If Thaddeus O’Neil seems a bit preoccupied, it’s not without good reason. In the span of just over two years, the New York-based designer has grown his eponymous line of “après surf playwear,” from a small assortment sold exclusively at Manhattan’s Nepenthes boutique, into a full-fledged label with both men’s and women’s collections—each with its own separate show during New York Fashion Week—and a highly-coveted spot among the finalists for the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. It’s been a swift ascent, even for the notoriously fast-paced fashion industry, and especially for a lifelong surfer, poet, and former model who seems more at home sprawled in the sand than clocking the type of grueling hours required to run a burgeoning label. But, O’Neil’s laid-back vibes and New Age mentality may prove to be his biggest advantage toward staying afloat.
We caught up with O’Neil at the tail end of a week that included a whiplash-inducing series of events that perfectly encapsulates his current status: a trip to Burning Man, followed by a day of fittings for a photoshoot with living legend Grace Coddington, and the freewheeling debut of his Spring 2016 collection of women’s wear in a sweaty loft in Chinatown, done up to look like a beachside carnival. It’s “the peak of a very crazy moment,” according to O’Neil, but if anyone has figured out how to ride that wave, it’s him.
You’ve had a whirlwind couple of weeks. How are you holding up?
Just by the skin of my teeth. It’s a lot of fun, so it gives you an inordinate amount of energy, but it’s been an adventure.
What was your Burning Man experience like?
It was incredible. Super inspiring, which is the predominant reason I went. It’s a thing that you have to experience to understand. Just the sheer physical scale of it, and the scale on which people make and create things there, is otherworldly.
Can we expect some Burning Man influence on the next Thaddeus collection?
I don’t even know how that would look, because everyone goes there and the latitude is quite large. There’s lots to draw from. On a very simple level, what was inspiring to me was the physical space of the desert, and the desert khaki color. On the sides of the roads there’s this beautiful, washed-out sage green. That really inspired me. I pulled over and got a bunch of clippings to get up on the mood board. I want to bring some of the desert color and some of that feeling. I’m thinking of new ways to capture vastness in colors. All in all, [it was] super, super inspiring. It’s more the fact that people invest in and invent these worlds there and fill them. From the art cars that they’re driving around in, to the clothes that they wear, the fashion—it’s really it’s own world. It’s super remarkable. It’s a phenomenon in that way.
Let’s talk some more about your inspiration. Your line is ostensibly surf-inspired, but you do it in a different way than a lot of other brands that fall into that category. How does surf make its way into your design process?
People can be inspired by things like that, but it all falls under the umbrella of their life world and what they do with themselves and their own everyday living. So, from that perspective, I’m a surfer. I’ve been surfing my whole life and I generally spend as much time as I can doing that practice. That means spending a lot of time in the ocean. I spend a lot of time floating and thinking about what I make. That beach environment is usually the wellspring. So many prints that I’ve done have been inspired by patterns left in the sand by a tide, or wind grabbing a big tuft of grass and spinning it around, and the traces that leaves. On every level, the sea just gives up this amazing visual.
So, do you describe Thaddeus O’Neil the brand as a surf brand?
It is surf-inspired by virtue of that fact that surfing is a big inspiration for me. You’re right to say that I don’t think I do it the way that most people address that idea. I try to connect to the romanticism, but also the funkiness and the rebelliousness that surfing culture traditionally, at least in my study of it, has been.
You look at that ’60s era of surfing, from David Nuuhiwa to Bunker Spreckels. These guys just do their own thing in a big way. You’ll have Bunker, sitting in a fur coat and almost hot pants. It’s just this attitude. It’s an attitude and a stance.
Surf is such a common well of inspiration that so many brands dip into—Saturdays, Kelly Slater’s line, and so many others. Is fashion’s interpretation of surf relevant to people who are actually a part of the surf community?
Well, the surf experience can address your life in different ways. Not all surfers are the same. We’re normal people. There’s no one way to do that lifestyle or do that culture. That goes for most things. I can only speak for myself and how I perceive what surfing is.
I’ve always thought that surfing is having another hula hoop moment. By that, I mean, like, a cultural sine curve, if you will. It’s had these ups and these downs and you’ve seen it repeated several times. In a funny way, surfing is becoming the new golf. You have Google execs, you have actors, bankers, you name it. People are drawn to it, because it’s a nice thing to do. It’s simple.
And then, of course, it has all of these tie-ins, like the beach and the sexiness that the beach brings to anything. It’s all that imagery that you can easily evoke in your mind. Even though it’s being co-opted by industry and by a lot of external things, that core imagery still prevails. That’s part of its sexiness, too, and part of its attraction.
The simple answer is that once you actually do it, all those externals aside, it’s just a nice thing to do. You’re at the beach. You’re in nature. You’re floating. We spent the first nine months of our pre-lives in a vat of salt water in our mother’s belly. I know this sounds a bit campy, but it makes perfect sense that when you go and sit in that chemical bath for a few hours, you come out feeling refreshed and high.
Shifting gears a bit, how have the attention and the new resources you’ve gained over the past year through things like the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund altered the trajectory of the brand and where it’s going?
Obviously, it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of, and I’ve fallen in love with it. By that, I mean I’ve fallen in love with the fun and the pace of it. It’s exciting. It’s a boatload of work but, because you fall in love with this thing, two weeks will go by and you’ve actually been focusing most of your attention and efforts and bandwidth on a Fashion Fund challenge or issue and it’s like, ‘Wait, hold on. What about our business?’ It’s a balancing act. But it’s been incredible, the access to these major figures in the industry.
Is it a challenge to keep that element of fun and maintain your free-spiritedness as the brand grows?
That’s intrinsic to the way I work. That’s the only way I can work. The only way I enjoy the process is if it feels fresh, and it feels like an adventure to me, and it feels like something I’m getting lost in and taking chances with. That’s the only time it feels alive and vital and real to me. You know, this last little show we did, even a half hour up to the start of it, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is not going to come together.’ But then it does. That’s part of it. You know, if you’re blood’s not racing….