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Saturday 3 December 2016

Designer Don O'Neill: 'I have a strong belief in God ... but I feel like the Church doesn't want me'

US-based Irish fashion designer Don O'Neill
US-based Irish fashion designer Don O'Neill
Oprah Winfrey and Don O'Neill

When a camera crew came to film in Irish designer Don O'Neill's New York offices ahead of St Patrick's Day for a profile of him for a national news station, the Kerry native felt a sudden jolt of pride.

"It is amazing to see what I have accomplished altogether like that. I can't believe what we can get done in a day even," Don says, still reeling a couple of weeks after the occasion.

"I don't usually have time to think about it, but my career has been non-stop; it's been like a roller-coaster from the word go and it is getting faster.

"I always think no one is going to like the collections or that no one will like a certain dress and the next thing you turn around and there is Oprah Winfrey in your dress at the Oscars and you are just thinking, 'well how did that happen?'" he adds.

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"That's something you dream about and for me it has become my reality. It is surreal."

Don's designs have become increasingly popular since the launch of his label Theia in 2009. Oprah Winfrey, Amy Poehler, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood have all worn Theia dresses down some of the most prestigious red carpets, with Don's unique approach to designing for women's bodies making the label a huge hit.

"My whole ethos is about taking care of people and that's something I learned growing up in Ballyheigue with the bed and breakfast," Don explains.

"Seeing mum and dad taking care of the guests and making sure that people were comfortable and they didn't want for anything; I think years later that has become my philosophy.

"I would hate to leave anyone out. I want to make sure everyone is comfortable and maybe just because your body shape is not the type that might make the cover of Vogue, you don't have to panic. You can find a dress in my collection and you will feel as glamorous and as gorgeous as that girl.

"I think it is all about giving a woman confidence," Don adds.

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Don and celebrity fan Oprah Winfrey

Over the years Don noticed that women were buying Theia occasion dresses to wear for their wedding and so Theia bridal, which is now available at Folkster in Temple Bar, was born.

"Brides are so excited and so full of love and happiness on that day that they look beautiful anyway," Don says. "The dress to me is just the finishing touch, but I'm very proud to be a part of that."

Don's own wedding plans - he has been with his fiance Pascal Guillermie for more than two decades - are also coming along nicely too. He dreams of having the opportunity to be married in his home country, surrounded by his family and friends in Kerry, and will be paying close attention to the upcoming marriage referendum.

"It was hard growing up gay in Ireland in the 1980s," Don explains. "I thought I was singularly the only gay man in Ireland and didn't understand my sexuality at all. It was something that took me a long time to come to terms with.

"I remember praying when I was young, doing novenas and rosaries; if you did this one for ten days or that one for nine days, you'd get what you asked for.

"So I did them repeatedly thinking, 'feck, well that didn't work, I'll do that one!'" Don says, laughing. "It took me about 20 years to find that I was made this way for a reason."

Don, who has a very strong Catholic faith, was given huge support from his parents when he came out to them aged 25.

"I grew up in a strong Catholic home and my mam and dad had great faith. They respected the rules of the Church, but there were times when they felt that maybe the rules weren't quite as all-encompassing as they should be," Don explains.

"When I told them I was gay, at about the age of 25 or 26, they both said 'this isn't a problem, we absolutely love you and you will be fine!'

proposed

"I still have a strong belief in God and I go to mass on Sundays, but it's kind of hard when you go and you actually feel like you shouldn't," Don adds. "I feel like God wants me there, but the Church doesn't."

Although Don and Pascal are forging ahead with wedding plans the location has yet to be decided. Ireland is of course the dream.

"I proposed to Pascal over two years ago and we have been going back and forth about where we would have it; in New York or Ireland. I have a huge family and tonnes of friends in Ireland and a lot of family who may not be able to travel to New York, but I would like to it be an authentic ceremony which would actually mean something," Don says.

"We can do a blessing in front of our friends and family and loved ones, but it would be nice if the ceremony could be validated by the State as something that is accepted as the norm," Don adds.

"It's not that I need the State to validate my relationship because nobody can validate how you feel, but for me it is important from the point of view that it is seen as OK by society.

"It is OK for a man and a woman to marry and it is OK for two women or two men too - it shouldn't be an issue at all. At the end of the day the most important thing is love and that you want to spend the rest of your life with this person, that is what should be recognised and celebrated."

The Theia Spring 2016 Bridal Collection Show takes place today as part of New York International Bridal Week

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