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How far is too far? The case of Orla Kiely and Rob Ryan

Posted by: Lizzy Stallard on June 24, 2011

There’s one on the doormat outside my neighbor’s house, there’s one covering a perfume bottle in my friend’s bathroom cabinet, there’s one on a notebook at work, and now there’s even one all over the car parked on my road. So what is this craze cropping up just about everywhere I turn? It’s the Orla Kiely pattern, of course. What started as a relatively undercover accessories brand from Ireland (that I discovered adorning the arm of a design-loving friend of mine in New York), is now officially everywhere. 
What’s most irksome about the whole stretching of the Orla Kiely brand, is not only the speed (there is a section on their site listing “new this month”), but also the directions in which the brand is appearing to go. Frankly, it was all rosy when it was bags and purses, then it sort of made sense when we started seeing notebooks and pens, I still felt OK about it when it was bed linens and cushions, the perfume and bath products caused a slight uncomfortable pang in my side, but then, wait for it... the tie up with Citroen? For me that’s it, and begs only one question: Why?

I now worry that famed London illustrator Rob Ryan will fall to a similar fate. He started as a treasured discovery at Columbia Road Flower Market in London’s East End, but is now plastered throughout John Lewis. That design edge, mystique, and raw talent gets watered down the minute we start to feel the commercial tanker creeping in. Fancy some Rob Ryan bunting, a vase, coin purse, wash bag, drinks bottle, watering can, or mug? The list goes on. And, if you don’t see what you’re looking for, don’t worry, I’m sure it is currently in production.
It does beg the question around how brands can protect their design equity, while also reaching their vision for growth.  While I actually don’t personally own anything from Orla Kiely or from Rob Ryan, I have to say that at this point in time, it is unlikely I ever will. What was once positioned in my mind as hand crafted, intricate, quirky, individual, and unique, no longer has quite the same appeal. It poses the question around the importance brands must place on finding the balance between their core position and their desire to stretch and grow. This is a strategic exercise that without careful planning and management can have the opposite desired effect.

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