How a Kerry farmer's son could dress an Oscar-winner
Published 23/02/2011 | 05:00
At Don O'Neill's sleek and airy Manhattan design studio there is an air of expectant tension. Racks of dresses glitter gorgeously along one wall and Don, frazzled from seven-day, 12-hour work weeks, sits at his desk, a tape measure around his neck.
These next few weeks could be the culmination of a lot of hard work for the 44-year-old Kerry-born designer.
An Oscar-nominated Hollywood actress -- he can't say which one -- is considering wearing one of his dresses down the red carpet for the big night on Sunday.
This would usually be unambiguously great news but all of his couture dresses are one-offs and he needed this particular one to show to a group of buyers next week. The actress -- or, more accurately, her stylist -- will keep the dress for now.
The millions in free advertising Don's label, Theia, would receive should she decide to wear the dress -- and win the Oscar -- outweighs the stress of working to satisfy other clients. Even aside from the starlet's whims, Don knows he is up against it.
The big fashion houses can afford to hire actresses in ad campaigns, meaning it's easier to have them wear their red-carpet designs.
"The Diors and Chanels of this world can afford to buy BMWs for the actresses they are trying to woo," he sighs. "Maybe I'll buy her a box of Butler's Irish chocolates."
And yet for all his mordant humour Don is riding a wave of momentum -- Norah Jones wore one of his designs at the Grammys last week, which was a huge coup -- and he is used to overcoming stiff odds.
His journey from the wilds of Kerry to Manhattan via Christian Lacroix and Ralph Lauren is so unlikely that someone preferring Butler's to BMW is almost plausible by comparison.
Growing up on the family farm in Ballyheigue he had decided he was going to be a chef and had notions of working at the Park Hotel in Kenmare. Fashion was his first love, however, and his younger sister, Deirdre, his first muse.
'The very first gown I ever designed was for her," he remembers. "I was 18 and I decided I was going to make a dress for her debs. This was the '80s and I was obsessed with shoulder pads.
"I went to this little haberdashery in Tralee and they had these little shoulder pads, and knew they were too small. Then I had an idea. There was old car my father had and I went and cut the foam out of the seat of the car and used that to make these really huge shoulder pads."
He soon decided to "come out" to his parents as a fashion designer. They agreed to support him but opportunities were scarce in Ireland. It was then that he won a fashion competition that the Irish Independent was running. The prize was a place in "the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion" on Leeson Street and O'Neill established himself as the star student.
His graduation collection caught the eyes of Irish fashion doyenne, Gina Fratini, who designed for Princess Diana, amongst others. Staying in Dublin was never on the cards.
"I didn't even think, I just knew I had to leave. There was the slight stigma of being a culchie in Dublin but also there weren't many opportunities. Those (of his generation) who managed to stay and make a go of it, like Louise Kennedy, were exceptions."
He went to London first -- working for the designer Donald Campbell and for Baroness Tryon. Known to one and all as Kanga, she was rumoured to be Prince Charle's mistress (after her death in 1997 he said that she was "the only woman who ever understood me"). Don remembers her as the type of charmingly eccentric woman who would fly to Paris, on a whim, to buy buttons.
After a period back in Dublin he moved to Paris. Via some incredible bluffing -- intimating he was friends with various designers -- and an inspired asymmetrical haircut and sailor suit, he went to work for the recently bankrupt Christian Lacroix, who treated him well.
"Like many designers he was a very generous man, constantly unsure of his own creativity," Don remembers. "It was the people around him who could be difficult."
By now Don had come out as gay and had met his partner of two decades, Pascal.
In the early 1990s, when Don won the Morrison visa, the Frenchman, a dancer, agreed to follow him to New York. In the Big Apple the young designer ploughed a lonely furrow -- he was rejected by Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass and Donna Karan -- but eventually found his own niche with his current label, Theia, which he has nurtured into a great success story.
Last year he scored a huge coup when Taylor Swift wore one of his creations for the launch of her new album at the Rockefeller Center in New York. The album went to number one and millions saw her wear Don's dress as she performed on The Today Show.
Nothing would compare to Oscar glory, however. Don knows he has a few sleepless nights ahead before the red-carpet moment of truth.
Unlike his bigger competitors Don doesn't have an army of publicists to harangue stylists into using his designs. But isn't there always hope that a fashion-forward actress will go with a fresh new face?
Don laughs nervously. "From your lips to God's ears."
For more information on Don O'Neill and Theia, go to www.theiacouture.com. O'Neill's designs are also available from Costume at 10 Castle Market, Dublin 2. Phone (01) 6794188