Fit for a goddess

Theia’s creative director Don O’Neill talks about why Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, inspired his fabulous fall collection of evening-wear for women of all ages – including one of his biggest fans, Oprah Winfrey.

The magic of Theia

Don O’Neill, creative director of the fashion line Theia, looked around at his surroundings and saw distress. He saw fear of the world ending—well, some fear – based on the Mayan calendar, he saw huge economic struggles in Europe and an unsteady economy at home in America, and he saw priorities shifting in the face of the unknown. So when O’Neill began designing his fall collection, he decided to apply a darker twist to his elegant evening-wear.

The result is a smart collection of  ball-gowns and romantic cocktail dresses, some of which are ornamented with details like burnt sequins, ripped organza, shredded chiffon and crumpled pearls.

O’Neill laughs that his New York City showroom looks “like a tornado came through this place and picked everything up, and there are just sequins and fabrics hanging off the walls, so it’s our version of Aladdin’s cave.”

The collection was inspired by the idea of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, going to war to restore order.

“Theia revolves around the mythology of the goddesses and I always keep goddesses close to heart,” O’Neill says of the line, introduced in the fall of 2009.

Athena – “Dear Gray Eyes,” as Zeus’ favorite child was called – was also the patroness of arts and crafts.  Theia’s carefully constructed, rough-around-the-edges design details, capturing the creative and destructive aspects of the goddess, are more subtle than shocking and provide a sense of dynamism that can stand out in a room of Oscar de la Rentas and Carolina Herreras as gala season kicks off.

“This collection was actually, believe it or not, my first time really closing the door to my fears of what people would want to wear and going forward making a very bold designer statement,” O’Neill says. “You have to be careful when you push the envelope because at the end of the day when a woman is investing this much money in a dress, she wants to be beautiful and sometimes she just doesn’t want to be too avant-garde.”

“It’s still very beautiful and very precious,” he says, “but it gave the collection a more modern edge…. And I just felt that, symbolically, it would be nice to empower women so that they felt that they would be strong enough to take on the adversity of their futures… That was the woman that I wanted (wearers) to feel that they could become.”

His heavily-beaded dresses can take up to 90 days to create. But because O’Neill, while using the same luxury fabric as top-tier designers like Giorgio Armani, Herrera and de la Renta, manufactures in China, his dresses are “half the price of designer….It gives women a wide range of access to something very special without having to bankrupt themselves.

“We have some amazing very high-end stores like Mitchell’s that carry our product and for those customers, it hangs with all the designer collections and it’s this dirty little secret,” O’Neill adds, laughing, “where ladies can pick up our dresses and hang them in their closets with everybody else.”

The story of O

O’Neill grew up in Ireland where he was constantly inspired by his chic mother, who had worked as a Park Avenue nanny in the 1960s and acquired a collection of fabulous Bergdorf Goodman dresses, which his sister wears to this day. Later, O’Neill received his training in couture at Christian Lacroix.

“Lacroix was amazing from the point of view that nothing was impossible. It was extraordinary. They could make fabrics do anything. Fabric could stand, fold, crease, I mean, if you took a ball-gown off the hanger, it could stand on its own before anyone even stepped into it,” he remembers fondly.

“ Of course, Mr. Lacroix doesn’t make clothes anymore, but he was making pieces of art and there was a whole clientele in the world that appreciated his art. It just wasn’t enough to pay all of the bills.”

While appreciation for couturiers and craftsmen wanes, O’Neill still insists that “there definitely are investment pieces within the evening-wear market. But it depends on how many multiple functions a woman has and how many events she’s attending and with whom. Here’s where Theia comes in.

“Theia is an elegant and sophisticated collection that can be worn by a younger woman or older woman. It’s not about age-appropriate. It’s just an elegant collection…. I honestly don’t discriminate. All women can become the Theia woman.

“The pieces are exquisite, and they aren’t meant to be worn just once. They can be worn several times. And I think the poster girl for that is Oprah Winfrey, because of the fact that I made a dress for her this time last year. We were on the cover of the September issue (of O). Oprah wore one of my heavily embroidered sequin gowns and it was extraordinary. But Oprah wore it to the Oscars in February. She recycled the dress and Oprah obviously could have afforded another or have had any designer in this country or in Europe make her anything she wanted. But she felt that because of how she felt in that dress and how the dress fit her, she was like, ‘The hell with it. I’m wearing this dress again.’ … if Oprah can do it, everyone can do it.”

Paint it black

While Spring 2013 is looking brighter, more optimistic, more “heavenly” and more colorful with tons of silver, the fall collection is especially strong in its moody and sophisticated aesthetic complemented by modern silhouettes.

“I used a lot of black and if you follow the world of sales, you know that you’re supposed to put color in the collection, because color sells and black can be depressing but I just didn’t feel like doing color,” O’Neill says. “In evening-wear, I just felt that black is a combination of all colors…. I don’t think you feel strong when you’re wearing pink. You’re feeling prissy and you’re sending out a different signal. When you wear black it says, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ It’s an intelligent color.

“Athena was an extremely intelligent woman, and she didn’t get to where she was by playing the pretty part.”

Shop for Theia evening-wear at Mitchell’s in Westport, Richard’s in Greenwich, Helen Ainson in Darien and online at, and

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