- Theia’s Irish Designer Don O’Neill: Hard work, Passion, and Talent -
Irish born and raised designer Don O’Neill is no stranger to hard work and determination. A humble upbringing to a father who worked in his father’s seaweed bath houses and living on the beach in west Ireland, Don discovered a fascination with fashion and beautiful garments early in his life.
Not knowing how he got there, one could assume the designer who has worked for Christian Lacroix in France, Carmen Marc Valvo, and Badgley Mischka to name a few easily stepped into the fashion world. I was able to sit down with Don (who has dressed celebrities like Carrie Underwood) during his Theia trunk show at Tootsies and learn all about what inspired his career, gorgeous collection (so elegant, chic, and pretty), and what made him the amazingly talented designer he is today. Read more to find how he came to say, “Christian Lacroix was one of the highlights of my career. Nothing that couldn’t be done with fabric & embroidery. Finest seamstresses, best embroiderers, etc.”
*I can’t tell you about Don without going through the details of his story. It’s worth the read :)
Early on, Don was face-to-face with well-made clothing. His mother worked as a nanny in New York in the 60s for a very well off family who dressed her in fabulous clothes - from Bergdorf Goodman, etc. When she moved back to Ireland, she was the best dressed woman there! Seeing these wonderfully made pieces, Don developed an appreciation and fascination for the garments. “Mom was wearing these beautiful handmade couture suits.” tells Don.
So, did that lead directly to fashion design? Nope!
This Irishman loves to cook, and a stop at culinary school was part of his journey. Cooking is Don’s #1 hobby. The designer graduated high school at 15. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to do graphics or fashion at his art college and got home sick along with feeling as though he didn’t fit in (no drugs or alcohol for him). So, he dropped out of the art school. Don’s parents said he had to do something, and he liked to cook so he went to cooking school! After completing his training and was working as a chef, he saw a design competition in a national newspaper where second prize was a Michael Martel coat (one of the most well-known/top designers in Ireland at the time). Sweet Don wanted to win the coat for his sister! He ended up winning first prize, so he didn’t receive the coat. But, the win gave him full tuition to a fashion college (the Barbara Burke College of Fashion Design in Dublin). And, Don says his sister’s closet is even better now than it would have been with just the one Michael Martel coat :) The sister who works part time at a doctor’s office and is married to a dairy farmer now possesses a closet full of evening wear any of us would swoon over.
Fast forward - fashion design school, internships, big dreams, moves to Paris, works for Christian Lacroix - well, not quite the smooth transition from moving to Paris to Lacroix… a little stent at McDonalds is mixed in there.
Just arriving in Paris with aspirations of becoming this great fashion designer, Don knew no one, had no money, and spoke no French. Apparently those things were pretty important being that he was in France, but he didn’t let that keep him down. Staying at a hostel, Don met and befriended a group of Americans who were living in Europe the year after graduating from college and working at different American restaurants. Part time work in Paris was almost non-existent, so Don was only able to find a part time job at McDonalds. The trained chef had to pay the rent, so McDonalds learning how to make a Big Mac from a kid was the best option. Learning the fast paced fast food biz in French (remember, he still spoke no French) was quite the adventure for the trained chef, but no one can say this guy lacks work ethic. He put in the work however he had to in order to make his dreams come true.
Don finally finds a spot working with a costume designer in Paris and sets out to lie his way into interviews at some of the best fashion houses in Paris using his book of work from England. The fibs got the designer in front of just about everyone he tried including Dior. The woman Don met with at Dior said he should throw his book into the Seine River because it was too British, too safe. “That’s not what they did in France.” recalls Don. She suggested he redo his book then come back to see her. She recognized the talent. Fortunately, the costume designer he worked for set up the introduction for him at Christian Lacroix as she’d worked for Christian Lacroix. Dior and Lacroix both had Don work on projects to see if they wanted him. He was accepted into both houses to work on winter couture. When the woman at Dior heard he’d been offered the position with Lacroix, she said he HAD to go work for Christian (she’d discovered him) and that Lacroix had the finest couture house in France.
What an amazing turn of events in the aspiring designer from Ireland’s career!
After his time in Paris with a robust resume of design experience, Don got his visa and came to the US. Working at Carmen Marc Valvo followed by Badgley Mischka led to his beautiful collection at Theia. Theia (thay-uh) is the Greek goddess of life - pronounced thee-uh means Aunt. So, “women would usually prefer to look like a goddess rather than their aunt, unless you have a goddess for an aunt!” Don shares. He didn’t want to use his own name at the start of the line (there’s an artist with his name as well as a CA company). I’ll say the name Theia embodies so much of what women want to be when wearing beautiful pieces, so the decision was a great one! Spring 2013 is inspired by the sunset/sky. Don elaborates that “Fall was very hard based on the goddess of war (Athena) and I wanted spring to be the juxtopasition of that - softer (colors, shapes), more femanine.” The designer’s brother (a movie producer) painted the sunset from the photo used in one of the fabrics in the line. The photo was taken on Christmas day at the beach on which they grew up. Simply stunning.
A few fun facts from Don’s career:
Brush with an icon - while Don was at Givenchy interviewing in Paris, he was leaving down the grand staircase and there was a woman heading up the stairs with her head was down. He first noticed her really chic coat - chocolate brown, heavy cashmere, swingy - with matching opaque hose, crocodile shoes and crocodile purse under her arm, and hair pulled back in a chignon. Thinking how chic and completely French she was, he had to step aside on the stairs as they passed. The woman looked up and he realized it was AUDREY HEPBURN! She sweetly said with a little smile ”Bon jour!” to which Don in a state of shock as to who he was standing face-to-face with nervously responded “Bon jour.” As she kept going up the stairs, he stood there a little stunned thinking, “wow, that was Audrey Hepburn.”
Don had had the priviledge of dressing Carrie Underwood for the CMAs. She’s been wearing his designs since she was on American Idol - wearing the dresses while he was at Badgley Mischka then wore Theia just after he’d started it back-to-back on the red carpet for the CMAs and the American Music Awards. The short dress Carrie Underwood wore for the American Music Awards has been the one look on the singer that’s been featured the most of any designer she’s worn on Best Dressed Lists and more.
Don loves NYC because EVERYONE lives in New York. It’s a big melting pot with the best of everything - shows, museums, people…
Don and Theia have created the most beautiful and pretty bridal collection! They gave me a look through the lookbook full of beautiful embroideries, lace, soft fabrics, and more! And, the price point will surprise you! Much more affordable than I could have imagined for such gorgeous gowns!
I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Don and Fran from Theia - great people!