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Don O'Neill

Irish designer Don O'Neill takes New York City by storm

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Don O'Neill

Designing for the stars is a dream come true for Kerry native Don O’Neill, who’s one of the brightest talents in the world of haute couture. APRIL DREW gets the fashion scoop.

A CO. Kerry-born, New York based fashion designer’s clothes are being snapped up by young and hot musicians so they can look great at award shows, album launches and trendy parties. 

Dresses by Don O’Neill, 44, have been rocked out by Norah Jones, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood to all sorts of events.

 O’Neill met with the Irish Voice at his studio in the Garment District a few weeks ago. It was three days before the Oscars and tensions were high.

A-list celebrity Annette Bening, nominated for Best Actress in the movie The Kids Are All Right, had one of O’Neill’s couture evening gowns in her possession, and at the time of the interview it was still unclear if she would don his dress on the red carpet at the Academy Awards.

O'Neill, whose brand Theia (named after the Greek goddess of sight and lights in the sky) is currently sold in over 350 stores globally including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and fine specialty stores, was on tender hooks that Friday.

"By now the stylist should have the dress sent back to us if she isn't going to wear it," he said that day, still holding out hope. 

"But they always keep a few on hand in case something goes wrong with the one she chooses … which I hope is mine," he smiled.

Unfortunately for O’Neill, Bening chose a charcoal crystal embellished Naeem Kahn gown.

O’Neill has been down this road before, but this was the first time there was a chance one of his pieces may have been worn at the biggest awards ceremony in the entertainment business. 

In an effort to “encourage” Bening to choose his dress, O’Neill sent her a box of Butler’s Irish Chocolates.

He laughs jovially about that. “Most of the other designers could afford to give her a BMW or donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to a charity in her name, and all I could afford was a friggen box of chocolates,” he said.

O’Neill, however, is proud that other celebrities have worn his dresses.

Multiple Grammy Award winner Norah Jones donned a Theia dress to the Grammys a few weeks ago, and Underwood wore a specially made dress to the American Music Awards last year. 

“Mam and Dad were here visiting when Carrie wore my dress to the American Music Awards last year. We were sitting in front of the telly and there she was, looking amazing on the red carpet, in my dress,” enthused O’Neill.

“Mom and Dad were so excited. It really was great.”

Although extremely proud that such “beautiful and famous women” have worn his clothes, he said he “doesn’t want that to validate” his success.

“I’m very proud of my line and hope all women will enjoy wearing my dresses,” said O’Neill, whose all time favorite designer is the late British star Alexander McQueen.

Born and raised in the seaside village of Ballyheigue in Kerry, O’Neill’s journey to Theia has included qualifying as a top Irish chef, dabbling in art, working in McDonald’s in Paris to pay the bills, and eventually making his way into big fashion houses and learning the craft he was born to do.

O'Neill, who is extremely close to his family, was mesmerized by his mother's fine clothing when he was a child in Ballyheigue.

"My mother worked here (New York) as a nanny for two years in 1964 and ‘65. The woman she worked for was very wealthy and she loved Mom. She dressed her in amazing stuff from Bergdorf Goodman, and growing up I was fascinated by them,” he remembers fondly.

Finally throwing his hand at the art of making his own pieces, O'Neill designed a floor-length white coat (from an old bed sheet) for his younger sister Deirdre.

“I cut out the shape I wanted and sowed it on Mom’s Singer sewing machine,” laughed O’Neill, whose handsome features would make one look twice.

Wanting the creation to be dramatic -- it was the eighties, after all -- O'Neill used the inside of an old car seat to create over-the-top shoulder pads to give the coat an edge.

“I went into Tralee to buy shoulder pads but everything was really small so I went home, cut out the foam from an old car seat and there I had my large shoulder pads for my coat.  They were as big as the pads the American footballers wear,” he said.

His next statement piece, which he designed while studying to become a chef, was a prom dress for Deirdre that later won him a prestigious award in Ireland, and in a roundabout way lead him to work in his first fashion house in London.

To this day Deirdre is still donning her brother’s dresses.

“She is the best dressed farmer’s wife in Kerry,” laughs O’Neill heartily.

O'Neill found his grove in London, and after a short stint in Europe, followed by a return trip to Ireland for a course, he finally made it his business to pursue his dream of becoming a fashion designer in Paris.
“I had been working in Dublin for Ib Jorgensen, the man who made me fall in love with fashion as a child, and he told me I should be in Paris or Milan, so I took his advice and left for Milan shortly after,” said O’Neill.
“I tried to get a job with Valentino but I couldn’t get past the door, so when that failed I tried my hand at modeling. I had modeled in Ireland in the past, so I thought I’d get a job doing that at least.”
When Milan wasn’t churning out the jobs he decided to head for the French capital.

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