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.
“I arrived in Paris with no money. I was broke. I stayed in a youth hostel and called Mom and Dad to send me some money.”
Things went from bad to worse. “I had to take a job in McDonald’s to pay the bills,” he admitted.
Ironically O’Neill, who once represented Ireland at the Culinary Olympics, had “no idea how to make a hamburger, can you believe that!”
O’Neill lasted two weeks at the fast food chain, and within a few months was on the road he set out to take in the first place.
“Through working in an American restaurant I met someone who got me a job for Christian Lacroix,” said O’Neill, referring to the famous French couture designer.
And so began his path in the fashion industry. Considering the possibility of trying his hand at fashion in New York, O’Neill applied for a Morrison visa and was successful.
He moved to the Big Apple in 1993 and was quick to make a name for himself. His French partner, Pascal, followed him over, and today the couple reside in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
After successful stints with the designer Carmen Marc Valvo and the A-list label Badgley Mischka, O’Neill is now the creative director for Theia.
When O’Neill met the Irish Voice he was busy with his team at Theia preparing the fall 2011 collection for preview. A buyer from Saks Fifth Avenue was viewing pieces from the collections.
When the appointment came to a close the Irish Voice was given a private tour of the racks of Celtic inspired dresses soon to be worn by all New York fashionistas.
Speaking about the inspiration behind his fall 2011 collection, O’Neill said he was motivated by the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels, created by Celtic monks in 800 AD.
“After seeing The Secret of Kells (an animated feature film nominated for an Oscar last year) I fell it love with it. It brought me immediately back to my passion for the Book of Kells when I was initially studying fashion,” explains the designer.
O’Neill’s upcoming fall collection includes classically cut dresses that incorporate the decorative swirls, Celtic knots and interlacing patterns that adorn the parchment pages of Ireland’s finest national treasure.
“I wanted to incorporate my Irish roots. We have an amazing heritage and I’m proud of that, and I want to share that with people,” said O’Neill.
Each of O’Neill’s creations have their own tales. A signature cocktail dress tells the story of Newgrange (a prehistoric monument located in Co. Meath). The dress has subtle spirals mimicking the spirals etched into the stone.
“When people hear the story of Newgrange and how old it is they are amazed,” he said.
“No one has explored our heritage in the world of fashion, so now is my time.”
O’Neill gets home twice a year. His parents run O’Neill’s bed and breakfast, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean in Ballyheigue. (www.bedandbreakfastkerry.com)
“I love going back every year. The place is always the way I remember it,” he said.
O’Neill has become a mini-celebrity in his village. The local school was recently conducting a talk on entrepreneurs, and O’Neill’s success in the fashion world was highlighted.
“Apparently there was a picture of Bill Gates and ME on the wall,” he laughed.
Although Bening didn’t wear O’Neill’s evening gown for her Oscar appearance, he knows that achieving his ultimate goal of growing his brand is within reach.
“For now my focus will be to have my own runway show at Fashion Week in New York this year,” he said.
“It’s all go but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”
For more information on Don O'Neill and Theia, go to www.theiacouture.com.