The collapse of Orla Kiely's empire: where did it all go wrong?

As far as prestige Irish designers go, Orla Kiely is among the best.

After more than 20 years in the business, she achieved what so few have: global recognition. At the start of the year, with no idea of what was going on behind the scenes, it seemed the Kiely empire was untouchable, it boasted womenswear, homewares, bags, wallpaper, car interiors, and kitchenware – if there was something that could feature the distinct Kiely-signature print, she had already thought of it and made her presence known.

She always saw the value in mass appeal. Every consumer wants to feel like they own something special, but in order to successfully adapt something to a number of different mediums, that is where she excelled.

While so many others have struggled to make a sustainable living in Ireland, Kiely had been successfully working out of London for years, received an almost mythical status here and even cracked the elusive US market, capitalising on her popularity with Americans who wanted a piece of Ireland at home.

And yet still, all of this wasn’t enough to sustain itself in the notoriously fickle fashion industry. After months of financial hardship, it was reported earlier this week that at the time her eponymous company collapsed in September, it had accrued debuts of more than €8m with unsecured creditors owed approximately €5.5m.

The initial announcement that the end was nigh for such an internationally renowned name was a shock to many just three months ago. Not only were shoppers in shock, but so were the 48 people whose jobs were lost as a result of the company shutting its doors. At the time, a few pieces of Kiely were still available through third party retailers, but now the bulk of stock can only be found in second hand stores.

Retail behemoth Kilkenny Stores still has some old stock online, but her stand-alone premises around Britain and Ireland, including Kildare Village, closed it doors.

What caused such a dramatic fall from the top?

In an interview back in June, Kiely remained steadfastly focused on her brand. She and husband and business partner Dermott Rowan were celebrating an exhibition honouring her two decades of work at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. It was a fitting homage to her extraordinary talent, and a private goodbye to her life in fashion. 

“I sometimes think that my brain works in repeat,” she said at the time, referencing her penchant for a similar arrangement of patterns that earned her the moniker, the ‘Queen of Print’.

“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.”

Her love was mutual with customers from all backgrounds and by 2012, she became a British royal go-to after Kate Middleton first wore one of her designs, less than a year after her wedding, when she was still finding her fashionable feet. It was a vote of confidence for this established Irish creative and a move which would, perhaps forcibly, bring her into the consciousness of a new generation.

Her particular prints, although iconic, were not associated with the youth market, but that didn’t matter with such a dedicated clientele – most of whom are still clamouring to get their hands on a piece of Kiely from second hand stores or websites.

I interviewed her once, back in 2013, and she was as softly spoken, polite and as down-to-earth as everyone says. At that time, she was launching a partnership with Kenco – her first of many collaborations which would see that distinctive design infiltrate our kitchens – and she told me that yes, of course having the Duchess of Cambridge in her work is a game-changer, but few things bring her more joy than seeing a ‘normal’ woman walking down the street with something of hers.

“The funny thing is when ‘Orla Kiely’ is mentioned, they’re not referring to you, they’re referring to a product, which is kind of strange. I think it’s a good thing though. I’d much rather promote the work rather than the person,” she said.

“If my name is attached to it, I want it to be perfect. I really push myself so that I’m happy and it’s a good product that we are putting out there.”

She and Rowan have been partners in business and life since their 1993 wedding and both retained 100pc ownership of the company until the end, which was an incredible feat, until calamity struck.

The specific reasons for the brand’s downfall are unclear, one could speculate aggressive expansion, over-diversification or perhaps it was the lack of additional shareholders to provide additional support when push came to shove.

The real story here is the loss of an extraordinary talent, one whom we have grown such an affection, and hopefully haven’t seen the last of.

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