Meet the Designer/Surfer Making Waves in Womenswear

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Up until this year, Thaddeus O’Neil's relaxed “après-surf” designs had been reserved, at least nominally, just for men. But then O'Neil became a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund  the competition that’s given rise to designers like Public School, plus the soon-to-be focus of a new show on Amazon and gained fashion's bigwigs as his mentors. The first advice he got, from none other than Anna Wintour: Get into womenswear, too.

Within three weeks, O'Neil had churned out a women's collection and prepped a presentation, turning his fifth-floor Chinatown studio into a sand-filled oasis of coconut-sipping models in pineapple prints and bikinis. Scroll ahead to see the Cut's exclusive first look at his designs, plus hear more from O'Neil about fashion's dwindling gender divide. 

It sounds like womenswear has been important to you for a while. I’ve heard you used to raid your sister’s closet when you were younger.
I did, and she hated it. My mother actually just reminded me the other day that I also raided her closet, and at one point took her favorite pair of jeans and just shredded them with holes in the knees, very George Michael style. There’s something about the way women’s clothes fit that is just different and enticing.

You ended up designing menswear, though. How did you get started branching out into women’s?
Pretty much the first words I heard from any of the judges [of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund] was Anna asking me if I would be willing to do womenswear. I was kind of like, “Gulp, yeah, sure.” [Laughs.] I think she was pressing it because, as well as being the editor of Vogue and having an incredible aesthetic sense, she’s also very much a businesswoman. All brands are really about creating a successful business, and obviously doing women’s too is very good for that, if it's viable for you creatively. For me, it was a very natural transition from what we’ve been doing. I always kind of envisioned my playwear as something both men and women can wear, and from the very beginning of my brand, I had women buying probably 40 percent of the collection. This is just an opportunity to really speak more directly to women.

Was the design process any different?
With menswear, I would always just fit the clothes on myself. Sometimes I was able to fit these clothes on my wife, because she’s a model, but other times she was out of town and I had to actually go get a fit model, so that was actually a new layer. Otherwise, it was very similar, to be honest. I’m always starting with the fabrics.

More broadly, though, what’s been really nice about doing the women’s has been just a sense of renewed freedom again. Before, whenever I'd look at fabrics at a new mill, I hated to say menswear, because that restricts what they show me. I've always looked at everything, like what would typically be considered the more sort of feminine fabrics for my own men’s collections. Now I can say “just show me everything” and justify it more readily.

The divide between men and womenswear is increasingly blurring, especially with newer designers like Gypsy Sport. For you, are the two divided, or do they go hand in hand?
They’re very much hand in hand — my plan is actually to show them together. I've decided to show during New York Fashion Week: Men’s for a number of logistical reasons, but first, I said, "Hey, I just want to make sure I can show my womenswear with the men’s, because that’s my plan," and there was no objection, no limitations. I think it’s right that they’re shown together. We’ve seen a lot of that, and we’ll probably be seeing it more, and why shouldn’t we? 

Click through the slideshow to see O'Neil's debut womenswear collection, featuring pineapple-print bikinis, jacquard hoodies, suede shorts, and his signature bloomers. 

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