Irish designer Don O'Neill on dressing the stars for Oscars success

Who better to give the lowdown on the Oscar red carpet than Don O’Neill, the Irish designer who was Oprah’s choice for the Academy Awards? Carolyn Moore reports.

Don O’Neill, one of Ireland’s most successful design exports, is just a few days from presenting his autumn collection for Theia.

IT’S 8am in New York, and Irish designer Don O’Neill is painting me a picture of a day in the life of one of Ireland’s most successful design exports. It’s not as glamorous as you might think.

“I’d send you a photo of my office but I’d be embarrassed for anyone to see it,” he laughs, describing an Aladdin’s cave of sparkling dresses and a desk piled high with sequined swatches, beaded butterflies, lamé bows and colourful embroideries. 

“I’m a magpie,” he says. “Everything I love I hoard, because I’m convinced I’ll use it some day.” 

As we speak, Don is just days from presenting his fall collection for Theia, and it’s still very much a work in progress. Last minute tweaks — a new neckline here, a more voluminous skirt there — will take him up to the wire, and those butterflies and bows could find their way onto a dress yet. 

A trained chef, he says he designs the way cooks — surrounding himself with the finest ingredients, then “weaving it all together when the whimsy strikes”. Not that he has time to sit around waiting for divine inspiration. The world of New York fashion never stops, and by anyone’s standards, Don’s schedule is relentless.

“Already we’re working on bridal,” he says of the spring 2019 collection the brand will present in April. 

“After that we’ll present resort in June; then I start the spring collection; we show bridal again in October; then pre-fall is due in December,” he explains. 

“Basically, we showed our 2018 pre-fall collection six weeks ago, which was all of 90 dresses, and I have to have 90 more ready for next week. It’s crazy!” 

Don O'Neill on the catwalk.

The resulting collections, he says, are “very much a team effort”, but it sounds dizzying nonetheless. Between the design and sales teams, “everybody has a say in what we do, and it’s up to me to distill that into what the collection becomes,” he says. 

“At the end of the day, we’re in the business of selling dresses, so we have to balance the creativity with the desire to reach the customer with dresses that are appealing and wearable. That’s how we keep the lights on in New York and it’s very competitive over here.” 

In the midst of all that craziness, should a celebrity or their stylist come knocking, that’s a door that has to be answered. Like every designer these days, Don is acutely aware of the integral role the red carpet plays in elevating the Theia brand, and at this time of year in particular, everyone is jostling for that precious red carpet real estate and the invaluable press that comes with it.

“It’s become increasingly challenging,” he says. “When I started working with Theia’s parent company 13 years ago I was designing the Badgley Mischka collection, so very early in my career I was dressing major American celebrities.

“It’s always been competitive — there are hundreds of designers to choose from, so whenever we managed to succeed on the red carpet it was always a milestone — but several years ago, it got ratcheted up a notch. Now the major brands take over hotel suites two weeks before the awards shows. They have their full couture collections, plus champagne, food service and gifting stations to woo the stylists.

“All they need is one dress on one major girl, and they’re competing for a limited number of nominees, so it’s a rarefied pyramid at the top,” he says. “It’s cutthroat — for us to even make an impression in this day and age is a big win.” While Irish actress Sarah Bolger dazzled in Theia at the IFTAs last month, Don is somewhat dismissive of suggestions that major Irish stars like Saoirse Ronan ‘should’ be wearing his designs. He’s realistic about how the game works, and knows what celebrities wear is also an endorsement of where they are in the hierarchy of Hollywood.

“People ask, why didn’t you dress Saoirse Ronan or Caitriona Balfe for the Golden Globes, but Caitriona wore Chanel and Saoirse wore Versace. That’s huge recognition for them, that houses making €30,000 couture dresses have two Irish actresses in their sights. It shows the world they’re at the apex of that pyramid.

“It would be wonderful for Saoirse to get to a point in her career where she felt she could give somebody from home a break on the international stage, but that’s a personal choice,” he adds. “I think they’re beholden to acknowledge their roots in some small way, and shine a light on Irish fashion. The media coverage and the pride at home would be spectacular. For me, giving back and acknowledging where I came from has always been so important.” Having frequently felt like an outsider, in his life and his career, a desire for inclusivity also informs Don’s work, and his design ethos is the same whether he’s dressing a superstar or a girl next door.

“A lot of girls feel transformed when they put on an evening dress; it’s a version of themselves they don’t see everyday,” he says. “My work is about making people feel their best; letting their inner light shine so you notice the person more than the dress. That’s my ethos no matter who we’re dressing; it’s not a question of size, or skin colour or what you look like – everyone is transformed when they feel confident,” he says.

“When Gabourey Sidibe needed a dress for the Oscars several years ago, they started at the top, and all the major designers politely declined for reasons that were blatantly obvious,” he tells me. “It was the year after her nomination, so she was no longer in the limelight and therefore couldn’t get anyone to dress her. Finally the request came to us – because as much as I would like to believe I’m a special designer, I’m not Valentino or Chanel –- and we said, of course we’ll dress her!

“She looked beautiful, and it wasn’t about how great the dress was, it was about her, how she felt and her beautiful big smile.

“I think it’s terrible for one human being to make another human being feel bad, and fashion has a master class in making people feel bad about themselves,” he adds. “My ethos is to use fashion as a tool to make women feel beautiful.”

Don with Oprah

With the Oscars coming up once more, I can’t but ask him about his shining moment – dressing Oprah for the awards in 2011. Don was understandably thrilled when she chose a gold Theia gown for the cover of O magazine’s September 2010 issue; but when her team contacted him again the following February to ask if he could alter the gown for the Oscars, “We just said ‘oh my God!’” Don says, his pride still evident. “The fact that she wore it twice, which most celebrities would never do… it was a double endorsement.” That endorsement – from the tip of the apex of the pyramid – put the then fledgling Theia brand on the map, and from Carrie Underwood to Amy Poehler to Taylor Swift, he’s been dressing the great and the good of showbiz ever since. A standout moment this year was seeing Kate Capshaw in Theia at the Golden Globes – particularly because it was such a culturally resonant moment.

“Fashion is about making a statement,” he says. “Usually it’s about who you are and what you’re trying to express as a person, but to see it used to help this political movement grow and become a powerful voice for so many women… it was extraordinary to have been part of that night and have several of our dresses on the red carpet. It was an inspired decision, wearing black in solidarity, to make that important, global statement, and I applaud them for it.”

We’ll have to wait and see if Theia makes it onto the Oscars red carpet tomorrow night, but given the impact of the Golden Globes, 2018 is certainly off to an extraordinary start for this endearingly modest Kerryman. As I leave him to begin another busy day at Theia HQ, Don is philosophical about the success he’s achieved. “I don’t see myself as a great designer,” he says. “I’m forever knocking myself off whatever perch people put me on.

“But I often think my success story could inspire a truly great Irish designer to do what I do, and do it even better. If that was my lasting legacy -- that I inspired some young kid at home onto the international path to fashion fame — I’d be happy.”


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