Don O’Neill Dresses the Town (and First Lady) with Theia

What do Ireland’s First Lady Sabina Higgins, Oprah Winfrey, and the Big Apple Rose of Tralee have in common? A penchant for the fashions of designer Don O’Neill, whose women’s wear combines NYC glamour with an Irish sensibility.  

Lucy Healy-Kelly interiewed the designer during fashion week (a first for the women of NYIA!)

How It’s New York: Theia creative designer Don O’Neill has called the city home for many years. The company is situated in the heart of the garment district, and its collections are widely available in boutiques throughout NYC, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales. Theia gowns were worn by this year’s Big Apple Rose of Tralee.

How It’s Irish: Don O’Neill is a Kerryman who set out on the fashion road from Dublin, before embarking on London, Paris and New York. Despite the draw of these global fashion meccas, Ireland is still an important place and inspiration for O’Neill.

There are a great many wonderful things about West Kerry (and I even admit this as a Cork woman). There is stunning landscape and coastline, a lively music and arts scene, rich farming, loquacious locals, and a lot of fun to be had with a pint in your hand of an evening. However an association with couture fashion would not spring readily to mind.

The man who is responsible for this juxtaposition is Don O’Neill, who hails from Ballyheigue. O’Neill – himself a charming combination of fashion-world dapper and Kerry ease and warmth – founded Theia in 2009 and has since been creating collections of dazzling gowns and evening dresses “to bring out every woman’s inner goddess.” 

Says O’Neill; ”I was given the option to put my own name on the label and I started to go through mythology  – I went through Irish mythology but I knew they just wouldn’t be able to pronounce it!” Turning instead to Greek mythology, O’Neill was drawn to Theia.
On a grey, wet day – more evocative of the Kerry coast than New York in the midst of September fashion week – O’Neill’s designs make you already long for Spring. There is no shortage of sparkle in the collection, and this characteristic – in a label called Theia – was no accident. 

“Everything in the world that was bright and luminous, that was her power. She was the mother of Helios the sun who brought light into the world. She was the one who put shine into gem stones, silver and gold…everything that’s luminous, anything that glows or was in any way illuminated, was Theia’s doing.”

For O’Neill, the goddess was an obvious choice. 

“I couldn’t believe that no one ever thought of this. It started with Theia and the mythology grew from there. She became more and more fascinating the more we discovered about her; it just spins off into so many different tangents; Chloris the nature goddess, mother earth…and then of course it led me to this particular collection – to the forest, bringing light back into the forest after the winter.”

Among the more prominent hues in Theia’s Spring 2012 Collection are shades of punchy greens and blues.   The mother earth/ forest connection isn’t hard to pinpoint, as tones of sky and sea and leaf, sapphire, jade and emerald shimmer down the runway. Models reflect this goddess theme with wreaths of flowers entwined in their hair. But the nature motif that runs through the show is simple and elegant, much like the gowns themselves. Silhouettes are clean and beautifully cut, and much of the impact is in the fabrics and colours O’Neill uses. 

Applique and crystals sparkle, chiffon, organza and silk prints waft. Texture is also important, such as the ‘crunchy sequin’ gowns which may seem familiar to those of us in the habit of perusing the magazine racks. A recent high-profile (read: adored throughout the solar system) fan is none other than Oprah Winfrey, who selected a Theia dress from among many contenders to wear on the cover of her O magazine’s fashion-centric September edition.

While the dresses undoubtedly have the red-carpet oomph worthy of Oprah, they also have a wearability which is well epitomized by her too. In a fashion world where catwalks and media are still dominated by Babylonian models and celebs whose elongated forms make the rest of us mere mortals feel like hobbits, O’Neill is adamant that Theia dresses are made with real women in mind. 

“I dress real women. When I’m sketching I want to include everybody. My sister has a different body type, my mother has a different body type – I don’t want to turn anyone away. Wanting to make women luminous, radiant, goddesslike is a truth behind what I do and behind the collection” says O’Neill.

“I’m in fitting rooms all the time; [I hear] I hate my arms, I hate my legs!…It’s very rare that I into a fitting room with a woman that loves her body. Every woman has issues, and it really is very rewarding to be there when she zips herself into one of my dresses and she says ‘Oh my god!’ And I say, of course you’re bloody gorgeous, how could you not know!”

In addition to cuts designed to flatter women of a wide array of shapes and sizes, Theia’s price points also make runway fashion accessible to the ‘real’ woman. O’Neill purchases from China, often using tweeds and fabrics which are in fact the same suppliers of designers such as Chanel or Carolina Herrera.
I’m the most expensive person on an evening wear floor – then in boutiques around the world that carry major designers, I’m the cheapest person in the store.” He maintains that these higher prices encourage “the illusion of luxury’” but asserts that ”it’s just not a direction I’m interested in going in.” 

Theia started the week after Lehmann Brothers collapsed. 

“The world literally went bust right at that time. But a lot of stores picked us up, because the women that had been buying the eight and ten thousand dollar dresses could not be buying those dresses anymore; their strings had been cut. And all of a sudden there were these Theia dresses that looked just as good as the ones they had been buying before. Starting at the bottom of a recession has actually worked in our favour.”

Also providing for the woman whose event calendar is more filled than her bank balance, February will see the launch of Theia’s first daywear collection; or to use O’Neill’s word, ‘dayccasion’ – “it’s not for running out to get a bottle of milk; it’s for going to lady’s day at the races, a friend’s wedding, a smart luncheon, a baptism or Bar Mitzvah.”

Theia’s recent appearances and accomplishments – the Oprah cover, dressing the Big Apple Rose of Tralee – have put it in the limelight in Ireland in recent months also, even seeing it featured in the Farmer’s Journal! His most recent follower is Ireland’s First Lady, Sabina Higgins, wife of the newly appointed President Michael D Higgins. Mrs Higgins selected a design from Don O’Neill for Theia as one of four Irish designers to outfit her for her official functions.The outfit was supplied to the First Lady by Costume in Dublin and she is expected to wear it in the coming weeks.

But despite great coverage and support in Ireland, the demand for his gowns has been slight. 

“Ireland is going through an enormous economic crisis. I think at the moment at home it’s nice to run stories of people that have gone abroad and been successful. It’s light at the end of the tunnel for people, and my story is very much a hard work story.” 

From Barbara Burke College in Dublin, O’Neill went to London and from London to Paris, before landing in New York. He had the guidance of both a psychic and a certain someone called Christian LaCroix along the way, but there is little doubt that O’Neill put in the long hours, hard slog and determination necessary to get him to where he is today.

Combining great design, an eye for flattering the female form, high quality materials, and affordable cost, it seems little wonder that Theia has solidy grown a keen reputation and loyal following. From my peek at the offerings in store for us in the Spring collection, together with the exposure and imprimatur of Ms Winfrey, I think that even without a crystal ball or so much as a crystal sequin, it’s safe to predict an imminent swelling in the ranks of Theia faithfuls.  
And after all, who doesn’t want to feel like a goddess?

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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts