The lovely Stephanie Bell interviewed me a couple of months back for the Belfast Telegraph…
Fashion designer and illustrator Sara O’Neill tells Stephanie Bell how she loves the quiet life with her surfer fiance Al Mennie on the North Antrim coast, but as she is tipped for an award at a top Irish industry bash today in Galway she may have to learn to bask in the limelight of her success.
Sara O’Neill really does seem to have it all – talent, beauty, an idyllic lifestyle on the north coast and a man regarded by many as probably the most romantic in Northern Ireland.
To top it all, the successful stylist, illustrator and now fashion designer is also refreshingly grounded and one of those rare creatives who prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
In the world of fashion where the media is the life blood of the industry, Sara is happy to remain behind the scenes where she is in her element styling campaigns and photo shoots.
It is why she is almost coy about the fact that her very first fashion design collection has just been short-listed for an award in what is regarded as the Oscars of the Irish fashion industry.
The only event of its kind in Ireland, The Irish Fashion Innovation Awards, which take place today in Galway, recognise innovative and creative designers, from students emerging into the industry, to established designers making their mark internationally.
Sara (34) is the only designer from Northern Ireland to be short-listed for the 2016 awards for her stunning Eadach Collection of north coast inspired silk scarves.
“Of course, it is a huge honour and I had no idea,” she says.
“I got the email at the start of January out of the blue and I was blown away by it.
“The judging panel is much esteemed within the industry and it’s great to think that people like that are looking at your work. I am really delighted about it, even though I am not really into showy awards.”
Kylie Minogue famously owns one of Sara’s scarves from her new Eadach collection and again, while others would be happy to jump on the celebrity endorsement bandwagon, Sara is a very much a purist who prefers to let the quality of her work speak for itself.
The Aussie pop star and actress was delighted to be presented with the scarf when Sara was asked to be her stand-in double when she was shooting a cameo role for the Cinemagic charity film A Christmas Star here last year.
Sara’s petite frame was spotted as a match for Kylie’s by one of the film’s producers after her romantic marriage proposal by fiance Al Mennie made the news in 2014.
It was an experience which Sara really enjoyed – but the fact that Kylie has one of her designs in her fashion collection though, is something she actually tries to play down.
“It was one of those random jobs and it was fun,” she says.
“I was asked to do it because I was the same height as her and it just involved a day of sitting in a hotel swapping seats with her all day. It was weird being on the other side of the camera.
“She is lovely and very beautiful, bubbly and very professional – and it was lovely to meet someone who is so good at what they do – but I don’t get star struck,” she adds.
Sara’s new move into fashion design has come 12 years after she graduated from the University of Ulster with a BA Honours Degree in Fashion and Textiles in 2004.
She grew up in Portrush and then moved to Belfast while studying and lived and worked in the city for a number of years before returning to the north coast when she met her fiance Al Mennie, a big wave surfer.
Established as one of Northern Ireland’s top fashion stylists and illustrators, she has a host of ad campaigns, magazine editorials and catwalk shows to her name.
Sara has held two successful exhibitions of her art which are detailed pencil drawings inspired by her work in the fashion industry.
Moving into fashion design with her beautiful Eadach scarves was, she feels, a natural progression of her talents and experience so far.
“When I graduated I was nowhere near ready to go into design,” she recalls. “Styling has worked really well for me. Everything I have learnt over the past 10 years through styling has helped me to grow. I did try some T-shirts designs some years ago but they were all over the place and had no particular theme.
“I moved back to the north coast from Belfast a year and a half ago after I met Al and found being there really inspirational.”
She adds: “I am surrounded by a beautiful landscape which hasn’t changed in thousands of years and also have fond memories of great stories of Irish legends my granny would have told me about as a child, both of which have fired my imagination. These inspired me and gradually the collection evolved quite organically.”
A grant from the Arts Council gave her the confidence to pursue her idea and the result was her luxury Eadach textile collection. Influenced by Ireland’s rich cultural heritage, Eadach blends Sara’s signature pencil drawings with abstract imagery, to create richly coloured, contemporary patterns which are then printed on to pure silk.
She launched her collection at Belfast Fashionweek a year ago and it has rapidly travelled worldwide, with pieces being sold from Ireland to LA.
She says: “It is going really well and I am very excited about it. They do have a high price point of £170, as they are limited edition art, so not the kind of thing you would buy as an impulse purchase.
“People who buy them really love them and love the stories behind them. It is a little piece of the north coast which lots of people – even from overseas – have an attachment to.
“I’ve sold a few in LA and I have a few meetings with retailers in the south of Ireland during the next couple of months, which is exciting. I am delighted to have created a product which people really love.”
While styling still keeps her busy for most of the year, she does devote time to her illustrations and now her designs.
She mainly works from a home studio, where fiance Al also has an office.
It means the couple are together most of the time, but that’s exactly how Sara likes it.
Al (35) famously asked Sara to be his wife in 2014 in what was regarded as possibly the most romantic proposal ever in Northern Ireland.
He woke her at dawn, blindfolded her with a scarf and carried her across a lagoon to a cave which he had filled with candles and flowers.
In a magical moment, he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him and presented her with an art deco ring.
The couple had only been together a few months, but had realised straight away they were meant for each other.
At the time of the proposal, Al said: “We have been inseparable since we met. I just know she’s the one. I am totally at ease with her. She is amazing.”
They are planning a simple wedding, with just the two of them – and Sara has already got local award-winning couture designer Una Rodden working on her dress. She says: “The proposal was beautiful. I had never planned to marry until I met Al. We get on so well, it is very natural.
“The proposal was very ‘us’ as we are always out and about on the coast.
“We are not fans of big weddings and I don’t like being the centre of attention.
“We hope to go away somewhere and do it, just the two of us. We have been planning to do it for the last year, but we have just been so busy it keeps being pushed back – but we hope to do it soon.”
True to her unique boho style, Sara revealed she will be teaming her wedding dress with designer Mexciana boots, which she has already chosen.
She puts her style, which she describes as “hippy”, down to her upbringing and reveals that dad Eddie, a lecturer in maths and science, is a hippy, in fact, he and her mum Bernie, a nurse, own a converted ambulance which they tour about in.
She adds: “My dad is such a hippy and so I had a slightly hippy upbringing. Mum and dad still tour in the summer in their converted ambulance and that’s what Al and I do, we love going camping for the weekend.”
The couple work during the day and then spend their evenings walking the beaches on their doorstep, where they are often spotted with a new edition to their family, pet retriever Blyton, named after author Enid Blyton, but who Sara affectionately refers to as Big B.
She says: “I loved the Famous Five books, which is why we called him Blyton, but he is just so big you can’t ignore him and he comes everywhere with us. We are not party animals and a lot of our free time is spent outside and we could be walking the beaches up until midnight and Big B is always with us – even if we go for coffee he sits there with us.”
Sara is very grateful for her life and her career success and takes nothing for granted.
Life on the north coast couldn’t be more ideal for her, having grown up there, and for Al, who has made his living out of surfing.
She admits: “It does all look very idyllic when I put pictures on Instagram of us on the beach, but I do work really hard.
“I’m just not one of these people who complains. I think if you are lucky enough to have work that you love, then you just have to get on with it, even if it means working until 2am to reach a deadline.”
Sara is looking forward to tonight’s event at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Galway, when her Eadach collection will hit the runway at the IFIA Awards, showcased alongside top Irish designer Mariad Whisker and be critiqued by a judging panel which includes Deirdre McQuillan, fashion editor of the Irish Times, along with Eddie Shanahan, chairperson of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers.