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Leith Clark Talks Dressing Pregnant Keira Knightley, 'Violet' and Designer Collaborations

We chatted with the well-loved stylist at the launch of her new collaboration with Orla Kiely, L'Orla.
From L to R: Alexa Chung, Orla Kiely, Leith Clark and Tennessee Thomas. Photo: Hannah Thomson

From L to R: Alexa Chung, Orla Kiely, Leith Clark and Tennessee Thomas. Photo: Hannah Thomson

For about eight years, Leith Clark and Orla Kiely have had one of those longstanding stylist-designer relationships, with Clark styling the London-based Irish designer's London Fashion Week presentations, somehow making her designs looking even more charmingly retro and sweet than usual. "Our aesthetics are so complimentary; everything that Leith likes I kind of like," explained Kiely at a breakfast on the rooftop of New York's Nomad Hotel Wednesday to celebrate the launch of L'Orla: a resort capsule collection that Clark helped design.

If you're familiar with either of these ladies, the collection was as girly, demure and '70s-inspired as you'd expect, and the event was attended by women you'd expect to wear it, like Alexa Chung, Tennessee Thomas and Zoe Kazan. The clothing was still very Orla, featuring her signature floral prints and feminine aesthetic; but Clark's influence could be seen in the stronger retro influence, longer hemlines and a more romantic feel. Prices range from $500-$700 and you can see the full L'Orla collection — which we're told may not be the last — in the gallery below.

We also got the chance to catch up with Clark about this collaboration, her others (including a second one with Warby Parker), her decision to launch Violet after leaving Lula and her approach to dressing a pregnant Keira Knightley. Read on.

What were some of your references for this collection?

It was Ossie Clark pictures and lots of pictures of Stephanie Pharrow, Amish people.

You've done a few other design collaborations. What do you get out of doing them? Do you hope to continue?

This one was really fun and I’m close to the brand anyway, so it felt really personal. Knowing it so well, it was easy to do something that was complimentary but different, whereas with [L.A.-based label] Wren it was pretty similar to what they do but my own version. This felt like we were doing a separate thing. Warby [Parker] I’m doing another one starting now. The cool thing about styling and consulting is you get to do all kinds of different things like dressing an actor for a red carpet, creating a dress from scratch for the red carpet, consulting on a collection... this is kind of the obvious next step.

You've had a similar stylist/designer relationship with Honor. What do you think makes those relationships successful?

I guess just being honest and trying to make things so that I like them even more than I did to start with. I think if you make yourself want everything in a collection then you’ve done your job.

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The Fashionista team has been a bit obsessed with Keira Knightley's last couple of press tours which you styled her for. How did that relationship develop?

We worked together for five years for all of her appearances and stuff, whenever "Atonement" was made. We were friends beforehand and to me she didn’t look like herself when she did appearances, so it was finding a way to make it feel real — so that when she promotes something she doesn’t also feel like she’s acting as much. I think when I met her she was always excited for the end [of the night], to take it off. I thought my job is good if she doesn’t want to take it off. 

The first premiere we did was the world premiere of "Atonement" in Venice and it ended with us sitting around the swimming pool at the hotel with her shoes off — she was still wearing the dress and everyone was going to bed and it was a really nice. That’s how you should feel, you should love it so much that it makes your night better, not make you feel like it’s a handicap.

Was it challenging dressing her while she was pregnant?

I had just been pregnant so it was still really fresh in my head and I think especially on the red carpet pregnancy looks like a hindrance; people don’t look comfortable or free and the nicest thing when you’re pregnant is to feel like clothes can help you want to go out in the world, want to keep doing the things you did before and feel beautiful and graceful and strong, not stuck and constrained.

She still wore really feminine, high-fashion dresses. Were many of those custom?

A lot of times — there was an Orla dress, and we just moved the waistline up. Because I knew from my own body, you just move things up a little bit, you take things out a little bit, and there’s a lot of clothes that were in the collections anyway that didn’t need a lot of fixing. It’s the incorrect feeling that you have to wear fitted things, because you don’t. If something’s fluid and loose and loves the bump it makes you feel more comfortable and more confident and more beautiful — she just really trusted me. A lot of them, we didn’t even do fittings. I would literally go, 'this is the dress' and she’d say okay and we would make it work.  She’s easy to make look great though, it’s nice to make her happy.

Meanwhile, you're working on Violet, which is about a year old now. What's your goal with the magazine and how is it different from what you wanted to do with Lula?

Yes, we’re working on our fourth issue. It’s self-serving again, Lula was very much for me…I’d been working at Vogue and I left; it was the beginning of my career and there wasn’t anything that I was so excited about doing out there that looked like why I wanted to be in fashion. It looked overly sexualized and women were objects. I felt really confused about what I’d worked so hard to be a part of in a way. So I thought, let's do something of our own. I asked two friends from Vogue as well to do it with me and we started creating something that reminded us why we loved creating clothes in the first place. It was a return to that nostalgia and the way that dressing up will make you feel; it was empowering in a childlike, wide-eyed way.

Then I started to change how I felt about the world and started to feel confused again about how women were being represented, more in the sense of seeing one kind of woman over and over again; the face creams wanting you to look backwards to recreate teenage years and I don’t relate to that at all. The older I’ve gotten, the more excited I’ve gotten to be older. It’s really difficult when you don’t see examples of women who inspire you unless it’s in the real world, never in media, and it started to feel quite frustrating. You reach an age when you’re older than the models in a fashion story, but suddenly you can afford the clothes and you don’t see anyone who makes you want to wear them. That’s very confusing, so we started to make a place where feminism and fashion can coexist in a louder sense than it did in Lula, and make something that made us excited about clothes and life and each other.