The Irish Don of Fashion

Don O'Neill and a sunset in Ballyheigue, photographed by his brother Patrick, with the dress it inspired for Theia's Fall 2012 runway collection.
Don O'Neill and a sunset in Ballyheigue, photographed by his brother Patrick, with the dress it inspired for Theia's Fall 2012 runway collection.

By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor
June / July 2012

Don O’Neill, creative director of the up-and-coming label Theia, reflects on his journey from a small seaside town in Co. Kerry to the fashion houses of London, Paris and New York, and finally, a showroom of his own.

When we meet at his garment district showroom on an afternoon in early April, it’s clear that Don O’Neill, creative director of the fledgling couture label Theia, is still basking in the glow of his first solo runway show during February’s New York Fashion Week. The show, like his Fall 2012 collection, was a study in elegance and strength, with a range of looks inspired by the Greek goddess Athena. The finely tuned drama of the collection’s dark colors, sharp angles and structured tailoring was enhanced by the crystal bejeweled headpieces donned by each of the models.

“I really wanted to do something special by New York standards, because in New York a lot of the fashion shows – not all, but a majority of them – tend to be very clean and very simple,” he explains. “It’s just about showing product, it’s not necessarily about a fantasy, which is a more European way of showing, and I just thought ‘Feck it! I want to do fantasy and I want to create a character and tell a story.’ And that’s what I did.”

With a résumé that includes working in the atelier of Christian Lacroix, ten years with New York-based evening-wear designer Carmen Marc Valvo and three years at the helm of the Badgley Mischka diffusion label, Badgley Mischka Platinum, O’Neill, a youthful 45, is something of a fashion veteran. But Theia, which was founded in 2009, marks a huge turning point in his career: his own label. “It was a dream come true,” he says. “I think every designer, when you go to design college, assumes that one day you’ll just have your label and be having fashion shows, and you think that it will happen sooner rather than later – mine was just a little later rather than sooner.”

O’Neill grew up in the small seaside town of Ballyheigue in Co. Kerry, where his family ran seaweed baths and currently owns a popular bed and breakfast. Perched on a clifftop overlooking the water, the O’Neills’ home was surrounded with plenty to inspire a young mind. There was a castle across the road (“Where else would you have a castle?” O’Neill asks) with old waste tunnels running through the hillside, where lost silver was rumored to be buried. The masts of a sea-wrecked Spanish galleon were still just visible off shore, and the ruins of an ancient church that pre-dated the shoreline were said to be out at sea, causing a permanent white-crested wave on the horizon. “It was very fantastical,” he says fondly. “You believed that everything was magic, and there was enough around you to engender this spark that mystical things were possible.”

Between this rich imaginative landscape and his mother’s excellent dress collection, O’Neill’s interest in fashion formed at an early age. His mother, who had worked as a nanny in New York in 1963 and ’64, had a number of Bergdorf Goodman dresses from her former employer, a Park Avenue socialite. “As a little kid I was fascinated by those dresses,” he recalls. “It even got to the stage where Mom wasn’t wearing them anymore, but they were so special that she kept them.” He also mentions a store in nearby Ballybunion, “for ladies in the know.” It carried pieces by Ib Jorgensen, a Danish designer based in Dublin, who was Ireland’s premier clothier at the time. “All of his clothes were handmade and very expensive, so it was amazing to get your hands on them. I can’t believe those women even sold them, to me they’d be like collector’s items.”

A bigger realization came when he was 12 or 13 and saw a TV documentary on Karl Lagerfeld, who was then at Chloé. “This sounds so naïve when I look back at it, but I vividly remember two dresses. One had a faucet embroidered on the shoulder and beading like water running down the front of the dress. And then the finale dress was a long, black gown with what looked like a tail behind it. [The model’s] hands were by her sides, and then all of a sudden she flicked her wrists and a peacock tail flipped up over her head. That image stayed in my head, and I knew I would love to do that. I didn’t know why or how, but it just stuck.”

He didn’t turn to fashion immediately. After an ill-fated interview to join the Irish Air Corps (he confused the plane models the corps used with X-Wing Fighters from Star Wars) quelled his desire to become a pilot, O’Neill went to college in Dublin – vacillating between graphic design and fashion. Homesick, he returned to Kerry after three months and started training to be a chef. Showing promise, O’Neill was asked to join the Irish junior team for the 1985 Culinary Olympics. A team demonstration for the Irish media in Dublin landed his photograph on the front page of the Irish Times – he cut his finger de-boning a chicken, and the photographer snapped a shot of O’Neill holding up his bloody hand.

In the meantime, he was always sketching in his culinary books, “in the margins and the corners there were always gowns. I never really thought about changing careers, this was just something that I did when I was doodling.”

But fashion came calling again after O’Neill had started working at a restaurant in Galway. The Irish Independent was running a fashion design contest, and the second prize was a Michael Mortell coat O’Neill thought would look amazing on his younger sister, Deirdre. He submitted a dress he had designed for Deirdre’s graduation, and it won – not second prize, but first prize: tuition to the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion in Dublin.

After graduating with recognition (his final collection was in the window of one of Dublin’s poshest department stores for a week), O’Neill moved to London. He lived in the very Irish neighborhood of Kilburn, but was determined not to get too cozy there. Gina Fratini, whose elaborate ball gowns were favored among the royals, took him on as an intern and let him design. He worked with Donald Campbell at his studio in Knightsbridge, where he got a taste of a different perspective. “Donald made real dresses for real British country ladies who needed sleeves and necklines up to here, skirt lengths down to here, and pretty fabrics. Very expensive,” he explains.

He had been planning on moving to Paris when he was head-hunted to work with Lady Dale Tryon – a friend of Prince Charles, also known as Kanga – whose long polyester dresses had become immensely popular after Princess Diana wore one to the Live Aid concert in 1985. His role was to help her expand into couture. “She wanted these very expensive evening dresses and cocktail suits, which is what we were making, but we were spending money hand over fist,” he recalls. “I would come in to work in the morning and it would be ‘Don, we’re on the 11 a.m. flight to Paris, we’re shopping for buttons,’” which he admits sounds like an episode of the ’90s British TV show Absolutely Fabulous, about fashionistas of a certain age who see no problem with taking the Concord to New York to find the perfect doorknob. “Everyone thought they were being ridiculous, but they weren’t! They were making fun of people like us,” he laughs.

When the label ran into financial trouble, O’Neill returned to Dublin for a year to study pattern making and landed a job with his childhood idol Ib Jorgensen, which “brought everything full circle.” After six months, with Jorgensen’s encouragement, he headed to Paris.

With no French except for what he remembered from secondary school, O’Neill got off to a shaky start. “The only place I could find work was at McDonalds, and since my French wasn’t very good I was even bad at that. I kept thinking to myself ‘I’m a trained chef and I can’t put together a Big Mac?’” he says, still looking mildly horrified all these years later. After a few weeks, he found work at an American restaurant and set about trying to get his portfolio to the big fashion houses. This involved, at first, some little white lies, whichO’Neill relishes in telling, endearingly impressed by his own moxie.

He blithely showed up at Chanel and said that John Fairchild, the publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, was his godfather and had arranged for him to see the head of the studio. He got into Givenchy in a similar way, and on his way out passed a woman with “brown hair in a chignon and a beautiful camel swing coat, very short. She had brown opaque tights on and what looked like flat crocodile ballet flats and a beautiful crocodile bag.” It was Audrey Hepburn.

At Yves Saint Laurent, he told them that Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s partner at the time, had said he should come in. It was a little bit trickier getting in at YSL, he recalls, but adds that “once you’re in one of those situations you just have to keep it going or you’ll start thinking ‘Oh my God I’m going to be arrested.’”

At Dior, he said that he had an interview with the head of the studio, and that Bernard Arnault, the president of LVMH (which owns Dior) had arranged for him to see her. He had to wait, but it worked, and he was taken into “the inner sanctum of Dior. She look[ed] at my book, which, since I had been in London with Donald Campbell, had very safe, lady-like little bits and pieces, and said ‘I think you should throw this in the Seine. This is too old. This is not French, this is not modern.’ My face fell. She said that she saw talent but that I needed to re-do the book with a French mentality. She told me to do a project for Dior and to bring it back.”

In the meantime, O’Neill began costume work for a production at the Opéra de Lyon. The designer in charge had worked for Christian Lacroix for 10 years, and promised to get O’Neill an interview with the fashion house in exchange for his help. While there, he also met his partner of 19 years: Pascal, a dancer, with whom he now lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Lacroix and Dior both wound up offering internships for the winter of 1993, and he went with Lacroix, whose dramatic designs and fantastic runway shows provided the inspiration necessary for O’Neill to expand his own vision as a designer. “Christian was really good to me, he loved the Irish,” O’Neill enthuses. Fluent in French now, he credits his clumsiness with the “tu” and “vous” forms with – fortunately – endearing him to the designer, whom he was supposed to address in the formal but often didn’t. “People adored Christian Lacroix because he treated everybody equally,” he explains. “Whether you were the janitor sweeping the floor or the CEO of the company, he treated everyone the same. There were people who were not so sweet or pleasant because they were ‘at Lacroix.’ They had airs and graces just because of where they worked. But he did not.”

Towards the end of the internship O’Neill won a Morrison visa and, acting upon the advice of Lacroix’s astrologer, moved to New York. Even though he had letters from Lacroix introducing him to designers including Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta, he had a hard time finding work. Whereas before he had been too confined in the neat style of Donald Campbell, he was now too far into the realm of Lacroix’s inspired but sometimes impractical taste. He recalls Donna Karan explaining to him that she would pare down his sketch of a jacket to such a degree that it wouldn’t be recognizable as the same design. Oscar de la Renta offered him a job, but rescinded when O’Neill asked for a salary of $35,000, stating that it was too much.

He eventually interviewed with the evening-wear designer Carmen Marc Valvo: the people on the hiring team were big fans of the show Absolutely Fabulous, which often referenced Lacroix, and wanted to meet someone who had worked with him. He was offered the job. “It’s really thanks to AbFab and Lacroix that I got to work,” he laughs. O’Neill spent 10 years with Valvo, progressing from junior designer to design director.

In 2005, he got a call from JS Group, the same company that Theia is a part of. They were looking for someone to head Badgley Mischka Platinum, a line based off of the aesthetic of the design team of Mark Badgley and James Mischka, but at a slightly lower price point. “I went in for a meeting and found out that I was going to be in charge of everything – it was just going to be me and a desk and a phone, finding pattern makers, cutters, sewers. I said ‘sure, I’d be able to do that,’ but I was terrified.”

He recalls almost wishing that it wouldn’t work out – that Valvo would insist he stay; that a former colleague he had in mind to join him wouldn’t be available. But things fortunately conspired against him, in his best interest. He didn’t feel quite comfortable for the first six months heading Badgley Mischka Platinum, but a successful first year proved he was capable. The line’s profits greatly surpassed expectations. An issue of Women’s Wear Daily displayed one of his dresses on the cover.

One has to wonder how, having worked for other designers for so many years, O’Neill went about forming his unique vision for Theia when the line was founded in 2009.

He chose the name, taken from the Greek goddess of light, mother of Helios, the Sun, Selene, the Moon, and Eros, the dawn. This goddess inspiration makes perfect sense with O’Neill’s philosophy as a designer, which is to “empower women to be strong and fierce and  beautiful. It’s about having that strength and inner confidence that you can take on the world.”

His client list includes names and physiques as diverse as Taylor Swift, Emmy Rossum, Angela Basset, Carrie Underwood, First Lady of Ireland Sabina Higgins, and Oprah, who wore one of his sequined creations to accept her honorary award at the Oscars this year. Universal appeal is also a top priority. “I want everyone to feel that they can have a Theia dress and they can look amazing in it. Basically, I just want to make everyone happy.”

By all accounts, his dresses are making people very happy. Over 350 stores around the world, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, carry Theia, and the line has found a devoted following among brides-to-be, for whom O’Neill designs a white line of dresses that range from flowing and ethereal to sequined and sexy.

His creative process, which can take place anywhere from his office overlooking Broadway to a seat-back table on flights from Shannon to New York, “literally has peaks and troughs,” he says. “When you’re in a trough you’re like ‘I should have been a bus driver,’ because you can’t see what’s next. It’s not like when you’re a chef and you learn your skills and you always know how to chop an onion. In this business, okay, you know how to chop an onion, but you need to figure out a fresh and exciting way to chop it every day.”

After years of designing, he still seems almost reverentially uncertain of where the inspiration comes from. “There are days when it’s like a magical portal opens in my head and I pick up my pen and all the sketches are pretty and it flows. I’ll usually have two days, maybe three if I’m lucky, and then the portal shuts tight. A lot of what I do just comes through my hand. I don’t see it in my head, which is weird. It just appears on the page.” He often listens to music as he designs, letting the beat and rhythm inform his sketching. He also relies very much on his natural instinct to guide him. “If I’m looking at ugly fabric I get knots in my stomach, it’s amazing,” he insists.

Until fairly recently, he didn’t look to his Irishness for inspiration, but that changed when he saw the Irish animated film The Secret of Kells (2009). “I think for a long time I was sort of distancing myself from [my heritage]. Over here there was a certain amount of disconnect from who Irish people are and what people think we’re supposed to be,” he reflects. “Instead of  propagating who we really are I just backed away from it entirely. But then when I saw The Secret of Kells and that makes me so proud to be Irish: when you see somebody take our heritage and do something amazing with it.” The film led him to look towards Celtic artifacts such as Newgrange and The Book of Kells for Theia’s Fall 2011 collection

He has quickly become a darling of the Irish media, with every outlet from The Gloss, (the Irish Times fashion magazine) to The Kerryman newspaper tracking his success. The whole O’Neill family traveled from Ireland to New York for his fashion show in February (“Front row – they got the VIP treatment,” he assures me) and returned home to a barrage of press. “I wasn’t there, so I didn’t immediately feel the benefit of it, but they were getting the full effect. Mom was like ‘We can’t go anywhere anymore! Everyone’s congratulating us.’”

O’Neill is thrilled with the attention, but also hopes that his story is one that will inspire. “People at home seem really proud of the fact that they have a designer [in New York] who’s doing well. They’re using the story to motivate kids who are coming out of school right now and emigrating. That’s what happened in the ’80s when I finished college – none of us stayed. Maybe this can give them a ray of hope that if you leave, there are opportunities and people do make it in spite of all sorts of adversity.”

O’Neill is also proof that Irish designers, who more often than not must make their careers abroad, don’t have to leave Ireland behind completely.

When asked to choose a favorite piece from the Fall collection, he eventually settles on a vibrant silk dress with a leather waist. The pattern, with its swirling orange, gold, red and purple, was inspired by a photograph his brother Patrick took of the sunset in Ballyheigue. “He sent me the picture last year, and it was too late to do anything with it then, but I sent it to the print studio I work with in Milan to see if there was some way we could interpret it, and they came up with this fabric,” he explains.

“The sunset gown is one of my favorites because it’s more personal to me than everything else. This is home – this is Ballyheigue coming down a runway in New York. It’s amazing that I could do something like that.”

Watch Theia’s Fall 2012 Runway Show:

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