Tuesday 17 September 2019

'I'm not a designer in an ivory tower' - Kerryman Don O'Neill reflects on 10 years at the top of the fashion industry

Don O'Neill has dressed superstars and royals in his Theia gowns. As the brand celebrates its 10th birthday, the Kerryman sat down with our Fashion Editor to talk about how hard work is the driver of all inspiration, and his desire to make women feel confident, glamorous and, above all, comfortable

Ballyheigue-born designer Don O'Neill
Ballyheigue-born designer Don O'Neill
Oprah Winfrey wearing a Theia gold sequinned dress when she received an honorary Oscar in 2011
Love by Theia slip dress with oversized red paillettes, available from Neiman Marcus, at the end of August, $235
Don O’Neill with his husband Pascal Guillermie, a ballet dancer turned florist. They married in Ireland at Ballyheigue Castle three years ago
Theia couture one-shoulder draped bodice gown with front slit, €1,220, Emporium Kalu
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

We are surrounded by fashion fans in the Ballyroe Heights Hotel in Tralee and I know better than to pull the main man away from his legion of admirers, who are all gussied up and queueing excitedly for photos with Don O'Neill and his husband, Pascal Guillermie.

Dapper in their matching white dinner jackets and dickey bows, the pair pose for photographs for almost an hour. In the kingdom of Kerry, the local-boy-made-good is fashion royalty. What we didn't know that night as we sat down for the Recovery Haven fundraiser - now in its second year and inspired by his late mother, Mim - is that Don was about to dress another royal.

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In the last few years, the Ballyheigue-born designer has dressed Princess Mary of Denmark and Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, as well as Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, in Theia, the brand he launched 10 years ago this month and named after the goddess of light.

The latest royal to fall under the Irishman's spell is Princess Grace's youngest daughter, Stephanie De Monaco, who wore a yellow, embroidered dress to the wedding of her son, Louis Ducruet, last month.

Meghan Markle's decision to wear Don's flange-shoulder ivory crepe gown (pictured right with his illustration) to a state dinner with the king of Tonga in Nuku'alofa last October, put a global spotlight on the New York-based brand. Theia clocked up a phenomenal number of page impressions and its site traffic went up 400pc that week.

One might have thought that the 53-year-old titian-haired designer, who worked in McDonald's in Paris in the early 1990s to keep his dreams of a fashion career alive, might now be feeling a little chuffed and content to take some time off, but Don is having none of it. Instead, he has spent the summer putting the finishing touches to two exclusive collections for luxury US department store chain Neiman Marcus, including a couture line, which is available to buy here at Emporium Kalu in Naas, Co Kildare from early next month. There's a younger, Love by Theia line of youthful occasion dresses targeting the millennial customer and they can be ordered online from Neiman Marcus, which ships to Ireland.

Love by Theia slip dress with oversized red paillettes, available from Neiman Marcus, at the end of August, $235
Love by Theia slip dress with oversized red paillettes, available from Neiman Marcus, at the end of August, $235

These two ranges are in addition to his main line, also sold at Emporium Kalu, while his bridal collection is available exclusively in Ireland at Folkster. Then there are the private commissions, such as a wedding dress for Gráinne Seoige - but I know better than to expect him to reveal all about that gúna.

Over the last decade Don O'Neill has dressed a tranche of celebrities in Theia, including Khloe Kardashian, singers Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Nora Jones, actress Angela Bassett, and then there was Oprah in 2011.

The then-queen of daytime TV liked his crunchy gold sequinned dress so much, she wore it on the cover of her magazine, O, and again to the Oscars the following year when she collect her honorary statuette.

But this Kerryman isn't one for gilding the lily and while he has banked an impressive line-up of celebrity traffic on the red carpet and bagged lots of loyal customers, it's been a roller-coaster of a decade, with some lows but thankfully lots of highs. The challenging retail landscape continues: Barneys New York, the luxury department store chain that long epitomised Manhattan style, filed for bankruptcy this month. But Don's response has been to tap into new opportunities the brand has identified in the market and among its tens of thousands of Instagram followers.

The two new collections have been well received and he is working every weekend through the autumn touring America, doing meet-and-greets with Neiman Marcus customers, and doing trunk shows of his latest gowns.

Does he ever get scared about what lies around the corner?

"Scared? Try terrified," he says with characteristic honesty. "It can be extremely stressful. The reality is I've seen a lot of designers who started off gung ho and if you do not perform, you're gone. It keeps you on a tight rope.

"I have my poor mother plagued. You'd swear mom was head of fashion in heaven and had a degree in it. I pray to her every day and between mom and my guardian angel, I call in all the outside help I can," says Don.

Before his daily commute from Brooklyn into Manhattan's Broadway, he does a mindfulness and creativity meditation.

"It's 10 minutes on YouTube and I do it to ground myself and to prepare myself for the day.

Oprah Winfrey wearing a Theia gold sequinned dress when she received an honorary Oscar in 2011
Oprah Winfrey wearing a Theia gold sequinned dress when she received an honorary Oscar in 2011

"As wonderful and as creative as the Theia studio is, every day can be a battle zone because there can be a production issue, a fabric issue, a dress that didn't work, a drape that didn't work, a fabric that came in in the wrong colour, and when you come to work in the morning, you don't know what's coming your way," he says.

But surely the royal customers - in particular Meghan - were a big bonus to business, and that external validation must be perceived as a leg-up in the hugely competitive world of fashion?

"The stores that buy Theia believe in my talent and I am so fortunate. I have a unique following because I know most of my stores.

"I'm not a designer in an ivory tower. There is a loving relationship there that makes the brand special, so when they see someone wearing my dresses, the stores are personally thrilled to bits for me, and for their customers.

"They are already proud to sell Theia, and when it's, 'Oh, the Duchess of Sussex is wearing Theia', or it's Angela Bassett or Princess Mary of Denmark - there is a layer of prestige that the man who made this dress also made the dress that you are wearing and it really does transfer," says Don.

He took up the position of creative director at Theia exactly a decade ago, after working as creative director of Badgley Mischka Platinum.

Don's career started in Dublin with couturier Ib Jorgensen. In Paris, he met Pascal, a ballet dancer who now works as a florist, and whom Don lovingly describes as "the wind beneath my wings".

Don was fortunate to work with the great Christian Lacroix in Paris, and the couturier offered encouragement in 1993 when Don secured a Morrison visa and moved to New York.

"From the beginning, the stars came, like Carrie Underwood, a huge cross-over star from country music to pop. She was on the cover of all the magazines and I was dressing her in Badgley Mischka just as she won American Idol," he explains.

Don O’Neill with his husband Pascal Guillermie, a ballet dancer turned florist. They married in Ireland at Ballyheigue Castle three years ago
Don O’Neill with his husband Pascal Guillermie, a ballet dancer turned florist. They married in Ireland at Ballyheigue Castle three years ago

Carrie was the first major celebrity to wear Theia on the red carpet and she did it again the Friday before last at her concert in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.

"Ten years of loyalty from Carrie. I'm over the moon," says Don.

He recalls the excitement when Oprah wore Theia in 2011.

"Her talk show was on air and it didn't get bigger than Oprah. She has worn a plethora of the world's most prestigious designers and the fact that she chose a dress by Don O'Neill from Ballyheigue for the cover of the September issue of her magazine, and wore it again to the Oscars and raved about how comfortable it was, was a great endorsement of the product.

"It made front page news on the Irish Independent the next day and I finally got to fit her in the Waldorf Astoria before the premiere of The Butler in 2013.

"With Meghan, I didn't get to meet her - not yet - but I was over the moon to have designed the ivory dress for her last year," says Don.

"The reaction was so immense, we decided to do a shorter, cocktail style of Meghan's dress for our mainline Autumn-Winter 2019 collection. It is in exactly the same crepe fabric she wore and will be available in navy in Emporium Kalu early next month."

While rivals look on at his enviable list of celebrity customers and his series of red carpet gowns, the Irishman is disarmingly straight-talking, especially when it comes to fame and fortune.

"I've never felt like I've succeeded. I feel I'm still working to this day to be successful. Every day I come to work is a new day. There's something about creative talent. It's not like you open a box and you look and there's your talent in the box, and you can take it out when you need to use it.

"I feel like every time I look in the box, it's empty and then out of nowhere, inspiration will come, but I never know when it will come, and where it will come from.

"Every day I just have to keep my head down and work really hard. I was always taught by my parents, Donal and Mim, who ran O'Neill's B&B overlooking beautiful Ballyheigue Bay, to work really hard. "I wasn't working towards being successful or being famous, it was just taking each dress at a time, making something beautiful and then just hoping that people would like it. So even starting out at Theia , there was no big vision to be hugely successful. It was one dress at a time and to this day, I'm still doing that, gúna by gúna."

Don recalls how when Theia launched in 2009, "The luxury market had completely collapsed, but we were very fortunate because our niche was always aspirational luxury. A lot of the luxury customers were no longer buying their super-expensive designer gowns.

"They still had functions they needed to go and we were perfect for that particular customer, who still wanted to be unique and special at her event and that's what got the ball rolling for us.

"It was a big challenge but we are coming into a new era now which mirrors the beginning of our career. Quality and workmanship have come to the fore and that's what is driving the company forward, which is great," says Don. The new couture line drills down to what he does well: beautiful dresses that are elevated and sophisticated. And he's a great man for including pockets, too.

"Well, if I can a put a pocket in it, there's a pocket," he laughs.

"It's something I've done for as long as I've been designing dresses. I feel that when a woman puts her hands into her pockets, you visibly see her relax into her dress. The pressure comes off. They just become comfortable. There's nothing more wonderful than seeing a woman being gorgeous and being comfortable at the same time."

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