Don O’Neill on the influences that have lead to the creation of Theia couture

WITH the recent focus on designers such as JW Anderson, Simone Rocha, Natalie B Coleman and Danielle Romeril, one could be forgiven for assuming that their success is somehow unprecedented in the history of Irish design.

Don O’Neill on the influences that have lead to the creation of Theia couture

Clearly, the likes of Lainey Keogh, John Rocha, Orla Kiely, Paul Costelloe and Louise Kennedy would suggest otherwise. And, of course, Don O’Neill.

“Oh, I love Simone Rocha’s work!” Don tells me when I phone him at his New York studio for our interview. “She’s well on her way to becoming an international superstar.” He feels very proud of the talent that is emerging from Ireland, and in March returned to attend Kerry Fashion Week to offer advice to the young designers taking part. “I was seriously impressed by the kids who participated at Kerry Fashion Week, but with all that talent, it’s really important that they get the support they need. There is potential for the fashion industry in Ireland to thrive from a manufacturing point of view if someone put their shoulder to the wheel and supported these young designers and gave them the tools they need.”

If anyone knows how to succeed in the fashion industry, it’s O’Neill. While a television documentary about Karl Lagerfeld prompted his initial interest in design and he was encouraged by an art teacher he describes as ‘gifted’ in secondary school, his first attempt at art college in Cork proved more difficult than he thought. “I was only 16 when I sat my Leaving Cert,” he explains, “most of the kids were a year older than I was, and they were smoking and drinking; I felt like a bit of an outsider, like I didn’t fit in with the ‘cool art scene’ and I was so homesick that I dropped out after three months.”

His parents supported his subsequent decision to enrol in cookery school, but he says that, “even in the margins of my culinary books , there were sketches of evening gowns,” and it was a mere six months after graduation when he entered a fashion competition. “The second prize was a Michael Mortell suit,” he says, “and I wanted to win the suit for my sister Deirdre who was my muse and model as we were growing up. But I didn’t win second prize. I won first prize, which was tuition paid for the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion in Dublin.”

Packing away his knives, he went to Dublin and graduated from the college with distinction, moving to London to intern with Gina Fratini, before being headhunted by Lady Dale Tryon, also known as Kanga, a friend of Prince Charles. He then moved to Paris, inventing relationships with industry legends such as John Fairchild, the publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, to get through the door at Chanel, YSL and Dior. His gamble paid off, with both Dior and Christian Lacroix offering him internships for the winter of 1993, with O’Neill ultimately choosing Lacroix.

“Christian was really good to me,” he says, “He loved the Irish!” but, after winning a coveted Morrison visa, the lure of New York proved too much for O’Neill to resist and he moved there in ’93. He was hired by the evening wear designer Carmen Marc Valvo, spending 10 years with the company, progressing from junior designer to design director. “Ten years is a long time,” O’Neill says, “and I wasn’t entirely happy there but the opportunities in the evening wear market in New York were very limited at the time.”

The phone call he received in 2005 from the JS group who wanted him to resurrect ailing brand Badgley Mischka, although a daunting task, seemed like divine intervention. “It was a baptism of fire,” O’Neill admits now, “going from working as part of a large design team to having the responsibility for an entire collection on my shoulders alone.” He was there for three and a half years when the licence for Badgley Mischka was due for renewal. “The man I worked for decided that because we were so successful, and because everybody knew that it was me who was designing the clothes, paying a huge licence fee for the Badgley Mischka name didn’t make sense anymore. He told me that we didn’t need that name anymore, that we should start up our own label.”

And thus, his label Theia was born. Theia, taken from Greek mythology, is the name of the goddess of light, which works perfectly with his philosophy as a designer. “Every woman has the Theia woman inside her. It’s just a matter of allowing yourself to see her. I think a lot of that comes from confidence. The dress is really just a vehicle to allow you to shine from the inside out.”

His many celebrity fans from Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Oprah Winfrey, to our very own Seoige sisters who work Theia gowns to the IFTAs, seem to agree.

When I suggest it’s all a long way from the seaside town of Ballyheigue in Kerry, O’Neill is quick to highlight the influence that his upbringing and Irish heritage has on his work, claiming that even the natural beauty of his hometown fed his creativity. “I remember being fascinated by the reflection of the sun on the ocean as it would track against the sky, and thinking I wanted to cut out the middle of that sunshine and make it into a sparkly gown,” he laughs.

Ballyheigue was an explicit inspiration for his celebrated ‘sunset’ dress, where O’ Neill used a photo his brother had taken of a sunset and converted it into a silk organza print, but it’s also proved to have a subconscious influence as well. “I made a nude dress with black embroidery at the hem, and took it home for a photoshoot with my niece on the beach. When we stood Aoife on the rocks, the hem almost disappeared against the black mussels, she looked like an Irish goddess growing out of the rocks. It had obviously been in my psyche for years and I didn’t even realise it.”

In general, O’Neill has positive memories of his childhood, telling me stories of a haunted castle with secret passageways rumoured to be full of hidden treasure, shipwrecked boats, and myths about the rituals of the Tuatha de Danann. “When I was little, the world was a magical place and everything was possible. There were fairies and ghosts and pirates and ship-wreckers and treasure hunters and God knows what else. Enid Blyton wouldn’t have gotten a look in! And it all fertilised my imagination.”

Although he describes his childhood as ‘idyllic’, O’Neill readily admits there were difficulties too, not least of all the dawning realisation that he was gay. “It was hard,” he says, “although being a teenager and coming to terms with your sexuality is difficult whether you’re gay or straight. It wasn’t really handled well, and I don’t blame my parents for this; they were always incredibly supportive. Sex just seemed to be something that everyone in Ireland was supremely uncomfortable with. Most kids were handed a Facts of Life book and told to get on with it, but when you get the book and being gay isn’t in the book, then who do you turn to? I couldn’t confide in anyone. I thought I was the only gay person in Ireland and I remember praying all sorts of novenas and rosaries to be cured, and nothing happened.”

O’Neill says that it was a long and lengthy process to come to terms with his sexuality, but that this feeling of being ‘different’ is something that infuses how he runs the Theia label. “I wasn’t one of the cool kids,” he reminds me, “I was the culchie from Kerry at art school. I know what it’s like to be an outsider, so I want to make sure to include everybody so that no one feels left out. I want every woman to be able to find a dress, no matter what her shape or what her size is.”

He dressed actress Gabourey Sidibe for the 2014 Oscars, saying that a “lot of designers wouldn’t dress her because she’s not their ‘ideal’ of feminine beauty. For us at Theia, Gabby is a gorgeous woman and she deserves to look pretty in a dress. We don’t leave anyone sitting on the outside, miserable, because they don’t belong at the party.” This ethos is reflected in his choice of models for his shows and presentations. “Women come in many shapes, sizes and colours and on the runway we try to represent the diversity of colour to reflect all the women we dress.”

As O’ Neill points out to me, the Theia brand is global, and becoming increasingly popular in the Middle East where there’s a huge appetite for evening wear and ample opportunities to wear it. When I ask if this is something he wants to expand upon, he tells me that his “ambition for the future is always to somehow be able to continue to do what I do, but on a much bigger and grander scale. I’d love to develop my design aesthetic into more of a lifestyle brand, incorporating a holistic approach to spiritual health and inner beauty and then use Theia clothing, fragrance and makeup for the outer covering to complete the picture.”

And on a personal note? The last two years have been challenging for O’Neill and his entire family when they were devastated by the loss of his mother to cancer, but he considers himself fortunate to have the love and support of his long term partner and fiancée Pascal Guillermie. Pascal, who owns his own floral company, Fleur de Pascal, lives with Don in their Brooklyn home.

“We’re hoping to get married within the next 18-24 months,” Don says, “When you’ve been with someone for 21 years the guest list can become unmanageable!” He tells me that they are planning to get married in Ireland, and although he is happy to see the progress in Ireland towards legalising gay marriage, he still senses resistance from some at home.

“Most of our family members love us and accept us the way we are but with us getting married, there’s a feeling that we’re crossing a line. A lot of that is a result of the Church here digging in their heels and remaining so adamantly anti-gay marriage.” Angels in my Hair, by Lorna Byrne, a writer he greatly admires, has been a great source of comfort and he reads out a passage out to me. “I am frequently asked about homosexuality. God has told me that this is part of what he has created. He already knows which of his children will be lesbian or gay at conception. This is part of their life path and he loves them as much as everyone else.”

He sighs before continuing: “It would be nice for some of the kids out there who are struggling with their sexuality to know that we’re made this way and it’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a part of who you are. This is your path.” Although he agrees that the new pope has made efforts to take the pressure off the anti-gay marriage movement, it is still “so hurtful that the Church themselves have traditionally served as advocates of setting up these divisions and making people feel bad about themselves. Everyone needs to know that they’re not alone, that we’re all unique and special and beautiful — and it’s not just because you’re wearing a Theia dress, it’s what’s inside that matters.”

He pauses and gives a small laugh. “Although the Theia dress helps, naturally.”

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