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Thaddeus O'Neil's Poet Hobos Of The Sea

We found Thaddeus shooting one of his FW15 looks outside of his Centre Street showroom. The model, with salty brown locks and a wild tribal headpiece strewn across his forehead looked a bit like Jesus—if Jesus ever took a break from surfing to model. Once upstairs, as other beach-types awaited their fitting for Thaddeus O’Neil’s first MADE Fashion Week show, Milk Made’s Karenna Insanally caught a glimpse of the collection and chatted for a bit with the writer, designer, photographer, and surf-enthusiast.

What were your initial thoughts behind this season?

All my starting points are accidental. I try to encourage the accidents to happen but this one was actually prompted by a friend who sent a post card from Peru. It was this really beautiful picture shot by Mario Testino of a native Incan person in their traditional clothing, and it was such a really powerful image. It was more the attitude of the person, more like a stance than anything literal.

I hate the color red and there’s a lot of red in those clothes, but I do like the dynamism of the weaving, and the structures, which set something off in terms of the patterns that we used. The stamp on the postcard was some sort of bird, in a beautiful klein, almost like a French blue and I said “Oh I love the color of that stamp,” so it’s kind of like a postcard collection in a sense. It all began with this one postcard and then kind of snowballed from there. It’s always very organic.

Who is the Thaddeus O’Neil man?

Someone really easy in their own skin, I think. I hate to even say that because the Thaddeus O’Neil man can even be a woman. Lots of women wear my clothes and I love that. To me, it’s really about whoever responds to it, digs it, and wants to wear in it their way. It’s not the Thaddeus O’Neil man anymore, it’s just that person, that woman, that man, and anything in between.

Your line evokes what you call ‘hobos of the sea’, when did that image first surface?

Even before I began this collection I’ve always thought of surfers as hobos of the sea, and they are. The typical surfer is a guy who will basically sacrifice all the normal things in life, a job, etc., to pursue the thing he loves. My vision of a hobo is not the dude sitting on the street begging. My vision is of a guy who has absolute freedom. It’s the guys jumping on trains and riding around the country, it’s a very American kind of feel, it’s a movement. These hobos are all about movement, keeping fresh air in their lungs. They’re poet hobos of the sea.

If this collection were a poem what would it read?

Well you’ll just have to wait because that is in the show! I did a mashup Whitman poem, I used letters and all different poems of his which you will hear at the show. If Walt Whitman made a poem about surfing this would be it. It is in his words, so there you go, that would be the poem. I take that Vreeland quote about what would fashion be without literature very seriously.

You’re a designer, photographer, writer, and occasional surfer. Which one is the most dominant you?

Writing is my first love for sure. I don’t claim to be any of the other things, even a designer. Being an amateur, it’s about not getting too professional about things. Once you get too slick or too professional it’s not interesting anymore. My most dominant me? Well, I just don’t separate these things. I can’t do the clothes without doing the pictures, and without doing the poetry, and without just making these worlds complete with language and imagery and feeling. Feeling’s the big thing.

How does your creative process when it comes to design differ from your approach to writing and photographing?

That’s a good question. They’re similar in that in writing you’re used to just staring at that blank page, and like a painter you’re used to staring at that blank canvas. If you only do things when you’re inspired you won’t do very much. I’m continually inspired, but sometimes you just have to sit there and stare at the blankness, then particles start to jump. With a collection it’s the same thing, but the world is also your blank canvas. You can be walking down the street and maybe the pattern on a sewer cap turns you on, or you get a postcard from a friend in Peru, and I love that. It’s so poetic, it’s so elemental. They just kind of pop out the universe and you kind of just grab them and run. It’s cool.

Here’s a perfect example, and I’m going macro-micro here. This little v-flat I carry around the city— I could just get one from the art store, but my son came to the studio one day and scribbled all over this thing with a pink marker. And randomly when we were casting yesterday, we brought that the v-flat over, flipped it around, and unknowingly as one of the models stood in front of it, my son’s scribble created this halo around him. So, I decided this is what we’re going to shoot all of the final looks against. It took all of these actions like my son drawing on this board, which I went from, “Aw, what’d you do that for?” to carting it across the city to our final fittings today. Once again, it’s that beautiful blank canvas with all the accidents waiting to happen. That’s the fun about it, you have to stay alert for the little things that will set you off.

You were drawing something onto the models that looks like a gender symbol—it’s your trademark logo. What does it represent?

That does look like the sign for female, right? It’s actually the ancient symbol for the earth, but it is also like a woman inverted, and you know, men are just upside women. So it all kind of works. It’s also the TO, Thaddeus O’Neil. An artist friend of mine did this original woodblock print of it too and it’s just really a very primeval and icon symbol for the earth.

It’s interesting that you make luxury clothing inspired by surfers, whilst surfers are not patrons of luxury.

Exactly, and I think about this all the time. At the end of the day luxury is just nature. Surfing and being out in the water, just swimming or whatever you’re doing, and being on this planet earth is a luxury. It’s so luxurious. Everything from what we see, to walking down the beach, and surfing itself is such an aesthetic experience. To me that’s all real luxury. Anything else is second class luxury. I don’t care who you are, we’re just making things from things. It’s humorous, but it’s what I wanted to do and at the bottomline I’m just making clothes for folks who will like them.

What’s your craziest surfing moment?

Any near encounter with sharks is crazy and I’ve had a few of those in West Australia, Brazil, and in San Francisco. Then, well maybe I shouldn’t tell you this because I’m not a fighting person, but I got into a fight once in the water in South Africa with a guy—actual fist to cuffs. To me this is probably the craziest, because an encounter with a shark is still a natural experience, and I guess people fight and that’s natural too, but fighting is just so out of place in the water. There are blogs dedicated to this guy because he’s very aggressive towards out-of-towners in this place called Jeffreys Bay, but in the end we made up. Now I send his kids t-shirts at Christmas, and the last time I was there we hung out while shooting a little film, so now it’s fine. But the real craziest thing is that surfing is an actual crazy experience every single time. Being in the ocean is such an elemental place to be, it’s where we came from!

Who’s someone you’d be starstruck upon meeting?

You know I’m not really a starstruck kind of guy but, Charles Bukowski—he’s dead now, but I would’ve loved to have met him. I’m sure he’d be an asshole.

He’s a mysogynist prick!

Hey, he loved women! Its’ an oxymoron, but I’d be starstruck to meet Bukowski or Walt Whitman or Rimbaud—yeah I’d be pretty starstruck by them.

Thaddeus O’Neil will be showing at Made Fashion Week on February 15th at 6PM.

Photographs shot exclusively for Milk Made by Mitchell McLennan

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