Saturday 7 December 2019

Love, Light and Happy Returns: Oprah Winfrey and a wedding all in one weekend for Don O'Neill

Don O'Neill, fashion designer to the stars, waited 23 years, and then, in one weekend, a birthday, a wedding and Oprah Winfrey came all at once

Don O'Neill and his fiance Pascal.
Don O'Neill and his fiance Pascal.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

You might imagine that the one glorious advantage of a wedding with two grooms is that there would be zero dress stress around the big day. But when one of the grooms is a designer to the stars, atelier anxiety somehow still finds a way of intruding.

Fashion supremo Don O'Neill was in the process of sorting out the last few details of his nuptials to Pascal Guillermie, which take place in Kerry this weekend, when a call came through which stopped him in his tracks. It was from Oprah Winfrey's team. They wanted two of his glittering beaded embroidered tops as options for the cover of Oprah's magazine this coming November, with the shoot due to take place this past Friday, a mere 12 hours before his wedding yesterday.

In the hectic whirlwind of getting ready for the long-awaited trip back to Ireland, and bedding down the final details of the wedding day itself, it was possibly the last thing he needed. But on the other hand: you don't say no to O.

"(The tops) take six weeks to embroider", Don recalls with a sigh. "And they knew they were shooting the cover six months ago: Oprah's schedule is carefully managed." Instantly it was all hands on deck.

"There are people right now working around the clock in our factories to make it happen", he tells me. "Once they are ready they'll go to Hearst Tower (on Central Park West) where they'll use them or not. It feels like it's another wheel on this big machine that's turning but the number of wheels is not set: people are always adding new wheels, new cogs, new gears, whether you like it or not.

"Just leaving New York for a week feels cataclysmic, a really big deal."

You could certainly say that. By midweek there were exhalations in the departures' lounge and a final, liberating set of wheels rising up under the airplane bringing Don and Pascal back to the Kingdom where the designer's home village of Ballyheigue sparkled like Oprah in her Christmas finery. Don tells me that he would have loved to have gotten married in Ballyheigue Church ("Pascal asked 'can't we just rent it? I said: 'that's not how it works'). But a spectacular alternative was planned.

"There is going to a female celebrant who will perform the ceremony, which will be a first for many of the people there. We created the ceremony with her. We will be outdoors, looking out over the castle ruins in Ballyheigue, facing out over the bay. It will be a very spiritual ceremony that focusses on love and responsorial psalms that we wrote. My sister, Deirdre, will sing. Everyone who is there we love with all our hearts. Afterward because there was no venue we're moving to a marquee which will be made of all glass. There will be wooden floors, and fuchsia - all very rustic."

The ceremony is the culmination of a 23-year love story, which began in 1993 when Don was looking after the costumes for a production at the Opera de Lyon, in which Pascal was a dancer. Don remembers his French amour as "just the most charismatic individual I had ever met, with sparkling eyes and an incredible warmth. And the body of a gymnast."

1993 turned out to be a memorable year on other fronts too. Lacroix and Dior both wound up offering the young designer internships during the winter of that year, and in the end he went with Lacroix, whose phantasmagorical designs and spectacular runway shows provided the inspiration necessary for O'Neill to expand his own vision as a designer. For a young man who had trained as a chef and started out making his sister's eighties shoulder pads from foam found in the back of a burnt-out car, it was an extraordinary start in the big leagues of fashion.

Towards the end of the internship O'Neill won a Morrison visa and, acting upon the advice of Christian Lacroix's astrologer, moved to New York, soon to be followed by Pascal. They were tough but heady years. Even though he had letters from Lacroix introducing him to designers including Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta, Don had a difficult time finding work.

Pascal also struggled to get a Green Card in those years and Don tells me that this, combined with the fact that their relationship had no real legal recognition, played into their decision not to adopt children. "We didn't feel that we would be able to offer a child the security it deserved because we didn't even have that ourselves yet", he recalls.

An interview with Ralph Lauren fell through, while Donna Karan and Bill Blass recoiled at his book of designs which had been 'Lacroixified', which Don once translated for me as "boobs hanging out everywhere!" He sought the advice of another astrologer who advised him that a time of great transition would soon be upon him. He had Pascal put a deposit on an apartment in Park Slope (the swankiest area of Brooklyn) but managed to wiggle out of the contract to buy a house that they were truly in love with. Two weeks later he was offered a job at a brand new label, Theia.

"It's a division of a large Canadian evening wear company and I've been given free rein to create it", Don explains. "But in the last few years that company has fired 15 designers from other divisions; if you're not performing you're out. That's the reality. People make fun of Heidi Klum on Project Runway when she says 'one minute you're in and the next you're out' but the reality is that there is no certainty in the world of fashion. You're always being humbled. When I get a massage they have to use their elbows to get the knots out of my back muscles."

Don would go on to design for a host of stars, including Annette Bening, Khloe Kardashian and Carrie Underwood who wore his dress in front of a few hundred million people at the Grammys. He says most of the stars he deals with are lovely but there have been exceptions.

"Oprah is so down-to-earth but there are other stars who show a lot of ego and get very demanding. I have encountered that as well. There was one person, who I won't name, who I had really admired for years, and I got the opportunity to dress and we went to her TV studios and the audience were there and she was so sweet. Then she came off camera for the fitting and she was not a nice person. She was rude and pushy and we were just an object to getting the dress, it was really discouraging."

Other collaborations have been notably easier: Over time he and Pascal, who founded his own flower design company, Fleur De Pascal, have worked together with Pascal crafting a memorable glass bouquet for Don's epic bridal show a few years ago. "I had to think of a design that would not obscure the dress", Pascal explains.

Over the past few decades they have introduced each other as 'my husband.' "But once he proposed I lost my status as husband and became a mere fiance, but I was very happy anyway and even happier to reclaim my status as husband, thanks, in part, to Ireland which voted yes in May of last year", Pascal tells me.

If 2015 was significant for the couple, so was 2013. Three years ago they went to Miami Beach for their 20th anniversary, but unknown to Pascal, Don had organised a surprise. The designer had arranged for a plane to fly over the beach, trailing a banner asking Pascal to marry him. Don had hired a photographer to capture the special moments, and she had taken up a discreet position nearby. As Pascal dried off after a swim in the sea, Don presented him with a handmade anniversary card and Cartier Trinity ring in white gold, palladium and ceramic.

"I wanted him to read the words, as I had written about how much he means to me, and my emotions got the better of me," he recalled. "I started crying, so Pascal thought there was something badly wrong. Then I told him to look up at the sky as the plane was now behind me, with its beautiful banner announcing, 'Pascal, je t'aime, will you marry me?'" Even the jaded Miami Beach sunbathers erupted into cheers at that.

Pascal also designed the flower arrangements for the wedding, in collaboration with a local florist in Kerry, and tells me that the arrangements are an homage to Don's late mother, Mim, who passed away in 2012. As with Philip Treacy before him, Don's mother was his first and most important muse. She ran the family B&B in Kerry, but in the early 1960s had nannied for the family who owned Colgate in New York, where she acquired a taste for fine clothes, particularly those designed by Ib Jorgenson.

Don came out to his parents when he was 23 but his mother already knew - "as mothers do, they are more intuitive" - and she was always his greatest supporter.

"The hardest part this weekend is not having mom there", Don tells me. "Because, as excited as everyone is, she would have been the most excited of all. And all of the fussing and what she's wearing and what we're wearing; that would have totally been her cup of tea. Pascal thinks that the wedding is a secret but everyone knows about it and she'd have been in the thick of it. I'd rather have mom there and the day be pouring rain than have mom in heaven keeping the clouds away."

In the last few years Don has become close to the Irish author Lorna Byrne, who wrote the book Angels In My Hair. "Lorna came into my life after mom passed away", he recalls. "I did an interview on The John Murray Show. Kathryn Thomas was sitting in for him. We spoke about mom and it was quite emotional. I got a book from Jean Callaghan who represents Lorna. There was a note saying that this might bring me some comfort. I looked at the book and it was about the idea of angels communicating with people and I thought 'hmm . . . I'm not sure about this'. The book got buried on my desk and one day I had nothing planned to read for the subway ride home and there are pictures of mom on my desk and the book somehow resurfaced in front of one of mom's photos.

"I read the book in two or three days and the message of it really resonated with me. I was brought up Catholic and lapsed as most of us do. My relationship with the Church was fractured because of their attitude to me as a gay man. But my dad said you have to get beyond the Church because the Church is just a conduit to God."

Lorna was with Don when he received his honorary doctorate in Cork last year. "When I made my speech after receiving my doctorate I thanked mom and I was an emotional mess", Don explains. "I said I was sure she was standing here beside me. At the end of the evening Lorna came up to me and she said 'your mom was here and she was standing beside you and she had the biggest smile on her face and she was wearing this sort of pinky coral patterned dress.' What Lorna didn't know was that was what we'd buried mom in."

This weekend is a double party for Don because as well as finally becoming a married man he also turns 50 - another big cake was planned for immediately after the wedding. "This has to be the end of midlife crises!" Pascal laughs. "He's been through at least 2,000 so far, so the end is in sight.

"When I hear things on the news where the report says "a 24-year-old man" or a 34-year-old man" I think "that sounds quite old", Don adds. "I somehow don't see myself as a man yet. Somehow in my teenage years my vision of what a man is got distorted. I have a bit of a Peter Pan thing going on. My design assistants are 23 and 24 and I think we're all the same age! And I genuinely don't notice any differences until I happen to mention someone like Tina Turner and they're like "who?" And then it dawns on me that there is an itsy bitsy bit of a difference."

The couple have already had their honeymoon, taking in the "dream trip" to Bora Bora last year. "We did it first because we knew the wedding would be on the expensive side and we'd be flat broke and would have to take time off to go to Europe to do it", Don explains.

"When everyone arrives into the marquee there is an extraordinary ceili band, champion musicians, which will play when people arrive and right through the ceremony. And what nobody knows is that Senator Frances Black is going to sing our first song. She and her husband are coming down with their daughter Aoife. We also have an amazing band and then we have the birthday cake at midnight. I'm sure I won't sleep a wink. We're both so excited for this new chapter in our lives and to have everyone we love around us."

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