. It is a perfect marriage of ideologies: she has two sons, and she's always shopped for them at Uniqlo. She spoke of the value for money, simplicity, quality, which is what struck me about my tee from the collection: it is so fine. Mighty fine. It feels.. well, it feels expensive.
And I was thinking.. Uniqlo is Japanese, and in some ways Orla's work feels Japanese to me. I can't explain. It also feels Scandinavian.. but while I was editing these photos, I found myself listening to Joni Mitchell, especially California, so I'm illustrating this piece for you with music that feels like what her designs sound like to me. But it also feels like London: King's Road, late Sixties.. Chelsea. Chelsea Morning.
Because I kept finding myself referencing music, during our chat. I see Orla like an artist, but also, what she creates.. it's like music. And then, uncannily, after, when we went downstairs and Orla was meeting her fans (something she is so modest about - and yet, clearly happily pleased), and freak serendipity: there was my wonderful friend Adrienne Johnson, huge Orla Kiely fan, who was drawn in by the flowers, shopping the collection! And she was talking to Orla, too, about music, about how we are drawn to people, designs, ideas, as if with our cellular memory.
And that's what hit me. That's it: cellular memory. That thing that draws us in: to a song. To a place. To Uniqlo, on a cold Saturday. To sunshine.
That's what I connect with about Orla Kiely. I don't even know the first time I heard of her, first saw her designs - we arrived in London in 1997, she started in 1995 - but her vision has been with her all her life. She is Irish, and as she was explaining, Ireland is an island. And it's hard to imagine the world we grew up in, but without internet, eBay.. the clothes she wanted, the things, patterns she saw.. she couldn't just press a few buttons and get things delivered to her world. That had to come later, when she created it. The Orla Kiely world.
It feels like a garden to me: the source, the well, from which her vision springs. Now of course she has a team, hand picked like the posies, surrounding herself with like minded, generous souls. Beautiful people, in every sense. This springs from a family that gave her great support, inspiration, love: talented people, not from the fashion world, but intellectuals, academics: they taught her that anything was possible. She remembered their kitchen, ground-breaking in the sixties, designed by an architect, olive green with an orange ceiling. It brought back memories of our kitchen in the seventies, how we excited we were to renovate it in graphic shades of 'pumpkin' and 'avocado'. As befitting a brilliant colourist, she thinks in colour. Memories of her grandmother driving a green mini: a prolific craftswoman, always making things with her hands. Showing her, not just in words, but by example, that women can make things. Make things happen. And that's when it hit me: she's not striving to be an artist, I don't believe. Not trying to shock and cause controversy, like a Damien Hirst, like an Alexander McQueen, or John Galiano. What Orla Kiely seems to be is a craftsperson. She could just as easily, as happily, be making clay pots. Or bread. Endless possibilities, being busy with her hands. Like her Gran.
And always, at core, the marriage. Because Orla's husband is her business partner. And the secret to their success is they have built this business organically, letting it grow without selling out to outside investors. Which means Orla owns her own name, as she should. They clearly work in harmony, with separate but equally vital roles. As she said, with the same simplicity and clarity as her designs: 'without him, none of this would be possible.'
I've been looking through not just the Uniglo collection, but the ORLA KIELY site itself. And it's not just pattern on pattern. A lot is solid, clean: navy and white, for spring as per look number eight.. oh, I'll shut up now, because this is the longest post I've ever done. I want everything.
As I fell asleep Saturday night, I was picturing my pretty posy on our coffee table, beautiful and alive for just a brief time, but that's the nature of spring, and then I started seeing patterns. Orla Kiely patterns, lulling me to sleep, like little sheep.
Orla Kiely for UNIQLO is in the shops now, or online. Thank you Ali and Liz at Modus, and MELANIE JANE CAMPBELL, for the smiles and the flowers.