DESIGNER to the stars, Don O’Neill, who is offering an internship to the winner of a Limerick fashion competition, says the one piece of advice he would give any design student is “make sure you love what you do!”
The Ballyheigue native who has dressed a host of A-listers including Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman and Carrie Underwood, will take one fledgling designer- the overall winner of the Limerick International Fashion Student Awards - under his wing at his fashion house in New York.
The awards take place on October 31 as part of the Limerick International Fashion and Design Festival which will be hosted in Limerick from October 29 to November 2.
“With interns, we always let them know that the job isn’t glamorous,” says Don during a phone interview with the Leader from his New York design studio.
The intern, he says, can expect lots of hard work, and tedious work at that.
As creative director of THEIA Couture, a work day for the Kerryman typically begins at 8am and finishes some 12 hours later. That’s the case, five to six days a week.
“I put out 14 collections a year; it’s a lot of products. Basically, every month, there is a new collection and then I have two bridal collections on top of that. It’s non-stop.”
While the intern won’t be expected to match Don in terms of hours in the office, they will be expected to pull their weight - working five days a week.
Their work, Don says, will involve everything from running around New York’s Garment Centre looking for threads, zippers, buttons, and beads to making belts and dyeing fabric.
Then there is the paperwork which involves filling out technical files outlining photographs of each garment, and what fabrics are used.
While the work is full-on, there is a great sense of achievement to be felt, he says, when the finished product is presented.
“It’s time consuming but obviously rewarding for them in the end when they see a beautiful hand-beaded gown.”
In pursuit of his own ambitions, Don studied fashion at the Barbara Burke College of Fashion Design in Dublin. He recalls visiting Limerick in his youth to splash out on the latest styles.
“A lot of my family lived in America so we were up and down to Shannon Airport. Limerick was sort of a shopping destination. As a teenager, Limerick was somewhere you would go to buy high style and high fashion.”
Don has been based in the States for the past 20 years. Possibly the biggest coup of his career came just last August when he dressed international talk show host, Oprah Winfrey. He met her at a last-minute fitting for the film premiere of The Butler.
“It was one of my beaded dresses that she loved and she asked me to make it in a special pink colour which we did and we sent it off to her.
“She was staying at the Waldorf Astoria here in New York. We sent it a week and a half before the event and we heard nothing back. The event was on a Monday night and we got a call at 7am on the Monday wondering if there was any way we could come to the hotel for a last minute fitting – Oprah had changed her mind and decided she wanted to wear the dress.”
Don got to work with the woman herself for half an hour. “She actually opened the door of her suite,” he recalls “and it was like meeting someone who you went to secondary school with and were great friends with but hadn’t met in 10 years.”
“She was exactly what you would imagine – she was funny. I was a bit apprehensive about meeting her because I have met a few celebrities who I won’t mention but they are not who they appear to be on TV.”
Getting back to the awards in Limerick, Don says they are a great opportunity for young designers to “push themselves to the next level and be more creative”.
His one tip to fashion students is to make sure you love what you do.
“If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be doing it,” he says. “You need to be passionate because of the crazy hours that we do.”
The designer is looking forward to working again with Limerick’s queen of fashion, Celia Holman-Lee.
“Obviously, Celia’s reputation precedes her – she would be very well-known. It was a pleasure to meet her a year ago when we first worked together at the Rose of Tralee, and again, this year, when we went back to Tralee.”
In terms of designers, Don really admires the work of Sarah Burton who designed Kate Middleton’s wedding dress and as far as style-icons are concerned, he favours flame-haired British actress and model, Tilda Swinton. “She follows the beat of her own drum. She is a brave, modern woman. She wears what she wears with conviction.”