By Marisa Reidy
ANYONE who has the pleasure of knowing designer extraordinaire, Don O’Neill, knows that he is one of the kindest, warmest and most loving gentlemen you’re ever likely to meet.
His smile is infectious, his heart is bursting with love and appreciation for everything life has given him, and now that he is enjoying a well-earned break at home in his beloved Ballyheigue, he admits that he is more content now than he has been in quite some time.
Don’s stellar career as designer to the stars took a drastic turn during Covid19, when THEIA – the fashion label he founded over 10 years ago – announced a massive restructure. The shock shake-up meant that Don – the label’s creative director – and Theia’s entire team would be let go from the brand. For Don’s fans, the news was devastating, but amazingly Don himself tells CONNECT that the company restructure gave him the break he needed and time to re-think his career. His work life had become totally overwhelming, he says, desperately trying to keep up with never-ending pressure. “I have to say, work was becoming very stressful, and I was under more and more pressure to produce multiple collections and it was taking a lot out of me. I felt I was on a hamster wheel that was spinning out of control, to the point where I almost couldn’t keep up with it and I knew something needed to change,” he reveals.
“Although I was getting more staff, and things should have been getting easier, it ended up that there were too many people crowded into the design studio, too many distractions, and it was so hard for me to focus. It just got to the stage where it was becoming too much. “I was doing my best, but it was overwhelming. I needed a break, but I didn’t want to leave my baby and I didn’t want to abandon my staff, because I was THEIA and THEIA was me. So, I just kept my head down, kept on the hamster wheel, spinning and spinning, with no idea how this was going to resolve itself.”
And then Covid hit – and without a minute’s reflection, everything stopped, as the company was put on a 3-month furlough. Don admits that it was just what he needed to steady the ship. “It was like someone put a stick in the wheel and it came to a grounding halt – and, all of a sudden, I was given the opportunity to step back and take that break that I had really, really needed. Little did he know then, however, that that ‘break’ would become permanent.
“After a few months, I was supposed to be going back to work, but things in the eveningwear industry in America had changed and things within the company had also changed, and basically they decided that they didn’t want THEIA back the way it was before – even though we’d been a top performing company, we had just had our best show ever, and orders were through the roof. Management had a new vision for the brand.”
Don admits that while the shock announcement was ‘very disheartening’ – having built up such an incredible brand – the few months away from designing had made him question what would THEIA’s future be.
“At the time it was very disheartening, but actually I had been preparing for it for the three months during furlough thanks to my husband Pascal, who is super organised and told me I could use this opportunity to tidy up the piles of magazines and newspaper clippings I had collected over the past 30 years,” Don explains.
“As I was going through it all, I felt like I was completing a cycle. I had collected everything from college, my years in London, Paris and New York, and of course the 10 years of THEIA, which was utterly amazing, it felt like this story had been written and something new was about to happen.
Don admits that he did question his own identity after leaving THEIA. Amazingly, despite his incredible success, he worried if people would still want to be associated with him – or even love him – when he no longer came with ‘the package.’
“I have to admit after the initial shock there a lot of soul-searching, and that was hard. I realised that I had allowed THEIA to identify who I was. I started to think: ‘Who am I without THEIA?’ Everybody loved Don O’Neill because he made beautiful dresses and he took care of people and travelled to all these events, but I wondered if the only reason people loved Don O’Neill was because of the whole package – that THEIA was why they were so fond of me. So, I felt for quite a while that I didn’t have an identity. After 10 years of being the brand and being important to people because of the brand, suddenly I wondered if anyone would be interested in me anymore or if people would just walk away and move on to the next person who had something to give.”
Thankfully, Don did overcome those deeply anxious thoughts and realised his worth, beyond THEIA.
“Thankfully, through a lot of soul searching and meditating I came to realise that maybe I’m not so bad all by myself and that there’s a lot of value in me without the brand,” he says, as humbly as you’d expect. “I am confident that this life experience of mine has value and I have value and that I am loved and I will survive.”
One thing Don stresses is that his departure from THEIA is not a ‘sad’ story. He cherishes his time there and will forever treasure the memories and opportunities it afforded him.
“There is no sadness. It was a magical ride, for which I will be forever grateful” he insists, his smile beaming. “There were so many surreal moments and the best way I can describe it is like one big, fabulous dream. I am so lucky and so blessed. There were so many amazing highlights,”
And dressing Oprah Winfrey for the Oscars will always be right up there, he says,
“People laugh that I always still talk about Oprah, like ‘did you ever dress anyone else?’ but she is still one of the most influential women on earth and wears evening dresses designed by the most famous designers in the world, yet she chose to wear a dress by Don O’Neill from Ballyheigue to the Oscars – knowing the eyes of the world would be upon her, at what was possibly her most prestigious, high visibility moment ever.
She knew how important that night was, and she chose my dress,” he says, justifiably beaming.
“I also take huge pride in the amount of charity events we were associated with and that we inspired so many people to come and donate so generously. By designing dresses, we were able to impact the lives of so many people in need, and that was truly amazing.”
Stepping back from THEIA also allowed Don the time to appreciate joy in life again, freed from the stress, and that is something he is hugely grateful for.
“Looking back, I think I took things for granted and, at the end, when the dark clouds are weighing down upon me and I felt overwhelmed and lost and confused, I lost the ability to see joy and happiness in every day,” Don admits.
“We had our happy home life, thanks in a very large part to Pascal, the love of my life who is my rock, but work weighed heavily on me, and the joy had been taken out of it. I learned, through Covid, that I had gotten myself into a tailspin and I didn’t allow myself to focus on the positive aspects of each and everyday. I should have had a better outlook, while reflecting on what I had achieved.”
Not being able to come home to his family for over 18 months was horrendously tough on Don – a man for whom family is everything! He did, however, keep in contact with his dad, sister, brother and extended family online – as did his husband Pascal with his family in France and his mom in Guadalupe.
“It was scary and so tough not being able to come home, but we had a ritual of calling home every morning, lunchtime and evening. We were all worried about each other, but we were in touch every day and seeing everyone made the time fly. We knew everyone was safe and there was a camaraderie and fun everyday, which was amazing,” Don explains.
“As much as we missed everyone, I didn’t feel comfortable coming home to Ireland. God forbid I brought Covid home to dad or Pat, carelessly. Even at Christmas, we were dying to come home, but the idea of bringing the disease home was something not worth risking. So, it was really tough.”
But the much-awaited reunion did happen in June, when Don finally got to set foot in his beloved Ballyheigue – with Pascal following him in mid-July.
“I’ll never forget that day. I pulled up in front of our house and Dad and Pat were out at the front door waiting. Then our dog, Apollo, bounded out the door to me with his paws up on my shoulders kissing and licking my face which even took Dad and Pat by complete surprise. It was very emotional to be able to hug Dad and Pat and was so surreal to be back at home after so long. It was unreal.”
While Don’s Instagram and Facebook pages will attest, he has been spending lots of time touring our beautiful county while home, but the key project on the cards while here is to complete his autobiography. The project began in New York during lockdown and is something that Don is hugely excited about.
“I’m here until September to write my book,” he says, smiling, before admitting that he’s been a bit side-tracked with the sheer joy of being with friends and family again. “But all in good time.
“I’ve been writing for a long time, and there was a period of about 14 years when Pascal couldn’t leave the US because of issues with his Visa, so I started to write a Christmas letter each year because my family in Ireland didn’t know him very well and I wanted people to know him and know us and our life. That letter could be anywhere from 20-30 pages long, and it became more and more popular with friends, and many commented that someday this will be a book. Lots of people said to me that if I ever stopped designing, I’d make a great writer – so it’s finally happening.
“I’ve done so many interviews and I know I talk for hours, so huge chunks were always taken out. But I always wanted to tell the full story without anything being edited out – and there are way too many stories for anyone to ever tell in one article anyway.
“I wanted the opportunity to write them all down. So much has happened – from London to Paris, before even moving to New York- and I want to tell that story. I’m already 350 pages into the book and I’ve just arrived in New York,” he laughs.
“Also, a lot of people find my story inspiring and up-lifting and the book is positive and has a light energy to it that I think people will find inspiring, entertaining and fun. It’s a story of somebody trying to reach their goals and make their dreams come true and the path I took. I didn’t come from money. I couldn’t buy my way into anything and didn’t have a rich uncle in London or rich aunt in Paris to set things up for me. I was really just grafting like so many people have to. That’s what I did, and a lot of people will identify with that and think: If he can do it, I can do it.”
Don says, however, that he has not found an agent or publisher just yet, insisting that it will happen when the time is right.
“For years, as a designer, I worked and designed to satisfy the market, so now I want to write my book and tell my story, my way. Hopefully, that will be good enough and it won’t have to be moulded into something more commercial,” he says.
“I feel right now that I am where I’m supposed to be. I needed a break from New York and I think it’s very healing to be here at home, where all of the right energy is around me. I feel like I need this period of space to breath. I need it for my psyche and my wellbeing. My story is in my head, so it’s now a matter of sitting down and continuing to write it, on a timely basis.”
Asked finally if he worries about what the future holds – and if he sees a life here in Ireland or in New York – Don is taking it one day at a time. The stress and anxiety isn’t there anymore, and that’s the most important thing right now.
“I don’t know what’s coming next, but I know I’m not worried,” he says. “Everyone asks if I’ll design again and, while it’s something I love to do, and can easily see myself doing again, it would have to be in an environment that is relaxed and stress-free and where the love and the joy can just flow back into it.”
Returning to New York is still on the cards for now, and what happens after that is the exciting bit!
“Pascal and I have built a wonderful life in New York over 28 years and we don’t feel ready to give that up right now. New York is an amazing city with wonderful opportunities to do so many things, but I think we’ll go where the flow takes us,” Don says.
“I just know that something great is coming – I just don’t know what it is yet.”