Don O’Neil, creative director at Theia Couture, is a true renaissance gentleman. Before his career in fashion, he was a chef and model. His design resume includes working for Christian LaCroix, Carmen Marc Valvo and Badgley Mischka before launching Theia Couture. His collection is known for elegant beading, flattering silhouettes and innovations in fabric. He embraced digital printing on silk using a beautiful floral painting for a gown specially made for Carrie Underwood. Oprah Winfrey recently wore one his gowns to the Academy Awards and the upcoming cover of her magazine. Actress Julie Benz wore chose Theia for her recent wedding. Other celebrities who wear his dresses regularly include Taylor Swift, Paris Hilton and Miranda Lambert.
Don has donated several pieces from his collection to benefit The Ronald Mcdonald House, a charity very close to his heart.
Hello La Mode: What was your first big designer purchase for yourself?
So, going way back, I was working at Carmen Marc Valvo and I needed a suit, and I went to Bergdorf Goodman and I bought a dark navy blue Giorgio Armani suit. And at the time it was a little over $2000 which was a fortune in the early ‘90s to spend on a suit. I remember buying, and I bought a cashmere charcoal gray turtleneck to go underneath it which was like $400, and I bought a pair of black lace-up boots to go with it by, I think it was called, what was it called… I can’t remember, it was a New York based shoe company, and they were like $600. I spent close to $3000 that day, and I think it was a gift from Carmen, I can’t remember, but it was like “You need to kit yourself out, we’re having an important event,” and I went and I spent. I remember the suit was amazing. Everyone thought I looked awesome in it and I wore it to death. I wore it as separates; I wore the jacket over different things, I wore the pants with different things, the charcoal – I still have it to this day, oh my god. Of course now the shoulder pads are huge and the padded leg is enormous, it’s a typical oversized Armani Cossack men’s suit but it was an awesome purchase.
HLM: Oh, great. So which designers do you like to wear now?
Don: Now, Givenchy is pretty cool. I have a few bits and pieces from Rick Owens, and a few pieces from Alexander McQueen, and a few Lanvin pieces. Basically what I do is like everyone; shop at H&M, shop at Unico, shop at Zara, and then like get one or pieces. Like we need special pieces every season that are like key pieces, and then they just sort of make everything else look cool. So we’ll get one cool Prada shirt, like last trip out we got an orange and black stripe with the monkeys, “planet of the apes” printed on it, which was my statement shirt for last season. And this season I bought the Givenchy, the bird of paradise printed shirt which was an awesome find, in my opinion, something I can get a lot of wear out of. And a sort of unique piece and you don’t see a lot of them around.
HLM: It’s beautiful.
Don: So every season sort of there’s a key piece and you sort of build around it with sort of cool shoes and cool jeans and cool t-shirts, and you just rotate the outfits so that you’re wearing it in different ways but you’re getting a lot of mileage for your money.
HLM: That’s a good wardrobe philosophy. Great. And what are your favorite pieces that you have in your closet now? Is there a story behind anything?
Don: My all-time favorite piece is I have an Alexander McQueen jacket and shirt, and it was- he was the very first person incredibly to do the mirror image printing, and it was Botticelli’s Venus de Milo standing in the clam shell, and the jackets pale blue and grey, and not only did he use her image but then he, I don’t know, they blurred it or they stretched it, so they distorted the image and then he mirror imaged it on each side of the jacket and on the back of the jacket there’s a perfect mirror image of the painting, and then the shirt is identical. So the shirt is cut identically to the jacket so that when you wear them together it’s almost like one piece. But it truly is, it’s a work of art. It’s something that every time I wear it, people stop me all the time. If they don’t recognize it people are fascinated by the way it’s cut, by the way the pattern matches, that a lot of fabric was used to get the whole thing to match properly. And it’s amazing to think that jacket is probably 4 years old, and if you look at the world of trends today everybody is doing Alexander McQueen’s mirror printed jackets and dresses, but it all came from him which is incredible, and that piece is awesome.
HLM: Wonderful. Great. And of the women who have worn your designs there have been a lot of celebrities. Have there been any that you are particularly inspired by?
Don: Well I have to say, one of the first big celebrities that I dressed when I was in business was Carrie Underwood. That was when Carrie had just started and was sort of on her rise to fame. And then when I came to Theia she remained very loyal to what I did and still loved my dresses, and I was asked by her to create a special gown for a big event that she had. It was a TV event, it was the Country Music Awards and she was presenting and she wanted a beautiful, ethereal, watercolor printed gown, and I created a gown totally inspired by Carrie and wanted it like wafty and angelic and beautiful nature colors and I had the perfect painting and I had it digitized and made into a print and printed on organza and she looked absolutely amazing on the night onstage, so it was amazing to be inspired by how pretty I thought she was, and then to see her wearing my dress sort of reinforcing how pretty she was, and then what made it even better was the Wall Street Journal was so inspired by that whole story that they ran a huge story on digital prints and incorporated the story and did a full-page picture of Carrie in the gown, that was sort of an amazing story of being inspired by a celebrity, I made something special and then it became even bigger for me because I did that, so it was pretty awesome.
HLM: Oh, that’s wonderful. I remember that story too as a matter of fact, most of it about that I do. Now what charity are you most passionate about, and what do they do?
Don: Currently, for the past couple years I’ve been going up to Saratoga Springs and we do Ronald McDonald House charities. We do a big, it’s a charity luncheon, and all the ladies at the racetrack and the ladies of Saratoga support it tremendously. It’s a big fashion show, a lot of different designers contribute but Theia has always been the major showcase. It is run by an amazing woman called Natalie Sillery and Natalie’s a huge fan of mine. And the show always ends with about 30 pieces of Theia, and of course the ladies, the ladies who wore the dresses in the show were called the Trunkettes and they were all local women from Saratoga, and they adored what I make and they were all local women from Saratoga and they adore what I make and they love to get the opportunity to wear them. So the show itself is really amazing and they always have people from the charity, there’s a lot of amazing people involved in it in Saratoga, and they bring families from Ronald McDonald House, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them but it’s an incredible house and it’s an amazing facility, and it’s kind of amazing that I was so closely tied to helping to fundraise for the house and to understand what it was all about, and then recently with my mom getting sick I actually benefitted, in Ireland, not from Ronald McDonald house but from a very similar organization that’s much smaller scale. But to realize the benefit of being able to stay in a facility that’s a home away from home, 5 minutes from the hospital, where your whole family can be together. There are kitchens and there are meals and you’re being taken care of so that you can focus on the person that’s sick. And I knew how important it was but I never realized exactly how much until I actually experienced for myself how truly important it is. I realized how proud I am to be part of helping people have this amazing facility when their family members get sick.
HLM: It’s a wonderful organization. And from your personal work with the organization what are you most proud of?
Don: Well again it’s just the fact that my presence at the show is such a boost to the people that are there and to help them sell tickets. I guess it’s more of a humbling thing rather than anything else. This year again it’s the 50th anniversary and it’s a huge event that will be there in August this year. Of course I am being showcased; we’re making a huge deal out of it and every day advertising the fact that I’m going to be there. I hope I’m going to be there, but it’s on the 23rd of August, the big show this year. I’m just really proud of the fact that in some way that me being there is a huge anchor to be able to help this organization raise an awful lot of money and be very very successful and be able to help so many other people.
HLM: Great. And if readers want to help the organization how would you ask them to help, or what can they do?
Don: It’s all through- I mean, there are different ways to help Ronald McDonald. There are obviously donations because they’re always looking for money because it’s very expensive to run these homes and they’re always building new ones, and there are so many families in need. But if you can’t afford to donate and if there’s a Ronald McDonald house near you they’re always looking for volunteers because they’re run by volunteers. So they need volunteers to staff the building, someone to sit at the front desk to check people in and out, they need volunteers to help with meals. There are so many ways you can volunteer to help at Ronald McDonald House, you don’t necessarily need to be- you don’t have to dig deep into your pockets. It doesn’t have to be about money, it can just be about your time which is equally important.
HLM: Great, wonderful. Thank you so much Don!
The Saratoga branch is also hosting a fashion show fundraiser on Thursday, August 23, 2012. For more information, see their web page.