Eley Kishimoto's south London studio is not what one might expect of a fashion label whose specialty is bright, bold prints. Or at least not from the outside. But behind the austere plain-white façade lie three floors crammed with objects and people that embody the spirit and aesthetic of Mark Eley and Wakako Kishimoto's brand more faithfully.
Pots of brightly coloured dye and fabric samples bloom from every surface while rolls of fabric and printing screens line the walls. An enormous wooden three-piece suite and standard lamp, stencilled with a kaleidoscopic geometric pattern, lend an Alice In Wonderland feel. In the midst of all this, the Eley Kishimoto team work away happily in an atmosphere of organised chaos, as a mini-brood of unfeasibly cute children belonging to various staff help themselves to a tableful of cakes. Like one of their signature designs, it's vibrant, friendly and a little fantastical.
Nevertheless, the unassuming exterior is a fitting visual reminder that this is a label that remains astonishingly low-profile outside fashion circles. "A lot of people are still under the impression that Eley Kishimoto is a young Japanese girl," admits Bridgend-born Eley, who looks after the business side while wife Wakako holds the creative reins. In reality, you probably know more of its designs than you think, given the huge number of projects across diverse media that the husband-and-wife team have collaborated on since founding the business in 1992.
Besides supplying print designs to fashion's biggest names, from Alexander McQueen to Louis Vuitton, the pair have turned their hand to sportswear for Ellesse and Converse, a car for Volkswagen, furniture for Habitat, interior design for the "House at..." boutique hotel chain and several architectural projects. Most recently they made their mark on two modern classics, the Eastpak backpack and Medicom's cult Japanese be@rbrick miniature teddies, emblazoning both with their abstract "flash" print. "We never had a big plan to do all this," says Kishimoto. "We just said yes to every opportunity to do something different."
Now poised to present their first Paris catwalk collection in their second job as creative directors of Cacharel (they took the role at the French fashion house earlier this year), the couple will soon be embracing the limelight they have largely eschewed while building their eponymous womenswear line.
And in that limelight, they are keen to stress that, despite their wide-ranging body of work, Eley Kishimoto is first and foremost a clothing label, producing beautiful, wearable pieces that have won them devotees from Paris to Tokyo (it was the French artist Sophie Calle, who wears nothing but Eley Kishimoto, who match-made the couple with Cacharel).
Their autumn collection, whimsically titled Bonny Bunny, is inspired by the idea of an old-fashioned travelling entertainer. Kishimoto's prints – vivid harlequin designs and bold patterns worked from animal and feather motifs – are applied to ruffled dresses and blouses, interspersed with skirts and jackets in cosy tweed and primaries. It's classic Eley Kishimoto: clothes that are friendly and inviting. But that isn't to imply blandness – it is their unashamed prettiness, regardless of trends, that makes them in their own way bold.
Furthermore, Eley believes their position in the London Fashion Week schedule, as an established label that remains committed to artistic experimentation, makes them unique. "It's our tenth year in London and some people now classify us alongside the likes of John Rocha, Betty Jackson and Paul Smith. But I don't think those people are pushing the boundaries in the same way as us, certainly not with the frivolity we have."
But are their insistently pretty clothes preventing them from being seen as heavyweights? "When we started it was all about black and deconstruction – Jil Sander, Comme des Garçons – really dark stuff," admits Eley. "And there we were with yellow flowers on white poplin. But people just got it really quickly." So quickly, in fact, that the Eley Kishimoto look paved the way for, among others, Orla Kiely and the resurgence of Marimekko.
And it's that accessibility that is the key to the Eley Kishimoto enterprise. If you like their designs, the chances are you'll like them forever, regardless of passing trends. "Every season people ask us, 'Why do you think print is in fashion again?', but it's really always there," explains Eley. "It's been our key tool in creating our identity because of Wak's ability to draw, paint and make patterns. And not many people can touch us on that."
Eley Kishimoto (020 8674 7411, www.eleykishimoto.com) will show at London Fashion Week on Tuesday. The range is stocked at Liberty (020 7734 1234)