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Thaddeus O'Neil, Designer of Surf-Inspired 'Playwear,' is One to Watch

After landing a spot among the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists — and getting big in Japan — the New York-based designer is branching out into womenswear that evokes his beachy, laid-back spirit.
Photo: Thaddeus O'Neil

Photo: Thaddeus O'Neil

I grew up in an East Coast surf town, which isn't something I have in common with many people in the fashion industry. That changed when I met Long Island-born Thaddeus O'Neil for the first time, whose après surf-inspired aesthetic, long, sun-streaked hair and easygoing vibe immediately made me miss living near the beach. The designer, who was a finalist in the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition and for the International Woolmark Prize, certainly stands out among his peers, both for his look — which seems more suited for a Costa Rican getaway than a Fashion Week runway — and his attitude, which is decidedly more laid-back than that of many of his industry counterparts.

O'Neil, whose interests run the gamut from poetry and classical literature to travel and photography, was exposed to fashion at an early age — and through pure chance. Bruce Weber, who lived near his family home, shot their portraits when he was a child ("My dad's a good-looking guy," O'Neil laughed), introducing him to modeling and assisting photographers, which became his first and second industry gigs. Eventually, he began making clothes with fabrics he would find while on surf trips and on location while shooting, which his friends encouraged him to reproduce.

Fast forward to today, and O'Neil's eponymous label (which he launched with a small capsule in 2013) has won over international buyers and some of the world's top editors — including Anna Wintour, who encouraged him to branch out into womenswear for the first time. She showcased his debut women's collection in Vogue, where O'Neil is pictured posing alongside his son, Cassius, and Kendall Jenner. Despite all of the recent attention, the designer's still heading up a very small business operation. But, not unlike his fantastical presentations — which feature models dressed as bloody vampire surfers or members of a tribal beach cult — he has huge dreams regarding its future. 

I sat down with O'Neil to discuss his foray into womenswear, the challenges that come with running a rapidly growing business and the most valuable lessons he's learned about building a niche brand. Read on for highlights from our chat.

You’re not only a designer — you’re a writer, a surfer, a photographer. Will you tell us what it was like growing up as a creative kid and where you started getting your inspiration from?

When I was a kid, I had this archery set, and I would always pretend that I was a fighter. I was always the Indian fighting off the cavalry. I grew up in South Bay right across from Fire Island, so I'd surf [there], play in the woods. I liked sports just as much as any kid. But what's cool about surfing is that it's something I could do with my father, and [I could] spend a lot of time in the sea.

Is this where the term "playwear" came from?

Surfing is play. Leisure. Typically what we do with our leisure time is play. So it's my take on leisurewear. It seems like an apt description for what I do.

What was your first foray into fashion?

It first begins with my family portraits, which were shot by Bruce Weber. I worked as a model for a while and then got into photography by assisting. I became infatuated with the whole idea of creating a different world, traveling photography and that sort of thing. [I started making clothes] on my own travels; I'd find the fabrics, design something and find someone to make it. I would always end up leaving with a few pieces that I made, and then I had this closet full of things that became a sartorial diary of sorts. It's stuff that people liked. I'd walk down the road and I'd get stopped by people repeatedly asking, "Where did you get that?" "Oh, I made this in Bali." Then I got some encouragement from friends who said, "Listen, you should do something." And it felt like the time was right, so I did a capsule collection.

A scene from Thaddeus O'Neil's spring 2016 presentation. Photo: John Castillo

A scene from Thaddeus O'Neil's spring 2016 presentation. Photo: John Castillo

What were the key pieces in your debut range?

We did these really beautiful, detailed board shorts — they were just visually stunning, and they only get more and more beautiful as you wear them in the ocean. I'm not really into synthetic fabrics or technical fabrics, that was a real core statement for us initially. Then we did the ultrasuede board shorts a season later, which are like my homage to Halston. In a way they were technically innovative because it hadn't been done before — as an application it was perfect because it's essentially luxury-spun polyester that happens to feel really beautiful. People are always like, "Can that go into water?" Absolutely!

How did you start getting the word out about your first collection?

We did a pop-up with Nepenthes, a destination menswear store in [Tokyo] Midtown, and that put me on the Japanese radar. The Japanese are around 95 percent of our market [right now], which to me is really encouraging. I think America is a very commercially driven culture, but the Japanese have a fundamentally aesthetic culture. They have their own sensibility and they trust their own sense and judgement; it's like you don't need to be in this magazine, or have that endorsement. If people like it, they buy it.

What made you decide to start presenting during Fashion Week?

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Making the leap to doing your first show is substantial. Now you can get a lot of sponsorships, but that's after you've created momentum. I'm sure most young brands find themselves in this position. You want to do a show, but it takes a substantial amount of your money to do it — money that could be used elsewhere in probably a thousand other places. It just has to be really important to what you want to say. I don't think you need to do a show, but I like that kind of thing. And I realized that after that show, I really enjoyed the story that you get to tell and this whole narrative or even anti-narrative that you get to create. 

Has it been difficult to push to get such a beachy, laid-back label "in" with the New York fashion scene?

If anything, it's been kind of a relief. I'm not a trained designer, I don't come from the advertising department, I don't come from this industry — not in that imminent sense. So I can come through with my own kind of thing. I think that I have a strong point of view and that comes across, and that’s the thing the industry needs more than anything right now. I'm an East Coast guy. I love New York. I love living in New York. I love creating in New York. [Ed note: O'Neil's collections are produced in New York and LA.] That's my experience. It's going to manifest itself in some way what I'm doing. It just has to.

What were the first big business challenges you faced as your label grew and got more attention?

Every season you want to make your product better, so that often means looking for manufacturing. That's an ongoing thing, season to season. In terms of initial funding, we started out with the capsule collection, and then we sold that capsule collection. Then we built a [larger] collection and it's kind of kept pace with itself. But there is definitely [a time] when you need to start looking for an investment — at a certain point, the production is beyond the scope of what you can do yourself. 

Though your brand started out as menswear, did you always plan on branching into womenswear?

From the beginning, I never outright thought about [separating] collections by gender. We're evolving away from that, and conversationally that's been going on for a long time. Gaultier was doing skirts in the '80s. But I think what's more interesting is right at the edges, at the margins. My [menswear] has always pushed the edges of the masculine — I feel like it's kind of romantic. For me, it was a very natural jump to do women's. From the beginning, women have been buying 60 percent of my men's collections. But it was also prompted by being in the Vogue Fashion Fund. Anna Wintour's first question was, "Would you do womenswear?" I was like, "I was waiting for that!"

You launched your label just two years ago. Does the attention you've received since ever feel surreal?

It does, but it all goes fast. I have a business to look after; I have a wife and a son; I also like to surf as much as I can. You're just kind of in it. Sometimes you do step back and this is surreal. When you do a capsule collection it's expensive, and I remember having that conversation with my wife. Just being like, "Well, should we? What do we have to lose? Let's try this." 

An excerpt from the Thaddeus O'Neil spring 2016 lookbook. 

An excerpt from the Thaddeus O'Neil spring 2016 lookbook. 

What's the biggest challenge you've come across thus far in building your label?

It's a constant barrage of obstacles. It's a very tough industry, but nothing's ever [seemed] insurmountable. I'm a small company, but I imagine it's the exact same for big companies. Even when you think you're ahead of the production schedule and all is going great — something happens, like your sample fabric doesn't come. You have to account for that. You just have to turn it into excitement and enthusiasm.

You immediately started out on your own as a designer – would you advise aspiring designers to do the same, or perhaps work for another brand first?

I'm not an academically trained designer and I didn't work for any other company. I just started my own brand. But I still really respect the idea [of working for someone else], in the sense that it would've been amazing to be at a top house or work alongside Raf Simons. I think there's something to gain there. I did work with photographers and it really trained me as a photographer. You learn a system — you learn about light, you learn about fabric. You're learning about business. I learned about business in no time. It was sink or swim! It's a matter of life. It would've been nice to learn about business on someone else's dime and someone else's time. So it's a nuance. Here I am. I started on my own; I wouldn't have done it any other way now.

Of all of your many hobbies and interests, would you say fashion design is your favorite?

I've fallen in love with being a designer. It's almost sadistic because it's a lot of work, but I kind of dance around the studio. But I think having a definite [point of view] is good advice. If you want to do another rehash of Prada, or if it's just going to be derivative, don't waste your time. If you have something you really want to say but you've seen it elsewhere, then wait until you have something else to say.

This interview has been edited and condensed.