What’s for you, won’t pass you by
Home is where the heart is and when speaking to Don O’Neill it’s obvious his heart hasn’t left his home town of Ballyheigue in Co Kerry. The world-renowned designer is one of the most recognisable names in the fashion industry, having recently celebrated his pearl anniversary in the business.
Today he lives in New York where his label THEIA is based and it turns out stateside influences during his childhood, had a lasting impression on a young Don. “My mum was quite chic and always very well dressed. “I had an aunt in California, my auntie Breda, who was a school teacher and she would come home every summer when we were small,” he says. “She was the epitome of glamour with her American clothes and her American fashion magazines and it was all very exciting, so it was perfect ground for my imagination to go in all different directions.”
Describing Ballyheigue as a ‘quaint little village’ Don says the beach was his personal sketch pad growing up, where his imagination could run free and the eccentricities that surrounded him proved crucial to the path he would take later in life.
“I grew up in a bed and breakfast and the house was always full of people from all over the world. As small and as tiny as Ballyheigue was it was kind of the centre of the world because around the breakfast table in the morning when we were kids would be people from Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the United States so it was a very cosmopolitan place for me.”
After his finishing his Leaving Cert, Don choose to study art and left for college in Cork; but after two months, a then 17 year-old Don was ‘totally homesick.’ “I was really young, maybe as cosmopolitan as I thought I was I wasn’t quite ready for the world at the same time,” he says.
“I had a friend from home who would travel up and down with us at the weekend and she was studying to be a chef and she’d be telling me all the great things and I thought ‘that sounds amazing’ so when I dropped out of college I thought ‘maybe I want to be a chef.’ I reapplied and the following September I went back to college a little bit more grown up and a bit wiser.”
Don’s creative flare was obvious from the start. He qualified to be a chef and even though he was doing very well, fashion was always in the back of his mind, sketching dresses in the margins of his books. He won a scholarship to the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion Design with a coat he designed for his sister’s graduation and this is where the real story begins. The important part according to Don.
“We all take different paths. There’s no wrong path so no point in freaking out if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. I think fate has a way of bumping you along in the right direction whether you know it or not,” he says. “With me as many a time as I went in, what I thought, was a wrong direction, it brought me back to the direction where I was supposed to be. “You’re never off the rails, you just don’t know it yet.”
Throughout the stepping stones there’s of his career Don credits ‘blind drive’ as the reason for moving forwards. Regardless of the considerable experience he had to his name, when Don moved to Paris he felt at a disadvantage. He didn’t speak French, he wasn’t educated there and he felt as though he was competing against younger designers who had access to the fashion houses that he didn’t.
“But I kept going and I kept going and I did manage to succeed. I got an internship at [Christian] Lacroix and I did what I had to do,” says Don. That was the 1990s and it led to him getting a job with evening- wear designer Carmen Marc Valvo where he spent the next ten years. By 2005 more changes were afoot for Don when he became the head of Badgley Mischka Platinum. “
That was a challenge to the point where I was very close to having a nervous breakdown, believe it or not because I felt I was after biting off way more than I could chew. e buck stopped with me all of a sudden. It was like walking into a very dark, unknown void,” Don says. “I was biting my nails down to the quick and I was so nervous I lost a stone weight in that first three to four months.”
“But miraculously through friends of friends and contacts, different people just sort of appeared around me at that very crucial time. I was blessed and Pascal, my now husband, was holding my hand every step of the way. I was going through a ring of fire but thankfully I went through it and came out the other end and I’m all the better for it.”
In 2009 THEIA was formed. As the Creative Director of his label, Don is able to see his vision become a reality; women looking and feeling their best, thus showcasing their inner light. Countless celebrities have worn Don’s dresses over the years, something he still finds difficult to take in.
“I’m still very much that little boy from Ballyheigue. The people around me are amazed and I can’t believe it either, my jaw is on the ground too. It’s kind of amazing. It’s [fashion] is a big wave and you need to be ahead of it. Sometimes I turn around and catch sight of it and it’s really big [Laughs]. Lots of people are trying to stay ahead and keep their chin up,” Don says.
“Even in my current career it seems like a big glossy story but there are ups and downs. ere are days when I think, ‘Oh my God it’s over, there’s no more’ and, ‘Can I still remember how to make a beef stroganoff because I might have to go back to being a chef.’ Be thankful for what you have and just pray that everything will work out.”
A moment Don remembers was during his Fall 2012 Collection show, when a photograph originally taken by his brother Patrick, made it down the runway. “I sent the picture to one of my print studios in Italy in Como and they created a painting and a print on organza based on it. e following year I showed that dress on the catwalk and it was just so surreal,” he says. “Seeing a Ballyheigue sunset walking down the catwalk during New York fashion week, for me was a very aha, Janey MacNamara moment. My mum and dad, the whole family were there, so that was very special.”
Despite his success he has never forgotten his roots and travels back to Kerry as often as he can to reconnect with those at home.
“Life is short and as much as we think we’re all connected with Facebook and Instagram and whatever, time in each other’s company is irreplaceable. Family is really, really important and especially with mum passing away, you realise how time can be short. Pascal and I got married there over a year ago. The ceremony was outdoors and people were like, ‘Are you mad? You’re having a wedding outside?’ [Laughs] I think my mum made sure the weather was perfect. I turned 50 the day after the wedding and friends of ours who had heard about Ballyheigue for the past 20 years came and saw the place and it was really, really magical. It was great.”