Irish fashion designer Don O’Neill started from humble beginnings – not once, but three times in London, Paris and finally New York, where he became the toast of the fashion scene.
But then a virus changed everything.
Born in the seaside village of Ballyheigue in Kerry in the 1960s, O'Neill travelled to Dublin to pursue his career in fashion design after winning a design competition. "I didn't think too much about it, I just knew what I wanted to do and went for it," he says.
He secured a scholarship for the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion Design in Dublin, graduating in 1987. Soon afterwards, he moved to London where he was offered an internship by Gina Fratini. He was subsequently headhunted by Lady Dale Tryon, a friend of Prince Charles.
"It was amazing, I was sending dresses to Princess Diana in Kensington Palace." But, despite the lure of late 1980s/early 1990s London, O'Neill wanted to move to Paris "to become a superstar".
"Karl Lagerfeld was my idol and I wanted to be like him. I had no plan. I just had a desire to succeed and was emboldened by Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
His first job was in McDonald’s and he lived in youth hostels.
“Obviously I had no French so I was pretty limited, but then I wangled a job at an English-speaking restaurant called the Chicago Meatpackers and made some good connections.”
One of these landed him an internship with top French designer Christian Lacroix. "I was on minimum wage, but it was an amazing opportunity. I got to work with supermodels like Christy Turlington and Helena Christensen."
Just when things were starting to go well, O’Neill was forced to make a career-changing decision after winning a coveted Morrison visa. “I had applied for a Green Card, totally forgotten about it, then got selected. I didn’t know what to do.”
Wanting to give a helping hand, Lacroix asked his astrologist, who said he saw O’Neill’s future in America.
"So he packed me off with letters of recommendation for Oscar de La Renta and Ralph Lauren and I moved to New York with my boyfriend – now husband Pascal Guillermie, who made costumes for a dance company."
The year was 1993 and he was starting fresh again.
"I soon realised when I landed that the American fashion industry was not Paris. It was commercial, and they didn't like big, bold haute couture. I remember Donna Karan saying; 'Who's wearing this? Why would someone want to wear this?' about my balloon sleeve.
"My first job in New York was monogramming towels and shirt cuffs in Macy's. Luckily, evening wear designer Carmen Marc Valvo loved Absolutely Fabulous, and because Patsy loves Christian Lacroix, and his combination of luxury and insouciance, Carmen loved my book and I got a design job."
Having progressed from junior designer to design director, an opportunity with Badgley Mischka followed, where O'Neill was made creative director.
“The company survived the financial crash of 2008, and I was there for 3½ years until the licence for Badgley Mischka was due for renewal. Everybody knew that it was me who was designing the clothes, so paying a huge licence fee for the Badgley Mischka name didn’t make sense anymore, and we started our own label.”
And so the label Theia was born in 2009. The first major coup came in 2010, when Oprah Winfrey called.
“She chose a gold Theia gown for the cover of O magazine’s September 2010 issue.” But that wasn’t all. “Her team contacted me again to ask if she could wear the dress again – this time for an awards show.
"So in 2012, Oprah Winfrey wore my dress to the Oscars to pick up a lifetime achievement award. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I also got to meet her in the Waldorf Astoria and she took the time out to wear the dress I created for a photo, before she'd even had her breakfast. She gives the universe so much love and attention, I'm so in awe of her."
Carrie Underwood, Amy Poehler and Taylor Swift soon wanted gowns from the in-demand designer.
The company expanded to include bridal gowns. In 2018, just days before a bridal show, an email arrived from Kensington Palace. “Needless to say, I dropped everything and worked flat out to complete the dress for the Duchess of Sussex. We were told we ‘needed to remake it with extra seam allowance’.”
She was in Tonga and pregnant, so if she didn't wear it then, it wouldn't be worn at all.
“When I shipped it to Kensington Palace, I had a moment of reflection. Thirty years before, I sent dresses to the late Princess Diana as an intern and now I’ve come full circle.”
The news from Tonga came early. “At 5.30am New York time, my phone started hopping. I jumped around the house with joy. It was off the charts. A great day.”
In February this year, Theia had its last collection in the Ritz in Paris. “It was our most successful collection to date.”
Then coronavirus changed everything. Fashion, especially high fashion, has borne the brunt of the pandemic. “With no events, no weddings, no shows, no horse racing, awards or society events, the industry has been dealt a seismic blow.”
In May this year the company decided to go forward without O’Neill.
“People don’t need haute couture in a pandemic. After 25 years of working in New York, I was officially unemployed. It was a bombshell.”
But there are silver linings. “I needed the break. I was working from 7am to 9pm, six days a week. I needed time for my boyfriend. We married in Kerry in 2016, it was such a fabulous day out. Now we have time for walks along the Hudson, and we’re redoing the house.
“I decided to write a book about my adventures. I’ve been very lucky and have some amazing stories to tell and now the next chapter, literally, begins. I’m a very positive person.”
O’Neill says he would love to come to Ireland for a visit, but that will have to wait for now. “This is a serious disease and needs to be taken seriously.
“I think many expats feel the same way. You want to be near family and friends. But there will be new opportunities and for those I’m grateful. It’s exciting.”