‘I was frozen in time. I had just said ‘bonjour’ to Audrey Hepburn’
Over a coffee at the beautiful Hotel Meurice, I met with the Creative Director of Theia, Don O Neill, to chat about the inspiration behind the Fall/Winter 2013 collection, as well as French style and stories of gatecrashing Paris fashion shows, way back when Christie Turlington and Cindy Crawford graced the catwalks. Fascinated by the elegance and finesse of the iconic movie stars of the sixties, Don possesses a refined savoir-faire of couture and dressing for real women that spills over into his stunning collection and beautiful dresses for this season.
I could run away with all these stunning dresses! Tell me, what inspired this fall 13 collection?
It all started with a fascination with Audrey Hepburn. Inspired by the movie ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, I had in mind that very famous screen shot of Audrey Hepburn looking into the window of Tiffany’s and I wanted to bring that elegant finesse to the collection. I love the way she wears her hair up, with pearls and the little black dress. There is something very chic about it!
Then I watched the movie ‘Belle du Jour’ with Catherine Deneuve. I had heard so much about the film but I had never seen it. She was immaculately dressed. It was all Yves Saint Laurent and she just looked so chic. So that informed some of the silhouettes. There was a 60’s thing happening. Simple clean ‘A’ shapes that are 60’s influenced which have become very successful in this collection. That was the overall inspiration, then as I move through the collection it evolves. But the Audrey Hepburn image and Catherine Deneuve image held fast in my mind throughout.
You lived and started your career in Paris. What is your fondest Paris memory?
Believe it or not one of my fondest memories of Paris is when I interviewed at Givenchy. The designer at the time was an American friend of Peter O Brien’s. I went in to see him to present my book. When I was leaving, I was walking down this giant white staircase, and there was this woman coming up the stairs towards me with her hand on the model railing. She was wearing a gorgeous brown triple thick cashmere swing coat, beautiful soft brown ballet flats and holding a little brown crocodile purse in her hand. Her head was down and her hair was pulled back in a tight chignon. I thought ‘wow, that is so French, just so chic!’ I had to step aside to let her pass, and as she passed she looked up and smiled and said ‘bonjour’. It was Audrey Hepburn! I wanted to say bonjour, and I think I eventually did but it was a fleeting second and she kept going. I was left frozen in time. ‘I had just said hello to Audrey Hepburn!’ I will never forget it and her incredible smile.
When you are designing do you have a specific woman in mind (apart from Audrey Hepburn)?
I don’t narrow it down to a specific woman. The collection is designed to work for all women. Not all women are a size zero like Audrey Hepburn was and can wear sheath dresses, loose and away from the body. Part of the success of Theia is because I have been travelling around the world meeting clients. They all have different body types and not every woman looks good in the same dress.
What’s important when it comes to the art of dressing?
It’s important to have your own opinions and expressions and to wear what you feel good in – not what you think you should wear. If you wear a four-foot fur funneled hat with a high collar and 16 inch heels and you feel it’s you, and you wear it with conviction – I am all for it. Bravo. But you shouldn’t be a slave to fashion. Fashion shouldn’t be wearing you, you should be wearing fashion. What’s important is that you should be wearing a dress that works for you and you look stunning in that dress. Not the dress looking stunning and you feeling not quite so.
What lessons in style did you pick up while you were living in Paris? (What do you notice about Paris vs New York in terms of dressing?)
There is an elegance to French dressing that is timeless. Us fashion folk are wearing the latest trends in New York, the latest hoodie, looks etc. Each time I come back to Paris I notice that Parisian style never dates. French women have looked the same for the last 20 years. There’s still that sweeping cashmere camel coat, those waxed jackets, there’s still that Hermes scarf tied at the neck, the the same ballet shoe. The bag is always a Kelly or a Birkin. There are just certain things about French women. The style is never dated, it’s always timeless and always appropriate. It’s more about the quality, the cut, the fit, rather than the latest trend. This summarisies the French woman’s attitude to Fashion. Here on the street in Paris, you don’t see crazy high shoes like see you in New York. French women are not towering around in crazy high heels that you see New York girls tripping over to wear. There is a fast fashion culture in New York also. To the French woman, the idea of fast fashion (to buy something and throw it away) does not make sense. They rather invest in a beautifully made quality item that will sit in their wardrobe for fifteen years. Fashion trends will be absorbed and layered in, but nothing is thrown away. She may have the latest Céline bag or coat, but they themselves choose the pieces they wear to layer in to their wardrobe. There is something ironclad about Paris that is not so evident in New York. It’s all about the elegant classics that just keep going and going here and never date.
One of the fun parts of living in Paris during fashion week was access to the fashion shows. I just love the excitement of a show, the buzz before it starts, the lighting, the music, the supermodels. When I was in Paris 25-odd years ago I grasped the opportunity to get into the shows. If I couldn’t get a ticket, I was looking behind the tents for a back access door or to slip in with a photographer friend. The shows were incredible with all the early 90s supermodels. My internship with Christan Lacroix was a major defining experience for me. Being part of couture, getting to work backstage at the shows, getting my picture taken with Christie Turlington and all the major models. The fantasy of couture is amazing, it’s an art and an art-form. People always talk about how expensive it is and who’s actually wearing it. But if you see the skillset it takes to beed an embroidery dress that’s not made in India but here in France, by French artisans using the finest materials and fabrics, it’s extraordinary. When I worked with Lacroix, being part of it from the inside out was spectacular. Looking back it was an extraordinary thing to be part of that era of couture in Paris. This and the Audrey Hepburn were a big pinch me moment.
What do you love about Paris?
Paris is my favourite city in the world. For me it’s the little things that make it unique. The Vespa sound is such a unique Paris sound, the revving up and slowing down and zooming in and out. This morning standing outside Hotel de Ville looking up at that spectacular building…I am always fascinated! Just walking around, you walk by boutiques where chocolate is an art-form and boutiques where bags are an art-form. I love wandering the little back streets. It’s the most beautiful city in the world and I think everyone who comes here agrees.
– A warm thank you to Don for taking time out to chat.