Don O’Neill

Don O’Neill, known for his elegant and sophisticated evening wear, was born in Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry.  From an early age, his mother and her clothing inspired him with her elegant Bergdorf Goodman dresses and Ib Jorgensen couture suits. Throughout Don’s formative years, this inspiration fuelled his dreams of becoming a fashion designer.

Initially training as a chef, O’Neill was able to follow his true passion and study to be a fashion designer after winning a full tuition scholarship to the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion Design. Upon graduating, Don moved to London and apprenticed with Gina Fratini, Royal Couturier and fabled ball gown designer. He then went on to work with Couturier Donald Campbell in Knightsbridge. Following his apprenticeships in London, Don moved to Paris to continue his training, most notably alongside Christian Lacroix in the couture studio.

After spending time in Paris, Don won a Green Card and based on the advice of Lacroix’s astrologist, decided to move to New York. Recognising his immense talents, Don was hired by Carmen Marc Valvo, where he became the Design Director. After ten years with Carmen Marc Valvo, Don was lured away and went on to launch a new bridge evening wear collection for Badgley Mischka, The Badgley Mischka Platinum label, which under his stewardship grew to be enormously successful.

Today, Don serves as the Creative Director for THEIA. The collection is a manifestation of Don’s vision to bring out every woman’s inner goddess. The collection opened in the Fall of 2009 to rave reviews, immediately being bought by Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and specialty stores around the globe. The designs have also garnered praise by celebrities including Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Oprah Winfrey, Emmy Rossum, and Idina Menzel.

Can leadership be taught? If so, how?

Leadership can be taught. It is an acquired skill, that with experience in different environments becomes invaluable. Mentorship programs are excellent, affording you the opportunity to shadow and work with an authority figure where you can observe and learn how they motivate and inspire people around them. There are leadership programs in colleges and available on-line where you can learn in theory managerial skills to be applied in the workplace. There are also seminars given by business leaders who gather together to focus on leadership.

When you are filling a leadership role in your organisation what qualities do you look for from candidates?

I look for self-motivated candidates with the marvellous gift of common sense. I can tell by their preparedness and enthusiasm in an interview if they understand the roll they will be required to fill. I ask them what they will bring to the company. I look to see what experience they have had in the past, and I always ask what they contributed to the company they worked for and what they would have done differently if they could have. Charisma plays a big role for me, equally weighted with experience and knowledge. As a leader you will often expect your staff to go above and beyond the call of duty, and I find staff respond better when they respect and care about their leader.

If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?

Be prepared, be organised and plan ahead. Go with your gut ( I am in a creative industry ) and to be creative involves taking risks and stepping in to the unknown. Without risk, there is no growth.

What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?

We are striving to understand the world of social media, and the shifting buying patterns of our consumers, whose fashion awareness outpaces where women were 10 years ago. The retail industry is changing rapidly, with so much happening on-line, it is truly moving the ground beneath our feet daily. We are profiling our consumers and mining information from stores and websites in order to serve her better, and provide the products she dreams of.

What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?

As a designer I admire designers at large multinational designer companies where they oversee the diverse product range of their brands. In particular I admire Heidi Slimane formerly at Saint Laurent, Raf Simons at Calvin Klein, Jonathan Anderson at Loewe and Maria Chiuri at Dior .

What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?

”Creative Change” by Jennifer Muller, is a great book
”The Power of Positive Leadership” by Jon Gordon is also to be recommended. His blog is also worth following
Also Nancy Duarte’s blog