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Don O'Neill: Dressed for Oscar success

Ballyheigue-born Don O'Neill is tipped to pull off an Oscar coup -- and, as Donal Lynch discovers, the fashion designer's rise to fame has all the elements of a big-screen tale: rejection, daring bluff, waiting on tables and dogged perseverance

IF the thousands of young people who may have to emigrate in the next few years do need an uplifting and amusing success story to keep them going as they trudge around foreign cities looking for work, then they could do worse than thinking of Don O'Neill.

Back when we really were poor (as opposed to outraged at being slightly less wealthy), O'Neill, an aspiring fashion student who nobody had heard of, travelled from Dublin to Italy and optimistically presented himself outside Valentino's villa in Rome. He barely had enough money to eat and his portfolio was in the backpack on his shoulder. He might have been a beggar for all the attention the Italian guard, who hadn't a word of English, paid him.

Undeterred the young Irishman insouciantly handed him his CV along with the number of the youth hostel he was staying in. And then he waited for stardom to call.

"Bizarrely I never heard from Valentino," O'Neill sighs. "Nothing was working out. And I was soon looking for a job in McDonald's."

This would be a rather non-fairytale ending to the story were it not for the fact that we are laughing about it in a Manhattan skyscraper from which O'Neill now heads up a women's clothing label, Theia. Since his run-in with Valentino's guards he has done a FAS course, quaked before Ralph Lauren himself and travelled to Paris on a quest for buttons with Prince Charles' closest female friend. "Perseverance and a little neck was what I had," he remembers. "Sometimes when you're young you sort of might have to flip a few burgers to do what you really want."

And what he really wanted since he was a small boy growing up in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, was to be a fashion designer. As with Philip Treacy before him, his mother was his first and most important muse. She ran the family B&B in Kerry, but in the early Sixties had nannied for the family who owned Colgate in New York, where she acquired a taste for fine clothes.

"She would go on these shopping trips to Dublin and would come back with these Ib Jorgensen coats and dresses. I was fascinated by how the clothes were made. As a small boy I took them and turned them inside out. I could see the Jorgensen clothes were done by hand -- they were exquisitely tailored, the seams were inside. That was amazing to me. You don't have to go very far back before clothes in every town in Ireland were made by dressmakers and tailors. Those places disappeared but I think that there was still a certain hunger for that fine craftsmanship."

He trained as a chef and had wan aspirations of working at the Park Hotel in Kenmare but 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 Upper Leeson Street.

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, among others. For a week his outfits dominated the windows of Switzers, but 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.

In London he worked for the designer Donald Campbell and came out again, this time in the more traditional sense. "That was a big thing for me. There had been one or two guys who were out in college. London was a bigger city, with its own gay scene. I was able to be myself a bit more there."

After working with Campbell he was head-hunted by the colourful socialite Baroness Tryon who ran the Kanga label and became famous as Prince Charles' close friend (after her death in 1997 he said she was "the only woman who understood me").

"Kanga", as she became known, was adorably out of touch with the practicalities of running a business ("I remember her once saying, 'we MUST have those buttons Givenchy uses', and so we flew business class to Paris to buy buttons," Don laughs). Her label soon went out of business and her store in the Westbury Mall was closed.

Once again adrift, O'Neill returned to Dublin where he started a FAS course in cutting and draping and took a flat on Mary Street. This would have been quite a comedown were he not "devoid of airs and graces". In his absence Dublin's gay scene had developed a bit, making the return a bit more bearable. After finishing that, things came full circle in a way as he went to work for Ib Jorgensen.

He stayed a few months and then once again, O'Neill decided to throw himself to the four winds. Ditching his suitcase in Amsterdam with close friend and 1985 Miss Ireland Anne Marie Gannon, he travelled around Europe, settling in Paris, where he waited tables and dashed himself like a moth against the flame of the city's impenetrably cliquey fashion scene.

"I went to Yves Saint Laurent and I was so nervous. I told them that Pierre Berge (Laurent's partner) had told me to come -- just praying he wouldn't waltz in at that moment. They sent me in to meet Loulou de la Falaise (Laurent's imperious muse at the time). I knew she had been married to the Knight of Glin and I thought 'fantastic' and made sure to mention Ireland and Limerick, and that I was from Co Kerry."

But Loulou didn't appear too impressed with Don. "She said: 'I suggest you take this book and throw it in the Seine.'"

Eventually via some jaw- droppingly brilliant bluffing -- intimating he was friends with various designers -- and an inspired asymmetrical haircut, he went to work for Christian Lacroix, who treated him well.

Of the designer's current financial woes (Lacroix was recently declared bankrupt) O'Neill says "that's sad because what Lacroix had in Paris was incredibly French -- extravagant and made to appeal to a small group of people. He never compromised his talent to make money. Even his handbags and shoes were very art driven".

By now weary of the "rather closed" scene in Paris, O'Neill applied for and got a Morrison visa and began to plan to move to New York, soon to be followed by his partner, Pascal.

With letters of recommendation from Lacroix to Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan, he felt confident that the streets would be paved with gold. "I absolutely thought I'd walk in somewhere.

"My book of designs had been Lacroix-ified -- boobs hanging out everywhere! Donna Karan asked me 'who the hell wears this stuff?' Bill Blass -- same thing."

He met Oscar de la Renta but asked him for too high a salary -- $35,000 (this was 1994). At Ralph Lauren's Madison Avenue office "everything, and I mean everything, was white". But Lauren had just expanded to London and loved that Don was connected to the Sloaney set. "His secretary kept coming in and telling him his helicopter was waiting. And he'd say: 'Oh I'm coming.' He went through my book and recognised a project I did for Dior with a spiral staircase and he told me that it was based on a staircase at his own home in Connecticut. I thought: 'This is serendipity'. When I left there my feet did not touch Madison Avenue."

Weeks turned into months before a letter of regret arrived from Lauren. Don was devastated. He turned to the "bridge" evening wear market, which supplied dresses to many of New York's department stores, but a period of unemployment soon followed and he was reduced to sleeping on the floor of friends. Eventually he was hired by a fan of Absolutely Fabulous (who was excited to meet "the Lacroix guy", as the label was used and mocked extensively in the show) and worked with him for 10 years before getting itchy feet to move around again.

But this time he wasn't going to do anything without expert advice. "There was a lot of stress. Pascal didn't have a green card, we were looking for a house. There was a lot going on, so I went to an astrologer. He said that amazing things were in store and there will be a big transition."

He had Pascal put a deposit on an apartment in Park Slope (the swanky 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 at job at a brand new label, Theia.

It should have been a golden opportunity -- but the blithe confidence of youth had by this stage given way to the doubts of middle-age (he is now 44). "I was totally worn down. I actually felt so bad about myself that I didn't think I could do it."

His first collection was a massively fraught affair, sending him into a deep depression, but slowly he established himself as a solo designer. "I felt like a charlatan -- that they would see through me -- meanwhile they were talking about million-dollar shows and hyping me to Neiman Marcus. I felt I was going to jump off a building. The only thing that got me through it was Pascal telling me: 'Just get through today'."

Eventually the first collection made the runway and was rapturously received. His range is now carried by all the top NY stores, including Saks and Neiman Marcus, and also in Costume in Dublin.

In the intervening years Don has made a success of Theia -- American Idol winner Carrie Underwood has worn his gorgeously flattering designs. Life has calmed down and he says that he would now marry Pascal -- if only it were legal in New York.

He's picked up bits and pieces of of New York (he speaks very earnestly of his psychic healer), but the soft Kerry accent is mostly still there and in conversation he's emotional -- breaking down at the memory of an employee's loyalty -- open and funny.

He has high hopes for the label and there have been rumours that he may pull off an Oscar coup. Even if that happens, however, there is one woman who will have the jump on Tinseltown's starlets. "Yes, I still dress my mother," he laughs as we gaze across at the midtown Manhattan skyline. "She is, I would imagine, the best-dressed farmer's wife in Ireland."

Costume is at 10 Castle Market, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 679 4188

For more on Don O'Neill and Theia: www.theiacouture.com

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