Words Edel Cassidy
Don O’Neill, who has flourished as a top international fashion designer for over three decades, was born and raised in Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry. He grew up in a close-knit family, where their home was also the family business, as his parents ran a popular bed and breakfast and an adjacent drycleaners in the seaside village. Being immersed in this busy environment from an early age gave Don invaluable experience and a work ethic that no doubt has contributed to his success. Watching and learning from his mother, as she cooked and baked and served their guests, certainly influenced his first choice of career, as Don trained as a chef before finding his way into fashion.
It was his mother, Mim, and her sense of style, that also inspired his fashion career. She had a wonderful dress collection, acquired when living in New York in the early sixties. She was a member of the local ICA, where she learned basic dressmaking skills and made dresses for herself, also managing to find time to produce beautiful needlepoint tapestries. Another early influence was local dressmaker, Hannie Laide who gave him an amazing insight into the wonderful intricacies of how garments were made, and an appreciation of the handwork that went into them.
Don developed a keen interest in fashion from an early age. His first experiments were on his sister’s dolls, wrapping and draping them in his mother’s scarves. Naturally talented and creative, he also proved to be rather resourceful. As a teenager living in Ballyheigue, he did not have access to the luxurious fabrics he would later become accustomed to working with. However, he was determined to make a spectacular white coat for his younger sister and muse, Deirdre and so asked his mother for an old set of sheets. Being the ’80s, no look was complete without the shoulder pads that gave the silhouette a distinctive V-shaped appearance. The solution here was to acquire foam from the seat of an old car to give the coat the massive shoulders required to create the vision he had for Deirdre.
Don’s career has been exciting and rewarding. His resumé is impressive, having worked at some of the most prestigious international fashion houses before finally being afforded the opportunity by JS Group to develop THEIA, a label over which he had complete creative control.
Disappointingly, last year, he was let go from the brand he made famous. This was as a result of a restructuring of the company brought about by the existential crisis facing the fashion industry amid lockdown restrictions.
As he focuses on the next chapter of his life, we take a look back at this fashion legend’s glittering career to date.
Barbara Bourke College of Fashion Design in Dublin
The career as a chef was to be short-lived. While working at the Malt House, a popular Galway restaurant, Don spotted a fashion design contest in the Irish Independent and decided to enter. He hoped to win second prize, which was a Michael Mortell suit that he thought would look great on Deirdre. However, to his surprise, he won first place, which gave him free tuition in the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion Design in Dublin. So, without further ado, he packed his bags and relocated to Dublin and was on the path to an exciting new career. He graduated with distinction and was awarded Designer of the Year by royal couturier Gina Fratini, who was so impressed with his talent that she offered him an internship. His final collection was displayed in the window of Brown Thomas.
An opportunity to apprentice with the fabled British ball-gown designer Gina Fratini saw Don move to London. She created some of the most sought-after eveningwear in the ’70s and ’80s, dressing everyone from members of the royal family, including Princess Diana, to Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor. She took Don under her wing and allowed him to design several pieces during his internship that made it on to her collection.
Don O’Neill was then hired as an assistant by Canadian designer Donald Campbell, who had created Princess Diana’s honeymoon trousseau. From his boutiques in Chelsea and Knightsbridge, he dressed the British aristocracy in demi-couture evening gowns, elegant silk day dresses and smart, tailored suits. Don remained there for over two years perfecting his pattern-making skills.
It wasn’t long before Don O’Neill was headhunted by Lady Dale Tryon (also known as Kanga), a friend of Prince Charles, who ran the successful fashion line that produced floaty, colourful print dresses. Kanga was the toast of London society and her label was hugely popular after Princess Diana wore one of her dresses to the Live Aid concert. Don’s role was to help her develop her couture line, The Dale Tryon Collection.
Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix both offered Don internships for the winter of 1993. He chose to work with Lacroix, whose glamorous and flamboyant designs and dramatic runway shows would give him broad experience and the inspiration necessary to expand his vision and creativity as a designer. It was in Paris that he met his future husband, Pascal Guillermie.
Carmen Marc Valvo
Winning a coveted Morrison visa, Don moved to New York in 1993, followed by Pascal in 1994. His first job was as an assistant designer with Carmen Marc Valvo, who is best known for his glamorous, feminine, and elegant eveningwear. Four years later he had progressed to creative director and Vice President and spent a further six years with the company.
In 2005, Don O’Neill received a call from JS Group offering him a position heading up the Badgley Mischka Platinum Label, a line based on the aesthetic of the brand, but at a slightly lower price point. His first collection was hugely successful. He spent three and a half years designing for the Platinum Label and in this time, he got to be part of their runway shows working closely with Mark Badgley and James Mischka. He also got to see his dresses featured on the covers of many leading magazines and worn by stars such as Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Nicole Kidman.
Such was his success at Badgley Mischka, JS Group asked Don to start up a new eveningwear collection, giving him creative freedom to develop the brand. He chose the name THEIA, the Greek word for goddess, which he felt was an appropriate vision and theme for an evening wear company. It also worked well to demonstrate his philosophy as a designer, which is to ‘bring out the inner goddess in women, and empower them to be strong, confident and beautiful’.
The collection was available at Neiman Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue and over 450 fine speciality stores throughout the USA, Canada and around the world. Almost immediately a Bridal division was added, which grew to be very successful. THEIA was featured extensively in the media, including The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and gained a loyal following from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Carrie Underwood, Angela Basset, Taylor Swift, Emmy Rossum and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, among many.